Nutrition Action is a publication from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which if you haven’t heard of before, you’ll want to take note and remember, as it’s a credible, excellent source of unbiased health information.
Earlier this year it released a publication entitled “Chemical Cuisine: Your Guide to Food Additives.” It’s a comprehensive review of additives in the North American food supply that informs readers of important details, including: where additives come from (discussed here last week), what they do, which ones are poorly tested, and whether they are safe or potentially dangerous.
As was noted in my column last week, additives are common in our food supply, so it’s important we all become a little more educated about what we’re putting into our bodies. According to the CSPI, you should keep your eye out for the following additives, as they should be avoided.
Artificial colourings — Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. For many of these colourings, studies using animals have shown connections to tumour growth or cancer. They are still found in our food supply today because regulatory agencies say they are used in such small amounts they are not thought to cause harm — more or less. Occasionally these colours are linked to hypersensitivity and allergic reactions in people, but more interestingly, in European countries, Yellow 5 and 6, in addition to several other additives, are required to have warnings labels reading “Warning: Yellow 5 may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
Likely many of the foods that are being dyed are pretty unnatural to begin with, and probably high in added sugars, sodium, calories and fats, so you’re probably best to avoid them for several reasons, additives being only one. You’ll find these artificial colourings in pet foods, candies, baked goods, beverages and gelatin desserts.
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) — This is often added to drinks to keep citrus flavours from separating out. Think Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange and formerly Gatorade (removed from it in early 2013 due to customer complaints). BVO contains bromine, which is patented as a flame retardant and banned in European countries and Japan, although it is still being used here. It’s suggested that BVO might be harmful to those who are drinking large amounts (two litres or more) since residues of this controversial additive can accumulate in body fat and build up over time.
Butylated Hydroxyanisle, a.k.a. BHA — This is often added to cereals, potato chips, chewing gum and vegetable oils. It prevents oils and fats from going bad, therefore keeping foods tasting fresh. Some studies note this additive is safe, while others point to it as having caused cancer in animals and acting as a hormone disruptor. It’s noted as a possible human carcinogen or chemical of concern for many health-related organizations, including Health Canada.
Caramel colouring — This is made by heating a sugar, usually high dextrose corn syrup, with an acid or basic chemical. It’s then added to foods such as colas, baked goods, pre-cooked meats, soy and Worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavoured products, or beer. While caramel colouring in itself sounds pretty natural and harmless, when the colouring is produced with ammonia, it creates chemicals that have caused cancer in animals.
Soft drinks have come under fire in recent years for containing high amounts of these carcinogenic chemicals and so many companies have publicly announced they are reducing levels to more acceptable limits. Similar to the artificial colourings, the foods this additive is being used in are often of low nutritional value to begin with, so you’re best to limit your intake as much as possible anyway.
Sodium nitrate and nitrite — These act as a preservative, flavouring and colouring agent and is added to bacon, ham, frankfurters, luncheon meats, smoked fish and corned beef. Sodium nitrite stabilizes the red colours in cured meats, and without it hotdogs and bacon would actually be grey.
Nitrate is used in dry-cured meats, as it slowly breaks down to nitrites. When meats are cooked, nitrites turn to nitrosamines, which are well known to be cancer-causing. Also beware of “natural” hotdogs and other cured meats that brag about “no added nitrite.” The key word here is “added.” These products sometimes are made with celery powder or celery juice, which are naturally high in nitrite. That isn’t as bad, but again, foods with nitrates and nitrites are often higher in sodium, fat and calories, so eating less of them just makes sense.
Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website: www.recipeforhealth.ca.