Processed food! It’s not always what you think it is — often it is so much more! Much, much more — in fact what you are consuming may be completely artificially flavoured, coloured and textured, and have many different chemicals added to it to make it look good, smell good, taste good, feel good in your mouth, and last but not least, to lengthen the life of the product, in fact, to allow it to remain ’on the shelf’ for many months. Natural? Not likely!
Preserving foods is not a new process. For thousands of years foods have been salted, pickled and dried with the most common additive being salt. If only it was still that simple!
We consume flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, preservatives, stabilisers, mould inhibitors, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, bleaches, anti-caking agents, acids, acidity regulators, antifoaming agents, bulking agents, bitterness maskers, colour retention agents, humectants and propellants! It is estimated that we can consume up to five kilos of these additives each year (and we wonder why cancer and other chronic diseases are on the increase!)
With the explosive over-development of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, chemical companies have developed and introduced hundreds of chemicals that have been added to our foods. However, not all these additives are chemically derived. Some are naturally occurring like vitamin C, seaweed extracts, etc, yet when added to fresh foods to perform an action that alters that food’s function, and is not natural in that food, the synergistic effect may change that natural food into a foreign substance for our body to deal with.
Although supposedly ’safe’, many of these additives can cause severe allergic-type responses in some people. Headaches, migraines, hives, rashes, allergies, intolerances, nausea, colicky pains, asthma attacks, hyperactivity in children and adults, high blood pressure, breathing disturbances and gastric upsets, to name just a few. Some people suffer an immediate reaction. In a way, this can make it easier to detect the villain.
For others it is a more insidious, unrecognised reaction, and can be completely silent and go almost unnoticed, until after many years of a continually overworked response from the immune system, there is a breakdown in health. I believe that this is a very dangerous side-effect of adding these chemicals to our foods, and it is most often this type of symptom-laden person that I see in the clinic and treat.
All too often these forms of health condition are not considered to be related to what a person is eating or drinking or to the environment in which they live, and so a label is given to their symptoms and the person spends the rest of their life, living with these symptoms and with the label, very often on some sort of drug therapy, not knowing perhaps that there is something they can do to reverse their symptoms, eliminate their condition and regain their health. It could be as simple as doing a bit of detective work and changing their diet!
Children are most definitely at greater risk from the ingestion of food additives, as the permitted levels are considered ’safe’ for average adult consumption, yet a child of two, four or five years of age weighing 15 to 20 or so kilos, can consume exactly the same amount of chemicals as an adult weighing 50 to 100 kilos. So a child who eats the same slice of bread or bar of chocolate as Dad does, in effect will get about four or five times the load of chemicals for their comparative body size to deal with.
It doesn’t quite make sense that there can be a blanket ’safe’ amount of any form of food additive. With the number of very young children becoming more and more allergic to a large range of foods, one must ask the question – how much does the ingestion of unmonitored amounts of food additives contribute to this problem? And unmonitored they are, as one child might eat one cube of chocolate and a handful of crisps, and another child might eat the whole bar of chocolate and the entire bag of crisps! There are no warnings on packaging to state what a ’safe’ consumption level may be; in fact some additives aren’t even listed!
If it’s not listed on the label, does that mean it’s not in there? Most definitely not!
Several years ago I treated a patient who happened to work for a bread manufacturing company. This person was one of the executives at this company. I had just told her not to eat any bread, and she asked if it was the grain or maybe the additives in it that may have been affecting her. After all, she said, her company’s bread apparently had 39 unlisted additives in it. The bread had a neat little list of ingredients on the packaging, but a hidden load of unlisted additives dwelling within. I rang the company to see if I could get a list of what they had added to the bread, but was told that vinegar was the only preservative they used.
In fact, there are certain situations in which ingredients don’t have to be listed. If a food item contains a compound ingredient (that is, has its own ingredients to be listed in brackets) and its weight is less than 5% of the total product, then it is not necessary to list an additive in this compound ingredient if the additive has no role in the final product. But any ingredient that is a known allergen must always be listed.
In other words, if the additive is not performing a ’technological function’, that is, if an additive has completed its action in the mixing or the pre-cooking process and is no longer functional in the end product, it doesn’t have to be listed. For example, carbonate to assist in the raising of dough – as it is not performing a function in the baked bread, it doesn’t need to be listed. If, however, the dough was to be sold as it is, then it would need to be listed. In these situations it is not a legal requirement that the manufacturer identifies those additives, again unless it is a known allergen like peanuts, etc.
Take butter for example. It is a lovely yellow colour. On the package is listed “pasteurised cream, water and salt”. So how does it become yellow? I have beaten cream until I have butter, and it always remains a pale whitish-cream colour. Try it for yourself. I called the manufacturer to try to shed some light on my purchased yellow butter, but was told that they definitely don’t add any colouring; it is probably the different time of year that the milk is collected. Strange, but the butter always seems to me to be the same yellow colour no matter what time of year it is.
