How worried should we be about food additives like emulsifiers, preservatives, colors and artificial sweeteners?

DR. MEGAN ROSSI: Can chemicals added to food make you sick?

How worried should we be about food additives like emulsifiers, preservatives, colors and artificial sweeteners?

In the past, additives used in food were basically very simple – think salt, used to help store food for longer.

But these days, the list of chemical additives in any processed food, from cookies to curry paste, may exceed what you actually identify as a food ingredient. But are they bad for us?

Some people must be sensitive to certain food additives.

One of the most common sensitivities is sulfites, which are mainly used as preservatives – you can find them in foods including dried fruit; jams and dips, such as guacamole; processed meats; fresh and Frozen crustaceans, such as prawns; and beverages, including soft drinks, cider, beer, wine, and liqueur. (Check the label for additive numbers E220-228 and E150b and 150d or names such as sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, and ammonia sulfite caramel.)

How worried should we be about food additives like emulsifiers, preservatives, colors and artificial sweeteners?

People with eczema and asthma appear to be more sensitive to sulfites — one theory is that they irritate the nerves involved in breathing and irritate the airways.

These symptoms aren’t just specific to the gut — patients may experience hives, swelling, wheezing, or a stuffy nose. Bad hangovers are also linked to sulfites in wine.

Prepackaged food sold in the UK is now required by law to clearly state on the label if it contains more than 10mg of sulfites per kilo or litre.

Another problem is sensitivity to salicylates, which cause similar symptoms.

did you know?

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties in clinical trials. Adding black pepper to cooking with turmeric can increase our body’s ability to absorb curcumin by 2000%!

Salicylates occur naturally in herbs and spices, such as black pepper and cumin; in fruits such as apples, strawberries, and kiwi; and in vegetables, including asparagus and sweet corn.

They are also found in many beverages, such as coffee, black tea, and apple juice. If you’re concerned about salicylates in your diet, it’s best to see a dietitian, as the amount of salicylates can vary depending on processing and season, so trying to address it alone is risky.

Of course, there are also food colorings that have been linked to some children with ADHD, which is why the Food Standards Agency (FSA) regulates foods and beverages that contain any of these six colors – Sunset Yellow (E110), Quinoline Yellow (E104) ), Carmine (E122), Allura Red (E129), Tartrazine (E102) or Ponceau 4R (E124) — must carry a warning.

But some sensitivities may not be what they seem – the FSA-commissioned study investigates after reports of concerns about aspartame sensitivity, such as headaches, dizziness, and upset stomach.

The study, published in 2015, showed no difference in symptoms reported after consuming aspartame-containing cereal bars compared to aspartame-free cereal bars.

If you’re not sensitive to any food additives, should you be concerned about all these chemicals in our food? More than 300 additives are authorised by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for use in food, which means they have undergone rigorous safety assessments.

However, in 2008 the European Food Safety Authority announced that all food additives approved for use in the EU before 2009 must be reassessed for their safety. This has led to many changes. For example, from last week, titanium dioxide (E171), a colouring added to confectionery and baked goods, is no longer allowed in the EU and Northern Ireland (though it is still used in the rest of the UK).

Despite the reassessment, many safety assessments do not consider the impact on our gut microbes, which play such an important role in our health. This is because many assessments have been made before we understand the importance of these microbes.

Several animal studies have shown that certain types of artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame, have negative effects on our gut microbes, including increased blood sugar responses to food, liver inflammation, and weight gain .

In human studies, the evidence is less robust, with conflicting results on artificial sweeteners and gut health. These different findings may be because we all have different microbes that can respond in different ways.

For example, a small but significant study in the journal Nature showed that daily intake of saccharin for a week negatively affected blood sugar responses in four out of seven test subjects.

Other additives that need to be labeled are nitrates and nitrites. Our bodies naturally convert nitrates in foods like spinach and beetroot into nitrite, then nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels. This is beneficial for lowering blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

However, nitrites and nitrates added to food — especially processed meats like sausage — can be converted into nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic (carcinogenic). Other additives, including stabilizers, thickeners, gelling agents, and emulsifiers found in various processed foods—especially frozen desserts, dairy-free milk, cakes, and cookies—have also been linked to inflammatory bowel disease.

Our research team at King’s College London is investigating this through a world-first randomized controlled trial of food additives – we test a low-food additive diet in patients with active Crohn’s disease.

This is based on research showing that it may cause intestinal inflammation in genetically predisposed people. If you have active Crohn’s disease, live in the UK and would like to take part in this study, please email for more information.

There are still many unknowns in the field of food additives. But while we’re busy understanding interactions, limiting additives where possible is a good way to go.

Really, it just reinforces what most of us inherently know: home cooking with whole foods is always a better option.

For packaged foods, check the ingredient list, and if you see multiple E numbers (usually written in words that don’t sound like food), you may want to consider whether it’s right for you.

As for carbonated drinks, try flavored soda with frozen berries and mint the next time you’re in the mood for a soda.

Try this: Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cookies

My answer to those cookie cravings: high fiber chocolate chip cookies – kids won’t taste the hidden veggies!

Makes 18 cookies

  • 1 ripe banana (about 100 grams)
  • 6 Medjool dates, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 50ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 150 grams whole oats
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 zucchini, grated (140 g)
  • 60g dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to gas mark 4 and grease two baking sheets. Put the bananas, dates, and olive oil, vanilla, and half of the oats in a blender and blitz to a paste.

Squeeze grated zucchini with a clean cloth to remove moisture, then add to mixing bowl with chocolate chips and remaining oats. Then add the blended contents of the food processor.

Stir to combine to form a thick mixture. Spoon onto a baking sheet to make 18 cookies, smoothing lightly into rounds.

Bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Ask Meghan

I had a hiatal hernia repair two years ago, and since then I have had very bad bloating and constipation, and gas has built up in my chest and throat making it hard for me to breathe until I can burp (this can take hours) ).I have been diagnosed with dysphagia [difficulty swallowing]. I use lactulose [a laxative] Several times a week.

Maxine Naden, via email.

I am sorry to hear that you have bowel symptoms after surgery. It sounds like dysphagia should be prioritized, as you may find that this is the culprit behind bloating and constipation.

This is because when people have swallowing problems, they often change their diets to accommodate, which can mean less fluid intake and softer processed foods.

I recommend talking to your medical team about seeing a speech and language therapist who can teach you exercises to help rebuild and perfect your swallowing muscles and mechanics.

They can also advise if you would benefit from thickening fluids to ensure you stay hydrated – a common cause of constipation and bloating.

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