Widely used in industrial food, preservatives, but also other types of additives, can be hazardous to health. Here's what to watch out for
L'label of a food is its identity card. Reading it allows us to acquire a lot of information on a specific product and thus guide our purchasing choices. We also know, however, that it is not always easy to interpret a label between names of incomprehensible ingredients and the haste we have when we make the expense. This is why it is useful to be prepared when we go to the supermarket and to know already what we would not like to read on the label of what we buy.
A little clarity
The first advice is to not stop at claim of the product or image on the package, but to check if these correspond to the actual content of the product. The image of a hen scratching the grass on one pack of eggs it does not necessarily indicate that those eggs come from hens on the ground: to verify it, it is necessary to read the code on the shell.
Then pay attention to product name which can sometimes create confusion in an inattentive consumer: for example there is a difference between strawberry juice and strawberry-flavored drink: in the first case we know that there is certainly a part of the fruit in the drink, in the second it will have been probably used a flavor, artificial or natural, strawberry.
Finally, one information to always keep in mind is that on a label the ingredients are indicated in decreasing order of quantity: the first on the list is more abundant than the second and so on.
What we find on a label
The indications that must appear on the label are regulated by the EU Regulation 1169/2011 which obliges to specify, among other things, such as vegetable oil or fat it is used in industrial food, the allergen list and the nutritional table with the quantities of salt, sugarsaturated fats that are contained in that food.
In the list of ingredients on the product label we also find the indication of additives that have been used in that food. They can be reported with the letter E followed by a number or with them scientific denomination.
Food additives, whether natural or artificial, have several functions: there are i colorants, marked with the numbers from E100 to E199, i preservatives indicated with in numbers from E200 to E299, antioxidants and acidity correctors (from E300 to E399), the thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers (from E400 to E499), acidity regulators and anti-caking agents (from E500 to E599), flavor enhancers (from E600 to E699), other various additives including sweeteners (from E900 to E999).
Additives are not harmful in themselves, but they can become harmful if they undergo chemical transformations or if ingested in high doses, so much so that for many of them EFSA (the European Food Safety Agency) has identified some maximum daily quantities not to be overcome. For this reason it is always better to base the diet on fresh products such as fruit and vegetables and to limit the processed and industrial ones also rich in salts, sugars and fat.
The most risky preservatives
Among the preservatives, WHO has classified as probably carcinogenic, because associated with an increased risk of tumors in the stomach and esophagus, potassium nitrite (E249) and sodium nitrite (E250), sodium nitrate (E251) and potassium nitrate (E252). They are often present, for example, in meat, sausages and cured meats to avoid the formation of bacteria, to preserve them better, but also to maintain their lively color. In themselves they are not carcinogenic, but undergoing some chemical transformations (such as cooking) they convert into N-nitrosamines, compounds that are instead considered carcinogenic. If you want to be on the safe side, know that in Dop products the production disciplinary prohibits using them. You can also be more relaxed when nitrite and nitrate are used in combination with some antioxidants, such as vitamin C (E300) and its derivatives, sodium ascorbate (E301) and potassium ascorbate (E303), which inhibit the formation of nitrosamines.
Attention also to sodium benzoate (E211), which can be present, for example, in fruit-based drinks, which in contact with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can produce benzene, a carcinogenic compound. L'sulfur dioxide (E220) instead it could cause allergic reactions in predisposed subjects.
Dyes and children
According to EU Regulation 1169/2011 if a food or drink contains one or more of these six dyes, sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine yellow (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine yellow (E102), Ponceau red (E124), the label must bear the words "may adversely affect the activity and attention of children". An epidemiological study carried out in England by the University of Southampton related, in fact, the consumption of foods containing these dyes with disturbances in the sphere of activity and attention in children. The research has not yet had enough confirmations or denials, but the European standard was established in precautionary measure.
The dyes to watch out for are then caramel E150D (used in soft drinks and candies, for example) which contains 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) considered potentially carcinogenic, and lAluminum E173 that if it accumulates in quantity in the body, it can be neurotoxic and harmful for those suffering from kidney diseases.
Are sweeteners and flavor enhancers safe?
The sweeteners they are used as a substitute for sugar because they have fewer calories, but some likeaspartame (E951) and sucralose (E955) they are the subject of controversial studies, some linking them to health risks, others acquitting them.
As for the flavor enhancers we report that EFSA has defined a maximum daily dose of 30 mg per kilo of body weight for sodium glutamate (E621), often used to cover food defects: therefore you need to pay some attention to how many foods that contain it we take in a day.
Watch out for phosphates
THE phosphates they are found in various types of additives such as emulsifiers, thickeners, anti-caking agents, and in various types of products, from drinks to ice cream, from baked goods to cheeses, from ready meals and canned soups. They can inhibit the absorption of calcium and if in a single product they are not harmful, thecocktail effect. Recently, EFSA calculated that additives contribute 6 to 30% of the total intake of phosphates through the diet, identified an acceptable daily dose for these substances and indicated the risk that this new dose could be exceeded more easily by minors and adolescents.
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