Let’s look at the some of the different types of food additives and their uses:
Colours – colours are used to enhance the existing colour of a food so that it looks better, or to add more colour to foods that lose their original colour in the processing. Originally colouring agents were derived from natural sources such as plant, animal or mineral. Some still are, but mostly now the man-made colours are easier to use, much cheaper and don’t alter the final flavour of the product.
Colour retention agents – these are added to maintain the original colour of the food.
Artificial sweeteners – probably the most well-known of the additives, used to increase the sweetness of a product.
Flavours – these are additives that give foods a specific taste and smell. They can be naturally derived or chemically developed. Have you ever looked at the ingredient list on a product and seen “flavours” listed, and wondered just what are the flavours? Well you won’t get a list of what is added, as the flavours don’t have to be identified by name because they are considered to be trade secrets. Hundreds of them, all secret. Some flavours can contain artificial colours and preservatives that can also remain unlisted on your product.
Flavour enhancers – these are used to increase the power of a flavour. MSG (additive 621) is in this category and is well known in the Chinese food industry. It is reasonably well regulated in processed foods, but perhaps not so in the restaurant industry, where it can be added to food preparation without having to be indicated in the menu list. MSG is not permitted in baby foods at all.
Preservatives – this group is very important in any processed food, as preservatives stop microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria from multiplying and spoiling the food. Sulphur dioxide, additive 220, is probably the best known of the preservatives, and has been known to cause many adverse reactions, including triggering asthma attacks, as it does in my daughter. It is also used to prevent browning in fruit and vegetables.
Anti-caking agents – stop ingredients from becoming lumpy, and allow them to be free flowing. Many products such as cheese shreds or cubes are coated with a specific anti-caking additive; it is also used in milk powders.
Acids – food acids are added to make the processed food flavours taste “sharper”. Acids can also act as preservatives and antioxidants. Vinegar is a common food acid.
Emulsifiers – stop fats from clotting together, and allow water and oil mixtures to remain in an emulsion without separating. Used in foods such as mayonnaise and ice cream, as well as homogenised milks.
Anti-foaming agents – are used to reduce or prevent foaming in foods, such as soft drinks.
Acidity regulators – these are used to change or regulate the acidity or alkalinity of processed foods. Thus they maintain the correct acid levels.
Propellants – these do just as the name sounds; they are gas to propel food from the container.
Antioxidants – also very important as they prevent foods from oxidising (turning rancid) by inhibiting the effects of oxygen on foods.
Bulking agents – are used to increase the overall bulk of the food, without having any negative effect on the food’s nutritional levels.
Stabilisers – these additives are gels and thickeners. They give foods a firmer texture and help to stabilise emulsions.
Thickeners – are substances that will increase the viscosity of the food and enhance the texture, without changing any of the other properties of the food.
Humectants – these are additives that prevent foods from drying out, and so work to keep foods moist.
Our food manufacturing industry and our chemical companies have a lot to answer for. So do our governing bodies, as they are the ones that approve that these chemicals be added to our food chain. And although the additives have been tested individually, and apparently quite extensively, no one has any idea as to what the addition of two or more additives may do in the human body, nor what the supposedly ’safe’ level is doing to our tiny children, nor what these additives will do when ingested for many years. What is the cumulative effect of all our processed foods? No one knows. What effect do these additives have on a developing foetus? No one knows!
The most amazing thing I see in clinical practice is that we have become used to our children developing food sensitivities, and to hearing that a child is ’anaphylactic’ and that Mum carries an epi-pen and gives one to the neighbour and school and anyone her child is likely to play with. Somehow there is something missing here. And it’s the question that isn’t being asked –WHY? Why are so many people, of all ages, becoming so reactive to common foods? It is almost like an epidemic of allergies, food and chemical sensitivities and anaphylaxis. Something is very wrong. This is not how it used to be, nor is it how it should be.
Sadly, the answer, or at least a big part of the answer, is the chemicals in our environment, the additives in our foods, and the processing that occurs to our foods. These things are causing a major chunk of the problem. When are we going to learn that we can’t keep doing what we are doing, and still expect to have good health?
The argument isn’t whether or not the additive is natural or chemically produced. The argument is whether or not a food should be so processed that it needs all the additives to keep it presentable for many, many months at a time – totally unnatural and with unknown effects on the body. And yet we continue to buy these products!
If supermarkets stocked only products that were truly healthy, we wouldn’t need supermarkets at all. There is nothing ’super’ about supermarkets except the super way they manage to convince us that we need to buy these processed products.
With the alarming increases in the rates of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, mental illnesses, asthma, autism, ADHD, etc, we do need to ask ourselves how are we contributing to our health or lack of it, and what can we do about it?
· It’s time to say ’no’ to processed foods.
· It’s time to make a change and live with fresh, unadulterated natural foods – naturally!