Food additives are industries’ way to manipulate the food we eat for a number of reasons, some good some not so.

When you dive into the background of how the food industry works you realize that the almighty dollar has lots more input regardless of the health effect than may be present and seem reasonable.

Food additives can be as simple as salt or some simple herbs such as pepper and curry or a litany of unpronounceable chemicals that really should give you pause. Think of the problems we would have with our foods if they looked, or smelled less than optimal. Would you purchase food that had a questionable look, even if it was just as nutritious ?

As a consumer, you and I have been taught to expect our veggies and fruits to look perfect and uniform. Obviously, nature did not necessarily intend for this outcome and by manipulation of genes, breeding, and a host of other inputs we are presented with “ideal” looking and storing foods. The question is can food additives make us healthier ?

In the US our system has been heavily influenced by the food industry and the EPA approach is based on the probabilities of what might have a negative effect. The political action group of agribusiness was pegged at $134 million in (2019) The Europeans take a different approach with the possibilities, as well as the probabilities, being the keywords, setting a higher safety index.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) so that chemicals may be evaluated, the keyword here, before they are put on the market. But here’s the issue this process failed to account for the decades of additives, already in commerce. There is no current method in place to reevaluate all of these additives to ensure our safety.

Some examples for comparison, in the EU they have banned a host of commonly used products in the US.

  • Titanium Dioxide.
  • Potassium Bromate.
  • Azodicarbonamide.
  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
  • Color Dyes (Yellow # 5 & # 6, Red # 40)
  • Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)

All of these are in our foods in the US……from cereals to…….

The way the Europeans categorize food additives is based on the E system where each chemical is given an identification number. There are 1400 E codes to correspond with the type of additives so you can know what you’re eating.

Generally, the way to know what’s what is based on which class is present. The labels will also tell you relatively how much is present as they are listed according to the amount present with the highest first and the smallest amount last.

E-numbers are divided into groups: 

Commonly there are many sweeteners applied to our foods to either make them more palatable or just desirable. They come in a number of forms, from the naturally derived to the artificial. As a consumer, we have been in the throes of the “less sugar is a better movement” for years, for good reason. The strange response to the less sugar approach has not been a reduction in how many people are affected by diabetes. That’s a bit of a complicated story so stay tuned to another upcoming blog on this subject.

Natural Sweetener:

Let’s take a simple example where we may be going a bit off the skids with a “natural” common sweetener. Have you ever consumed a product that contained Aspartame ? It’s commonly found in foods as a sweetener. It is approved in about 9000 products (including supplements) and has a sweetness that’s said to be 200 times more than sugar. The construction of aspartame consists of two amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. These occur in nature and we have them in our own bodies.

Phenylalanine is what’s known as an essential amino acid , which means we need to consume it regularly. Phenylalanine is a precursor for tyrosine, the monoamine neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), epinephrine (adrenaline), and the skin pigment melanin. Good sources of phenylalanine are eggs, chicken, liver, beef, milk, and soybeans

Aspartic acid is a non-essential amino acid in humans, meaning our body can synthesize it as needed, generally as part of the building blocks of proteins.

A number of press releases and sites are anti-aspartame because the bodies breakdown of this sweetener included methanol,  a known toxin.

A typical breakdown of this sweetener  results in:
– Phenylalanine (50%)
– Aspartic acid (40%)
– Methanol (10%)

A tad bit of chemistry:

If you get too much of any of these breakdown products you could be made ill.  Keep in mind that the level to cause harm is very much based on an individuals tolerance and ability to detox. So what’s the big deal ?

High levels of phenylalanine in the blood can lead to lower serotonin levels. Serotonin is one of our neurochemicals often referred to as our happiness hormone. When it’s decreased we can experience mood swings, appetite variations and depression. There is a group of us who have a metabolic disorder, known as PKU where the person is very sensitive to phenylalanine levels (contact us for more information on PKU).

 Too much aspartic acid can cross the blood-brain barrier, especially in children. As a result, brain cells can be damaged. In extreme cases, this can lead to neurological diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease (1).

Methanol poses the biggest problem of the three breakdown products of the sweetener  It is converted to formaldehydeFormaldehyde is well known to damage body tissue, which has an especially negative impact to nerve tissues such as the optic nerve and our brain cells. What happens when you get an overload of methanol, you can experience symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, memory lapses or numbness in your hands or feet.

The rest of the story:

The rub in looking at this processed sweetener and it’s chemistry is that we can get some similar inputs of methanol from natural foods. Our bodies break down the methanol to formaldehyde and then to formic acid, which ultimately is metabolized to folic acid, folinic acid, carbon dioxide, and water. So we are naturally set up to degrade the bad chemicals. The key is the amount and also how much of a load we place on our detox pathways in the liver. If you’re drinking alcohol, living in a polluted environment or using certain drugs it doesn’t take much to put a large load on the liver.

Sources of naturally occurring methanol include, “Foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, fermented beverages, and diet soft drinks containing aspartame are the primary sources of methanol in the human body.” Did you know that it takes two full-size tomatoes to produce the methanol in a can of diet soda.  If you’re having second thoughts about the tomato-based pasta sauce, just by letting it cook for some time open to the air, reduces the amount of methanol significantly to insignificant levels.

The other consideration is the use of canned veggies, especially juices and smoothies. They too contain methanol however the amounts tend to be less than a whole apple. The amount of methanol ingested after consumption of one apple is higher than that ingested after consumption of one liter of apple juice or one portion of smoothie(250 mL).

So what’s the bottom line. Lots of foods contain similar ingredients including methanol and by choosing carefully and eating as low on the food chain as possible we can limit some of the less desirable chemicals from both natural and artificial sources.

Take Aways:

  • Eat foods in as natural state as possible
  • Some foods do better with steaming, blending or other processing to aid in nutrient absorption
  • Drinking diet soft drinks…… think twice or more
  • Processed foods do cause harm so limit your intake
  • If you can’t understand the label of ingredients, move on to another option
  • Remember that many restaurants use processed foods and high amounts of salt, so choose your dining out with caution
  • Fake meat products have a number of questionable contents, including lots of salt