Friday, May 21, 2010

Guest Editorial - Additives in New Zealand Foods

This blog has not been updated for some time, mainly because we have been hard at work studying the growth of Cronobacter sakazakii. This work has now been submitted for publication and I have time to write more articles. Some of our work on C. sakazakii will appear in a later post.

To get us off to a good start, here is a guest article, written by one of my colleagues, Associate Professor Owen Young of Auckland University of Technology:

Food Additives in New Zealand

I recently had AUT University students systematically survey packaged food labels in Auckland supermarkets for health claims. These could be real (e.g. ‘if you eat this food your cholesterol will be lower’), or implied (e.g. ‘contains no additives’, ‘all natural ingredients’ etc.).

Over 30% of products surveyed had a ‘fat’ claim such as ‘lo fat’, ‘low in saturated fat’, or ‘98% fat-free’. Arguably these claims could be useful to a buyer seeking to control their weight, but overlooks the fact that total energy intake is really what matters for obesity. Fat is not the only beast with calories.

But of more interest to me were the claims for avoiding Public Enemy Numbers 1, 2 and 3: artificial colours (28% with claims), preservatives and artificial flavours (both 24%). Anyone would think these things were dangerous. But are they dangerous in the way they are used in foods?

Take the yellow food colouring tartrazine for example. Googling ‘tartrazine allergy’ will score you thousands of hits. On the face of it you would have to wonder why Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) allows artificial food colouring to be used at all. The reason is because the evidence for adverse effects from these colours is so flimsy as to be laughable. Colours have been used in foods for decades with no adverse effects. So why are some colours banned in certain countries? The reason is that pressure groups have been so strident that it becomes politically expedient to roll over and appease the activists.

Preservatives are sometimes put in prepared foods to minimise the growth of bacteria. These bacteria can either degrade the food, but be otherwise harmless, or they can be pathogens. At best the latter can make you sick and at worst can kill you. The maximum quantity of preservative added is typically hundreds of times lower that the amounts required to show any kind of response in humans. Preservatives have excellent safety records, and that is why FSANZ allows their use. You would have to wonder about a food manufacturer who neglected to add a preservative to a susceptible food. Such action should be viewed as callous indifference to your health.

The so-called artificial flavour that gets most bad press is MSG, monosodium glutamate. Ostensibly MSG is responsible for the Chinese restaurant syndrome with its claimed headache, flushing, and tingling symptoms. But MSG has been used extensively in Asian cooking for donkey’s years. If it’s so bad, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? The truth is that it is not bad for you.

Very many common foods have high concentrations of MSG, but no one complains about MSG in cheese, soy sauce, walnuts and broccoli, and a host of other foods. Chinese restaurant syndrome is nothing but an enduring urban myth. So why does MSG have to be declared on labels? One reason is that regulators are simply responding to activist demands. Any hint of a potential problem is dealt with by a label declaration that presumably implies that the additive is a risk and so feeds the myth.

What can or cannot be added to food in New Zealand is governed by FSANZ’s Food Code, which is online for all to read. One guiding principle is you can put additives into foods only where allowed and where needed – up to a specified limit – and crucially, only enough to achieve the required result. You cannot add stuff just for the hell of it, and indeed why would you? Additives cost money and there is often no need for them.

Take beer for example. Current advertisements frequently have an ‘all natural ingredients’ claim ­– whatever ‘natural’ means – and a ‘no preservatives added’ claim. The Food Code allows only one preservative in beer, sulphur dioxide, but it is seldom added because beer, by its very nature, keeps well without preservatives. Similarly, preservatives are not added to breakfast cereals because they are not needed in these dried foods.

The Food Code is thus a very conservative document, making New Zealand food supplies among the safest in the world.

So feel free to ignore the implied health claims that are built on the flimsiest of evidence, and are used to part you and your money through a fear of chemicals – chemophobia (n): an irrational fear of chemicals, particularly those man-made.

Associate Professor Owen Young is Academic Leader, Food Science, AUT University, Auckland


Anonymous said...

There is a lot more to the MSG issue than the writer has stated. Google has a feature called Alert. Start a daily Alert search using the words "Monosodium Glutamate" and be sitting down when you get the daily or responses.

Our (American) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed industry to put a central nervous system poison into food whose only purpose is to create an addiction to the foods that are laced with it in order to sell more and more.

Worse, the food industry is allowed to use all sorts of names other than MSG to fool the public. The list of health effects is long for the many who by heredity and evolution, do not tolerate it well.

The worst part is that those who trivialize do not help since it is important to make the connection between adulterated food and illness.

That alternative is present to a medical professional who does not get the connection and who can only prescribe drugs that make poor souls even worse.

The list of health effects is a long one, well established. Like many drugs, no one drops dead immediately on ingestion. In my personal case, I develop fatigue and extreme fatigue within an hour or so after ingesting MSG in foods. I slump into a chair and go into an unnatural, very deep sleep for an hour or so. When I wake up, I know from the unnatural, very deep sleep and a taste in my mouth I have learned to recognize, that the foods I ingested were the cause of my fatigue. That is the good news. The bad news is that I have an airline captain's license in my pocket. I am a former Strategic Air Command KC 135 and airline pilot. Thankfully I am longer flying. Far too much airline food is laced with MSG. Think truck driver, bus driver, train engineer, surgeon, etc.

Coke is laced with MSG. When I asked, I was told by a Coke spokesperson that they do not track or provide MSG information in their foods anymore. He did not admit the truth that it is in Coke as a "natural flavor" that common sense should tell anyone is not "natural" in its use.

Years ago, George R. Schwartz, M.D.asked me to proof read and comment on his draft of "In Bad Taste, The MSG Syndrome" (1988) prior to publication. Copies can be found on the net. Get one!

The Forward by Arthur D. Colman, M.D. was appropriate. I had previously read Dr. Colman's earlier letter in New England Journal of Medicine regarding behavior episodes with a member of his family in connection with Chinese Food. Dr. Colman had his eyes and ears open. He gave us an early warning signal to not put MSG in foods. If people want it, it should be in a separate container like salt and pepper.

One of the reasons why some have not understood what is happening involves the difference between toxicity and immunotoxicity. Making decisions regarding MSG and many other toxins is not an issue of feeding rats a poison until fifty-percent of them die, and then backing the result off by a hundred, or anything similar to that. Systemic toxin research requires EEG imaging techniques or brain mapping. Many of these toxins create an "electrical storm" in the frontal lobes of the brain that control social behavior. The bad news is that crocodiles do not have the frontal lobes we have.

John said...

Thanks for your comments.

I don't agree with all that you have written, but in the interests of generating an open debate that may lead to greater understanding of food safety issues, I will publish all comments that are not defamatory or mischievous.

I have published your comments unaltered.

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