Food Additives: Is The Prognosis All Bad?

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


woman injecting bell pepper with food additivesFood additives have been given the blame for many conditions and diseases in recent years. They are cited as being the cause of ailments from stomach issues to heart conditions. Yet the food industries keep reassuring us that they are harmless, although increasing evidence negates these reassurances. This leaves us wondering – are food additives really as bad as everyone is saying, and if so, why?

The answer to this question is not as simple as it may seem. This is because, after the Industrial Revolution, mankind has increasingly relied on mass-produced foods that are easy to store and relatively cheap. Add to that our modern tendency towards instant gratification with regards to our food, and we see a huge rise in a demand for foods that are quick to make and takeout. These foods, unfortunately, have many food additives – and for several good reasons. But before delving into why food additives are used and their pros and cons, let’s first take a look at what is understood by the term itself.

What are Food Additives?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), food additives are added to mass-produced food to improve their “safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance.” Certain food additives have long been used for preservation. Amongst these are salt, used in the curing of bacon or the preservation of fish, and sugar, which is used to make and preserve jam.

But preserving a small quantity of food for personal use is much different than preserving enormous quantities of food for the consumer market. In the consumer market, food needs to stay fresh for as long as possible, and while many of the more traditional food additives are still used, many of these are used in more extreme quantities, while others are synthetic in nature. These days, over seven thousand different food additives are used to not only help food stay edible for longer, but to add texture, color, and enhance taste as well.

The Advantages of Food Additives

Food additives are difficult to understand and often lead to confusionAs mentioned, food additives have been used more and more since the large-scale production of foodstuffs has taken off in the modern era. They do have certain advantages, which include:

Additives may increase the shelf life of food.

Food additives are commonly added to canned and processed foods to keep them from spoiling and thus to combat food poisoning.

Additives are used as flavor enhancers.

Foods that are to last a long time often lose their flavor. In order to prolong their taste or even enhance it, food additives such as salt, acid, certain flavor enhancers, and even sweeteners are added in order to make your food taste better. Unfortunately, many of these food additives may also give rise to certain food cravings. Salt is a good example of this.

Additives may add vitamins lost in processing.

Many foods are fortified with various vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, many of these nutrients naturally in foods are lost when the food is processed, and that is why they need to be added.

Additives impact the appearance and texture of food.

Sometimes food’s appearance and texture may change during processing. Food additives are added to make these foods’ texture, appearance, and taste more acceptable.

The Disadvantages of Food Additives

Many different studies have made possible links between the use of food additives and various health issues. Amongst these are ADHD and other behavioral problems, allergic reactions, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease, weight gain, gut problems, the occurrence of metabolic syndrome, inflammation, high blood sugar and diabetes, lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol), hives, diarrhea, nausea, shortness of breath, depression, and even increased incidences of cancer. Interestingly, inflammation may be one of the causes of overeating.

Food Additives to Avoid

Although it may be best to try and avoid all food additives, some may have worse consequences for your health than others. Amongst those best to avoid are included:

Monosodium Glutamate

molecule of msg as well as msg on a table as a source of food additivesAlso known as MSG, this food additive is used as a flavor enhancer. It has been linked to depression, headaches, obesity, eye damage, and fatigue.

Colorants

According to studies, the colorants found in many of our foods may lead to behavioral problems in children. They have also been linked to cancer and chromosomal damage. There are indications that they may interfere with your body’s brain-nerve transmission. Yellow tartrazine dye has been correlated with a heightened risk of developing kidney and adrenal gland tumors when administered to laboratory animals.

Artificial Sweeteners – Aspartame

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly found in diet or sugar-free foods. There are indications that it may have carcinogenic properties. It also has neurotoxic properties. It may contribute to instances of Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions. In addition, it has been found to cause weight gain.

Sodium Sulfite

This food additive is often used in processed foods and wine. It has been linked to asthma, rashes, and headaches.

Trans Fats

Trans fats increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and thereby increase your risk of developing heart issues, strokes, diabetes, and inflammation.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

HFCS, instead of cane sugar, is one of the most used sweeteners in processed foods in the U.S.A. It contributes to weight gain, high cholesterol, and diabetes, amongst others.

Sodium Nitrate

This food additive is added to most processed meat products. Studies reveal that this additive may be linked to incidences of cancer. It also has a negative effect on the pancreas and liver.

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur dioxide is associated with bronchial issues. Those especially susceptible include people who have asthma or low blood pressure. Those with emphysema, heart issues, asthma, or bronchitis are strongly advised not to eat foods treated with this additive.

Food Additives and the Inflammation Circuit

Inflammation is your body’s response to stress of any kind. Many food additives are the cause of such stress because they create a series of changes within your body. The inflammation process starts as soon as your body is presented with certain pathogens against which it feels it needs to defend itself. White blood cells move through the cell walls of your blood vessels, reaching the area of infection.

Inflammation is part of your body’s defense mechanism and your immune system. In fact, inflammation could be described as a byproduct of your body’s immune system, as the repair work conducted by the latter when presented by infections triggers the inflammation process.

Your immune system is strongly associated with your body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response which, in turn, is strongly associated with higher levels of cortisol production. If your body is constantly bombarded with pathogens such as certain food additives, however, the NEM response continues, resulting in constantly high cortisol levels.

Cortisol works at reducing inflammation, although it does not entirely eliminate it. However, as your body moves through the different stages of adrenal fatigue, your cortisol production decreases as your adrenals become increasingly taxed by producing the cortisol levels needed for you to cope. This means less cortisol is available to suppress your immune system and thus combat the various symptoms commonly associated with inflammation. This may result in chronic inflammation, with many of the symptoms associated with it increasing.

Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation:

  • Weight gain especially around the waist area
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Digestive issues
  • Constant fatigue
  • Skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema
  • Anxiety, depression, and brain fog
  • Gum disease
  • Erectile dysfunction in men
  • Allergies

A Healthier Alternative to Food Additives

a selection of food additives alternatives such as gingerWhile we have no control over the additives put into processed foods, we can try and limit our intake of these as much as possible. By doing so, we can limit the triggers that lead to inflammation and the various symptoms associated with it.

Changing your diet is also a great way of limiting, and possibly even helping to combat, adrenal fatigue and other conditions. This means eating various fruits and vegetables that are known to actively help reduce inflammation.

Ginger, for example, has anti-inflammatory properties. Cold water fish like sardines, anchovies, herring, and salmon are high in omega-3 acids that help alleviate autoimmune conditions and relieve inflammation, while organic, grass-fed, free-range meats have high omega-3 levels and lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids that tend to promote inflammation.

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are effective anti-inflammatory foods, while grapes and berries also promote cardiovascular health. Nuts may help stabilize your body’s sugar and insulin levels, while olive oil also has powerful anti-inflammatory compounds as well.

Certain herbs and spices such as turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, and rosemary have numerous health benefits and help with inflammation suppression and can enhance the flavor of meals much better than food additives.

Above all, try to eat whole, home cooked meals and avoid food additives.

 
© Copyright 2012 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Simply put, the answer is no. Not all food additives have negative health implications. To be on the safe side, however, it is best to get informed about the different additives found in your usual food purchases in order to make the best decision for your health.


Food additives are difficult to understand and often lead to confusion