Are you addicted to or have you ever tasted readymade market food which have a new taste, appearance or odor? These foods have received these characteristic due to the adding of chemical substances with the view of preserving the food. These chemicals enhance the organoleptic properties (colour, flavour, this appearance and texture) in food. This kind of chemicals are categorized as food additives.
Food manufacturers use food additives to increase profits through prolonged product shelf life and create a huge demand which they do by making the food pleasant in appearance, smell and flavour. But in the past, people have prepared their own food through the produce grown in their own home garden. Records show that they have also used ingredients like spices and salt with the aim of preserving food. Food also has been soaked in honey and salting when making pickles and smoked items. The islanders have been using traditional food preservation techniques. They have used natural preservatives for this purposes. But with the passing of time, people’s lifestyles and food habits have changed as a result of urbanization, globalization and developments in the food sector. These developments have continuously created new chemicals which have been used to manipulate, preserve and transform our food. Adding of food additives offers numerous advantages to food manufactures as well as consumers. However, these chemically synthesized ingredients negatively effect human health in the case of over consumption.
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA, 1993) a food additive is defined as “any substance which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics
of any food”.
The main types of food additives
Preservatives, flavoring agents, coloring agent, nutritional additives, texturizing agents and miscellaneous additives can be identified as the main types of food additives.
Advantages of food additives
1. Improve or maintain nutritional value - Vitamins and minerals are added to restore nutrition values lost in the processing or storage.
2. Maintain palatability - Antioxidants are used to prevent rancidity or development of an off flavor in fats and oils of baked goods and other foods.
3. Preserve food by preventing microbial food spoilage.
4. Maintain product consistency- Emulsifiers give products a consistent texture and prevent them from separating.
5. Enhance flavour and appearance - Synthetic flavors enhances the taste of food while colours help to enhance appearance.
6. Control acidity and alkalinity in order to modify the acidity and alkalinity of foods for proper flavor, taste and color.
7. Maintain the product quality.
Negative effect of food additives
Such manipulation of our food can have an excessive effect on our body’s unique biochemical balance. Food additives may badly effect our health due to over consumption and their accumulation through frequent usage. Their effects may be immediate or long-term. Immediate effects may include headaches, change in energy level, alterations in mental concentration, behaviour or immune response. The long-term effects may include the increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other adverse health conditions like; cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, severe headaches, allergies, respiratory problems, increase in hyperactivity, skin rashes, kidney and liver dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, reproductive disorders, birth defects and premature births and the suppression of the immune system.
The vulnerable groups are young children, small children, pregnant women and persons with
Recent researches indicate that nitrates and nitrites present in processed meat increase the risk of colon and pancreatic cancers. And also some studies discovered some incidents of breast and pancreatic cancers due to the consumption of coke like beverages which contain food additives.
Possible causes for the development of carcinogenicity in food additives are changes in chemical structure of additives during processing (nitrates and nitrites convert into nitrosamines in meat products), improper and longer storage conditions, exceeding the safe dosage of additives and getting in contact with other carcinogenics.
Studies have proven that emulsifiers can alter the gut microbiota composition and induce intestinal inflammation that promotes the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a group of very common obesity-related disorders that can lead to type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular and liver diseases.
A specific study showed that tartrazine and benzoates induce abnormal behaviour patterns in 79% of study child population. Tartrazine is mainly used as a colouring agent in the soft drink industry. According to few rat studies, sunset yellow has a carcinogenic effect while erythrosine leads hyperactivity.
(The writer is a medical laboratory technologist at a private hospital and holds a MSc. Degree in Industrial and Environmental Chemistry from University of Kelaniya and BSc. Degree in Food Production and Technology Management from Wayamba University of Sri Lanka)