Skip to main content
Welcome to
super saver spring
offer ends april 20
save over $140
Sale ends in
$0.99
per week for 24 weeks
Welcome to
super saver spring
$0.99
per week for 24 weeks
save over $140
// //

Most of us don't have year-round access to farm-fresh foods. Instead, we fill our grocery carts with processed foods to help save time in the kitchen. Our reliance on factory-made foods means that natural and synthetic chemical additives have become a significant part of our diet. It's estimated that food additives comprise about 10 per cent of the food consumed by the average adult.

Without additives, food products would spoil quickly. Additives prolong shelf life, prevent potentially life-threatening food poisoning and boost the nutrient content of foods. While most additives have excellent safety records, others are controversial because questions about their safety have been difficult for scientists to answer.

In some people, certain additives can trigger hives, headache, diarrhea, asthma, even anaphylactic shock. (Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that occurs rapidly and causes a life-threatening response involving the whole body). Research in animals has linked other food additives to cancer.

Story continues below advertisement

Here's what you need to know about questionable food additives and how to avoid them.

Artificial dyes

Artificial colours are used to enhance a food's natural colour or add colour that's not naturally present. Because their purpose is to make foods look better, some argue that food dyes are frivolous. Others say that food dyes are harmful.

In the 1970s, researchers suggested that synthetic food colours were linked to hyperactivity in children. In 1982, the U.S. National Institutes of Health concluded that there was no scientific evidence to support the claim that colour additives caused such behavioural problems. However, studies did show that for some children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and food allergy, eliminating artificial food dyes led to improvement in behaviour.

A study published in 2004 suggests synthetic dyes do influence behaviour in children and their effect does not depend on prior hyperactivity or the presence of a food allergy.

Researchers from the University of Southampton in England evaluated the effects of artificial food colours and benzoate preservatives on 277 preschool children. (Benzoate additives inhibit bacteria growth and are often added to acidic foods such as jams, fruit juices, pickles and tomato products.) Regardless of whether a child was considered hyperactive or had a food allergy, the researchers found significant improvements in hyperactive behaviour when additives were eliminated from their diets and greater increases in hyperactive behaviour when they were consumed.

Certain food dyes cause adverse reactions, while others may be carcinogenic. Yellow dye No. 5 (tartrazine) used to colour beverages, desserts, candy and processed vegetables may cause itching, hives and nasal congestion in a small number of people. The U.S. government requires that all food products containing tartrazine have the colour listed on their labels so sensitive people can avoid it. That is not so in Canada, where manufacturers need only to state the word "colour" on the label.

Story continues below advertisement

Red dye No. 3 (erythrosine), added to ice cream, jams, pickles, liqueurs, ketchup and smoked fish, is a cancer-causing agent in animals. Based on the animal studies linking it to cancer, erythrosine was banned in the United States in 1990. It is still permitted for use in Canada.

Sulphites

Used to maintain colour, prolong shelf life, and prevent the growth of bacteria, sulphites are added to a wide range of products, including beer, wine, baked goods, dried fruits, dried herbs and spices, grapes, lettuce, jams, snack foods and soy products.

Sulphites are among the top nine food allergens because of their potential to cause severe reactions in sensitive people.

Sulphites do not cause a true allergic reaction (one that involves the body's immune system), but sensitive people may react to them with allergy-like symptoms ranging from nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, seizures, asthma and anaphylactic shock. Some people with asthma are extremely sensitive to sulphites.

If you have a sulphite sensitivity, read food labels carefully. Avoid products that contain potassium bisulphite, sodium bisulphite, sulphur dioxide and sulphiting agents.

Story continues below advertisement

Food packages are required to declare a list of ingredients and their components (ingredients of ingredients). However, if a food includes components that are exempted from labelling, it's possible that sulphites won't be mentioned on label. (Roughly 47 food ingredients are exempt from having their components declared on the label, including flour, butter, margarine, starches, soy flour and hydrolyzed plant protein.) Health Canada is working to amend regulations so that labels declare key food allergens, including sulphites. In the meantime, contact the manufacturer or your local allergy association if you're unsure about a food.

Monosodium

glutamate (MSG)

This additive is used to intensify the flavour of meats, poultry, seafood, snacks, soups and restaurant foods. It's also a component of other food ingredients, including hydrolyzed vegetable protein and yeast extract.

Studies have shown that some people are sensitive to MSG and report reactions such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and flushing. Studies have not determined how little MSG it takes to trigger a reaction in sensitive people.

If you're sensitive to MSG, scan ingredient lists for monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast and natural flavouring.

Story continues below advertisement

Aspartame

Approved for use in 1981, aspartame is used to sweeten more than 5,000 low-calorie foods. A small number of individuals report aspartame causes headache, skin reactions, dizziness and mood changes. Despite numerous claims that aspartame causes a wide range of diseases including epilepsy, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis, there's no scientific evidence to suggest that aspartame is to blame.

However, a new study released in July questions the safety of aspartame.

Italian researchers reported they found that it increased the risk of cancer (lymphoma and leukemia) in female rats at doses close to acceptable daily intakes for humans. Health Canada is currently reviewing the data and working with European scientists to determine whether the evidence warrants making recommendations about aspartame use.

In the meantime, read ingredient lists. Aspartame must always be declared on a food label; there are no exemptions.

To reduce your intake of food additives, eat fewer highly processed junk foods. Many questionable additives, such as aspartame and synthetic dyes, are used primarily in foods of low nutritional value.

Story continues below advertisement

To avoid a certain additive, read ingredient lists. However, if an additive is a component of an ingredient, it might not be mentioned. And ingredient lists that state "colouring" or "colour" won't help you determine whether a food product contains an artificial dye.

If you're leery about synthetic additives, consider going organic. Organic foods are grown and processed without the use of synthetic or artificial chemicals. But keep in mind that intolerance or sensitivity to an additive does not depend on whether it's natural or artificial. The human body can't tell the difference between a natural additive and the same one that's produced synthetically. Beta-carotene, used to colour margarine and butter, can be derived naturally from algae or beet root, or it can be made synthetically.

This was the second of two articles on food additives. The first appeared last Wednesday.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic,

is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Visit her website

at lesliebeck.com

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies