DR MEGAN ROSSI: Do chemicals added to food make YOU sick?

How worried should we be about food additives such as emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners?

In the past, additives used in food were basically pretty simple – think salt, used to help keep food fresh longer.

But these days, take any processed food, from biscuits to curry sauce, and the list of chemical additives it contains may exceed the ingredients you actually recognize as food. But are they bad for us?

Some people are definitely sensitive to certain food additives.

One of the most common sensitivities is sulphites, which are mainly used as preservatives – you find them in foods, including dried fruits; jams and dips like guacamole; processed meats; fresh and frozen shellfish such as shrimp; as well as beverages, including soft drinks, cider, beer, wine and syrups. (Check labels for additive numbers E220-228 and E150b and 150d or names such as sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, and sulfite ammonia caramel.)

How worried should we be about food additives such as emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners?

People with eczema and asthma seem to have a greater sensitivity to sulphites – one theory is that they stimulate the nerves involved in breathing and irritate the airways.

Symptoms aren’t just gut-specific — sufferers may experience hives, swelling, wheezing, or a stuffy nose. Bad hangovers have also been linked to sulphites in wine.

Nowadays, prepackaged foods sold in the UK must, by law, clearly state on the label whether they contain sulphites greater than 10mg per kg or per litre.

Another problem is sensitivity to salicylates, which cause similar symptoms.

Did you know?

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in clinical trials. Adding black pepper when cooking with turmeric can increase our body’s ability to absorb curcumin by 2000%!

Salicylates are found naturally in herbs and spices, such as black pepper and cumin; in fruits, such as apples, strawberries and kiwis; and vegetables, including asparagus and sweet corn.

They are also present in many drinks such as coffee, black tea and apple juice. If you’re concerned about dietary salicylates, it’s best to consult a dietitian as the amount can vary depending on processing and season, making it risky to try to tackle it alone.

Then, of course, there are food colors linked to hyperactivity in some children, which is why the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has ruled that foods and drinks containing any of these six colors – orange-yellow ( E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) or ponceau 4R (E124) — must carry a warning.

But some sensitivities may not be quite what they seem – following reported concerns about aspartame sensitivity (e.g. headaches, dizziness and upset stomach), the FSA has ordered research to investigate.

The study, published in 2015, showed there was no difference in symptoms reported after eating a cereal bar containing aspartame compared to a bar without aspartame.

If you’re not sensitive to any food additives, should you be worried about all those chemicals in our food? Over 300 additives have been authorized by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for use in food, which means they have undergone rigorous safety assessment.

However, in 2008 EFSA said that all food additives authorized for use in the EU before 2009 should be reassessed for their safety. This brought about a number of changes. For example, as of last week titanium dioxide (E171), a color added to sweets and bakery products, is no longer authorized in the EU and Northern Ireland (although it is still used in the rest of the UK).

Despite this reassessment, many safety assessments have failed to consider the impact on our gut microbes that play such an important role in our health. This is because many of these assessments were undertaken before we understood the importance of these microbes.

Some animal studies have shown that certain types of artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame, have a negative effect on our gut microbes, including elevated blood sugar response to food, liver inflammation, and weight gain.

In human research, the evidence isn’t as strong, with conflicting results on artificial sweeteners and gut health. These different results are probably explained by the fact that we all harbor different microbes that can react in different ways.

For example, a very small but important study in Nature showed that daily intake of saccharin for a week negatively impacted blood sugar responses in four out of seven people tested.

Other additives to report are nitrates and nitrites. Our bodies naturally convert nitrates found in foods such as spinach and beets to nitrites and then nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels. It’s good for lowering blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease.

However, nitrites and nitrates added to foods — especially processed meat like sausages — can be converted to nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Other additives, including stabilizers, thickeners, gelling agents and emulsifiers found in a wide range of processed foods – especially frozen desserts, dairy-free milks, cakes and cookies – have also been implicated in inflammatory bowel disease.

Our research team at King’s College London is investigating this with the world’s first randomized controlled trial of food additives – where we are testing a diet low in food additives in people with active Crohn’s disease.

This is based on research suggesting that it can lead to inflammation of the gut in genetically susceptible people. If you have active Crohn’s disease, live in the UK and would like to take part in the study, email [email protected] to find out more.

There are still many unknowns in the field of food additives. But while we’re trying to figure out the interactions, limiting additives where you can is a good approach for now.

Really, this just reinforces what most of us inherently know: cooking at home with whole foods is always a better option.

With packaged foods, check the ingredient list and if you see more than one E-number (often written with words that don’t look like food), you might want to ask yourself if it’s right for you.

As for carbonated drinks, try flavoring sparkling water with frozen berries and mint the next time you crave a soda.

Try this: Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies

My answer to those cookie cravings: fiber-rich chocolate chip cookies — and the kids won’t taste the hidden veggies!

Makes 18 cookies

  • 1 ripe banana (about 100g)
  • 6 Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 50ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 150g whole oats
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 grated zucchini (140g)
  • 60g dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to thermostat 4 and grease two baking sheets. Place the banana, dates and olive oil, vanilla and half the oats in a blender and grind to a paste.

Squeeze the shredded zucchini in a clean kitchen towel to remove the moisture, then add it to a mixing bowl, along with the chocolate chips and remaining oats. Then add the mixed contents of the food processor.

Mix well to obtain a thick mixture. Spread onto baking sheets, making 18 cookies, and gently smooth into flat rounds.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.

Ask Megan

I had a hiatal hernia repair two years ago and since then I have had terrible bloating and constipation and gas building up in my chest and throat making it hard to breathe until I can burp (which can take hours). I was diagnosed with dysphagia [difficulty swallowing]. I use lactulose [a laxative] a few times a week.

Maxine Naden, by email.

I was sorry to hear about your bowel symptoms after the operation. It seems the priority should be getting your dysphagia under control, as you may find that’s the culprit triggering the bloating and constipation.

This is because when people have trouble swallowing, they usually change their diet to accommodate, which can mean lower fluid intake and softer processed foods.

I would recommend talking to your healthcare team about seeing a speech therapist who can teach you exercises to help rebuild and refine your muscles and swallowing mechanics.

They can also advise you on the benefits of thickening your fluids to ensure you stay hydrated, a common cause of constipation and bloating.

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