Are Food Additives Safe?

Are food additives as safe as you think?

| February/March 2005

  • Food Additives
    Studies show that food additives are not as safe as we think.
    Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
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Food Additives: Are They Safe?

Farm-fresh, organic foods — pesticide- and preservative-free — are the preferred choice for many of us. But when unsprayed, unprocessed and untreated foods aren’t available, selecting among the alternatives requires careful thinking. There are dozens of additives in processed foods, and it’s tough to know which ones are harmless and which ones to avoid. Just last summer, the results of a British study suggested that the common preservative sodium benzoate and certain common artificial colorings warrant further investigation for their possible effects on increased hyperactivity in small children.

In the British study, the children were put on a diet that eliminated the preservatives and additives. The study, published in the June 2004 issue of Archives of Disease in Childhood, found parents reported “significant reductions in hyperactive behavior during the withdrawal phase,” although these results were not confirmed when the children were given objective, clinical tests. So, are these compounds, which have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), truly safe, or should they be avoided?

In the United States, nothing can be added to a food without the FDA’s approval. For an additive to be included in a food, the FDA must determine it is “generally recognized as safe.” But most testing involves limited periods of time under controlled conditions (the British test lasted one month) and, usually, the tests are on animals, not humans. In addition, testing doesn’t account for individual sensitivities or the possible subtle impacts of a lifetime of ingesting chemical additives, especially in combination. Also, testing doesn’t always consider variations in body size and metabolism, such as with children.

Several food dyes, additives and sweeteners have been banned long after passing FDA review, and the safety of a number of additives over long periods of usage also has been questioned by researchers. In fact, it’s hard to find an additive that has not been investigated as a potential carcinogen. Scientific literature going back decades shows that for nearly every study implicating certain preservatives and additives in some adverse health effect, another study that showed the opposite results can be found.

Not all additives are evil. A number of preservatives, used in foods to control spoilage and microbial growth, actually may increase their healthfulness. Take tocopherol, for example. Also known as vitamin E, it’s added as an antioxidant to keep food from spoiling, but studies have found vitamin E may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer. Some food colorings derived from vegetables — for example, beta carotene for yellow and orange; anthocyanins from grapes or beets for reds — are known to protect against cancer and heart disease, too.

In the long run, it is unlikely that even the most suspect additives pose any immediate and significant danger, although the British study is a reminder that children’s reactions can differ from adults’. The main question is whether you are willing to accept the possible risk, however remote, that future science will establish clear links between a particular additive and increased cancer or other disease risk. So, given the choice — with fresh, organic, high-quality foods now more available than ever — it just makes sense to opt for the fresh, organic, additive-free versions as often as you can.

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