5 food additives to avoid

How to read labels with your family's health in mind

With the mélange of inedible-sounding ingredients in our children’s foods, parents might feel like they need a chemistry doctorate just to figure out what additives are safe and which ones aren’t. Fortunately, our experts have already done the legwork. Here’s the Coles Notes version of the five food additives you should avoid, for you and your children.

1. Artificial colours
Look on the label for: In Canada, artificial colours are denoted with names like “Red 40” and “Yellow 5,” so they’re easy to spot.

Found in: Unnaturally bright foods like soft drinks, candies and ice cream tend to be coloured artificially.

Possible harmful effects: A 2007 study published in the medical journal The Lancet found a relationship between artificial colours, as well as the preservative sodium benzoate, and increased hyperactivity in children. Other, smaller studies have also concluded a link exists between hyperactivity and artificial food colouring.

2. Sodium benzoate
Look on the label for: This chemical will be listed as sodium benzoate.

Found in: The preservative is most often used in soft drinks as well as acidic foods like salad dressings and pickles.

Possible harmful effects: Sodium benzoate is a naturally occurring chemical that, in addition to raising hyperactivity concerns (see the Lancet study cited above), can form a carcinogen known as benzene when it mixes with ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Given that children are often consuming vitamin-C containing foods, it’s best to avoid sodium benzoate altogether.

3. Artificial sweeteners
Look on the label for: The ones to avoid in this category include aspartame, sodium cyclamate, saccharin and acesulfame-K (a.k.a. acesulfame potassium), according to Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has offices in Ottawa and Washington.

Found in: Many sugar-free candies, diet sodas and low-cal beverages often have at least one of the dangerous artificial sweeteners, however, not all do. Some low-cal drinks and snacks are sweetened with sucralose, which is widely believed to be safe, says Jacobson.

Possible harmful effects: All of these sweeteners have been linked to cancer in animal studies, notes Jacobson. Yes, the validity of the animal studies have been contested by other researchers and Health Canada does deem the sweeteners safe for human consumption within regulated dose limits. However, the fact that the scientific community is still divided as to the safety of these sweeteners is reason enough to avoid it for Jacobson.

4. Nitrite
Look on the label for: Products that use this salt will list “sodium nitrite” or simply “nitrite” in the ingredients.

Found in: Most processed meats as well as some uncommon other products (like fermented soy products) contain nitrite.

Possible harmful effects: Nitrite isn’t harmful in itself, but digestive processes as well as cooking processes can turn nitrite into nitrosamine, a known carcinogen. A 2007 review of thousands of studies by the World Cancer Research Fund, considered the most comprehensive investigation of the link between lifestyle and cancer, concluded processed meat products greatly increase the risk of bowel cancer and should be avoided altogether. Before you panic about all the hot dogs your child has scarfed down, remember that by cutting out nitrite now, you’re greatly reducing your child’s risk of developing cancer much later in life.

5. MSG
Look on the label for: MSG or monosodium glutamate

Found in: MSG is used in some Asian restaurants (so look for restaurants that promote themselves as “MSG free”), and may be in store-bought foods like instant noodles or spicy soup mixes.

Possible harmful effects: In certain individuals, this flavour inducer can cause a temporary adverse reaction, known as “MSG symptom complex” which may include headaches, nausea, weakness, heart palpitations and breathing difficulties.

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