Stabilisers, emulsifiers and preservatives: what are they and should we be worried?
What are food additives?
Different additives serve different functions, from colouring, sweeteners and flavouring, to preservatives (to stop food rotting too quickly), stabilisers (for consistency), emulsifiers (to keep food smooth) and acidulants (for added zing). Some additives occur naturally, like salt, vinegar or sugar, while others are produced in the laboratory.
What's with the E prefix, and the numbers that follow?
In Europe, use of all food additives is controlled by law. In 1982, the EEC introduced a means of categorising additives, along with more stringent labelling requirements on food products. Pick up a bottle of orange squash, for example, and the label will reveal what additives you're about to consume, for example E102, a synthetic yellow dye called tartrazine. To find out what each E-additive is in plain English, click here (nb: This link is to the Food Additives and Ingredients Association. It represents companies who manufacture and market food additives and ingredients.)
How many additives have EEC approval?
A total of 297. This breaks down as 43 colours, 12 sweeteners, and 212 in other categories. There are also hundreds of flavourings which do not have E numbers.
Are additives bad for me?
The majority of food additives have no negative impact on health, but controversy does surround some E numbers (including E102!). Adverse reactions, hyperactivity in children, allergies and asthma are all common concerns. For a viw of possible problems caused by additives, click here.
If I bounce off the walls or get wheezing, diarrhoea, or itchy skin after a meal, should I blame food additives?
Not immediately, but you should regard them as possible suspects. Consult your GP first, and then kick off your investigation by eliminating likely foodstuffs until you can finish a meal without feeling weird or wired. Your GP should then be able to identify what additives are to blame, and help you devise a diet that avoids the problem but doesn't compromise you on the nutrition front.
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