The recent debates around tastemaker MSG (Monosodium glutamate) have aroused everyone’s curiosity on chemical food additives. MSG, also known as ajinomoto is a Japanese discovery, was extensively added to sauces, soups, noodles and dairy products for a ‘full-bodied’ taste till now, before studies proved that it could have adverse effects on the health of those over-consuming it.
The truth is that we cannot avoid chemicals in our food today however much we try. Maximum chemicals are added to food in the form of preservatives. While earlier sun-drying, smoking, pickling and jamming were the preferred ways of preventing food spoilage, in today’s age of industrial food production, chemicals are freely added to food products to increase their shelf life. Since these preservatives blend easily with the color and form of our food, they are difficult to detect and hence no one bothers about the quantities in which they are added and how safe they are.
Dr Shipra Saklani Mishra, clinical nutritionist at Fortis La Femme hospital says, “These days, almost all food products carry labels detailing the chemicals put in them. However, as most of them are too technical to understand, people often ignore them. Still, there are a few which you can remember as ‘safe,’ while some others could be avoided completely or not consumed too often.”
“For example,” she continues, “Ascorbic acid is a form of vitamin C it is an FDA approved preservative used to prevent spoilage in many products ranging from cereal to beverages. Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener it works like sugar syrup to preserve different foods.
Taurine is found naturally in blood to maintain water and electrolyte balance – is added to many energy drinks. Up to 3,000 mg of taurine per day is considered safe. Besides, Nisin, which has anti-bacterial properties, is used to keep meat, poultry products, cheese, liquid eggs and salad dressing safe.”
The redoubtable preservatives she says are Sulfites. These are used to stop the browning and discolouration of food but have been linked to an asthma-related sensitivity and allergy in some cases. Sodium Benzoate helps stop fermentation in food and can be found in sodas and many fruit juices. Researchers, though, believe that when sodium benzoate is mixed with Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) it can create benzene, a known carcinogen.
Nitrite is often found in meats and is responsible for giving hot dogs their red colour, but the American Cancer Society recommends people lessen its consumption as it is linked to some types of cancer. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) which help preserve fat and oils in food have also been associated with an increased risk of cancer. Interestingly, BHT is also used to treat some types of herpes and AIDS.
Dr Shipra adds, “Even though, preservatives are almost impossible to avoid in today’s age, the best alternative is to check the labels and keep oneself updated on recent studies on preservatives. Also, remember to check the expiry date of processed products. Even if a preservative is not harmful otherwise, consuming it after the expiry date will certainly bring you health problems.” - Deccan Herald