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