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Food additives and health

It is confirmed by many studies and experiments (both human and animal) over the past few decades that a number of food additives regularly used by the food industry can have adverse effect on health. In other words, they can be toxic. As far back as 1960s, Dr. Ben Feingold's research provided first groundbreaking information on their toxicity to vulnerable individuals and children.

Yet, the FDA thus far has approved nearly 3,000 food additives, resulting in the average American consuming, as far back as 1985, nearly 15g of food additives a year7.

That includes preservatives, coloring agents, taste/odor enhancers, texture modifiers, processing and nutritional agents.

That food additives can be toxic shouldn't be surprising. Most of them are chemical cousins, with their common "ancestor" being benzene ring. Laboratory experiments show that nearly all of them have some effect on animal tissues, weaker or stronger, pharmacological or toxic. But, why would anyone in their straight mind put something potentially toxic in your food?

The three likely reasons are:

(1) food manufacturers have no knowledge of toxicity,

    (2) there is a partial knowledge of toxicity, discounted for the benefit of use (food preservation, or enhanced taste and appearance)

    (3) the apparent immediate symptoms are non-specific (may be caused by a number of other factors), and

    (4) estimates are that food additives affect relatively small portion of population, in the lower end of single-digit percentages (we're still talking about millions of people)

Why do Americans accept the risk? For one, most aren't even aware of the potential toxicity of food additives, and keep buying food indiscriminately. Many are simply uninterested: "One can't think of everything" they say, and don't think until they're forced to. 

Looking back, use of food preservatives like salt and soy sauce (in China) is thousands years old. As new chemical agents were becoming available, more of their indiscriminate, not seldom foolish use as food additives have been recorded. For instance, poisonings from red lead and copper-arsenite used to enhance food color were common in the 19th century.

We haven't been very wise in handling food additives in the past; unfortunately, that extends to the present time. Substances

as toxic as formaldehyde and phenol

are still being used as food preservatives (one of the uses for the latter is to sterilize allergy injections, among other medicinal uses).   

Food additives can be natural or synthetic substances, neither kind being inherently safe. What makes it difficult to sort out their adverse effect in everyday's life is that they don't come with otherwise perfect foods. Natural food substances, like salicylates or bio-active amines, can and do cause adverse health effects as well.

However, it is well established through a number of human and animal studies that many food additives allowed for commercial uses also

can inflict adverse effects on health.

One of them is irritability and asocial behavior in susceptible adults, or hyperactivity in children. What makes it more complicated is that the adverse effect is often dependant on the presence of some other factor, such is high copper levels, or exposure to fluorescent lighting. Fruit flies fed yellow food dye and exposed to fluorescent light die within minutes from over-exhaustion caused by hyperactivity4.

Now, children won't die from it, but the consequences can be serious. The side-effects of hyperactivity - short attention span, poor concentration, impaired learning ability, insomnia, asocial behavior, and others -

put those kids on disadvantage in regard to how they fare and
what they can achieve in life,

which often translates into low self-esteem and depression. It is not coincidental that many alcoholics and sociopaths have history of childhood hyperactivity4.

There are also many pathologic adverse effects of food additives, the long list including upper respiratory system symptoms, allergic skin reactions, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, migraine, conjunctivitis, and others. While not all food additives are potentially harmful to human health, most people don't know which ones are, and which ones aren't. And very few know their individual sensitivities.

With that in mind, best thing one can do is to minimize intake of food additives in general. This is easier said than done, not only because they are in such a widespread use. The limitation to what you can learn from the "ingredients" label comes from the current law that requires the label to list

only what is added by the final producer.

In other words, you don't see the additives used by those supplying the final producer with its raw materials. Still, reading the labels are certainly recommended, and you can't go wrong with "the fewer additives, the better" rule.