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April 19, 2011

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Looks yummy but beware additives

Additives make processed food look delicious, smell good and taste wonderful. But beware the foods that look too good and colorful to be true. Zhang Qian reports.

A new round of melamine milk scandals, leather protein added to milk, "lean meat powder" clenbuterol in pork, glowing blue-color bacteria in pork, pork that's "converted" to beef - and now recycled, dyed and tainted steamed buns.

And these - all but the glowing pork (probably a case of bad hygiene) are outright frauds.

Food safety has become a national issue and it has moved high on the government's agenda; it has also frightened consumers who don't know what's in the food they're buying and are wary.

But, according to scientists and food industry experts, legal additives (used legally, not the leather additive to milk) are not monsters. They are everywhere in modern processed (baked, tinned, smoked, pickled, salted, and so on) foods.

Unless you buy fresh food only, and from an organic farm, through a known distributor, you are consuming a vast amount of additives. They include preservatives, antioxidants, antiseptics, dyes and colorants, color-fixing agents, essence, emulsifiers, thickeners, texturizers, transfats, salt, flavor-enhancers, sweeteners and humectants. Don't forget all the antibiotics and hormones pumped into meat and poultry.

But as long as they are legally approved and used as directed, there is little need for worry, according to the food and additive industry.

China's Food and Drug Administration has approved 2,000 kinds of additives in 23 categories; the US FDA has also approved more than 2,000.

That doesn't mean all legal additives are good for you. Some are not good for you, some are especially bad if ingested in large quantities over time. Nutritionists also warn that the healthiest diet is free of processed and refined foods.

Illegal food additives cannot be detected by most consumers, since they're not listed on any label.

Still, consumers should educate themselves about additives of all kinds; read extensively.

"Food additives are very common and additives are a necessary part of the modern food industry used to improve the quality of food and satisfy the requirements of preservation and processing," according to Ji Heli, vice president of Shanghai Food Additive Association. Cakes, sausage, bacon, canned foods, ice cream, sauces and many other proceed foods all contain multiple additives.

"If you look at the ingredient chart at the back of package, you always find a list of basic ingredients, secondary ingredients and food additives, which comprise modern food," says Ji. "Generally, the amount of additives used is very limited, but they help a lot in processing, improving color, scent, flavor as well as preservation."

Additives make food attractive, give it color and enhance the flavor. Without them food would not be so appetizing, say food makers.

"Without emulsifiers and thickeners, ice cream may just remain milk powder and sugar, without its lovely shape and taste," says Ji.

Favoring agents are often added to potato chips to add taste, color formers (as in the case of processed meat which is made to appear redder than natural) are essential to give sausage its special aroma and color; humectants help keep canned foods moist, emulsifiers and thickeners help keep cakes soft and prevent crumbling.

The scandals about food safety involving melamine, Sudan red dye and clenbuterol paint a very negative image of food safety and additives nationwide, but according to Ji, who represents the additives industry, most of the problems are not caused by approved additives, but illegal substitutes or abuse of additives.

Melamine, Sudan red, clenbuterol and others are banned in all agricultural products; none is a legal food additive (since 2001). "But their use makes all additives look bad," says Professor Hu Xiaosong, vice president of the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology. He reported on food safety problems at the 2011 China Association for Science The Lemon Yellow colorant used recently in steamed buns to make them look like corn is quite safe and widely used in cakes and crispy puffed snacks, according to Ji from the additives association. "But they are not approved in steam buns to fake the appearance of corn bread."

Food safety organizations worldwide check on the safety of food additives before approving them for particular uses. This includes the Codex Alimentarous Commission (CAC) of the UN and the National Food Additives Standardization and Technology Committee of China. They also specify maximum amounts, since high amounts may be harmful. Salt is a prime example. Benzoic acid is approved for pickling as a preservative, but it cannot be more concentrated than 5/10,000.

"Clinical studies have not found natural food additives to be safer than chemical, synthetic additives, as many people believe," says Ji. "Careful study is needed before they are approved."

"If producers strictly follow regulations, there is no need for panic about food additives," says Ji, "but the drive for profit upsets the system."

Consumers rely on efficient supervision and the integrity of producers. But they can read labels and try to choose foods with the fewest adjectives. Extensive information from medical sources is available online about the dangers of additives that have been approved and are widely used.

A good rule of thumb is to be wary of foods that look too bright and delicious to be true, especially if the prices are low.

Commonly used additives


Synthetic colorants, color formers and dyes are widely used, and they are cheap. Most are not good for health, especially in large quantities. Color formers, for example, make processed meat look red or pink.

Beware of vibrant and unnaturally bright colors, because the food may more color than authorized by law.

For example, canned fruits with over-use of Sunset Yellow look unnaturally yellow. Chicken fed carophyll red lay eggs with a reddish yolk.

Approved synthetic colorants include amaranth (苋菜红), erythrosine(赤藓红), Lemon Yellow (柠檬黄), and Sunset Yellow (日落黄). Amaranth is relatively less safe since it is oil-soluble that is less easily metabolized.

Natural colorants are extracted from natural plants or animals. "Natural" doesn't ensure safety since they can be contaminated in processing.

They include curcumin (姜黄素), paprika oleoresin (辣椒红), red yeast rice (红曲米)and carotene (胡萝卜素).


Benzoic acid (苯甲酸), sorbic acid (山梨酸) and propylpropionate (丙酸) are common and approved. Most benzoic acid can be expelled by urination within nine to 15 hours after ingestion. It's cheap but a little toxic. Propylpropionate is also cheap, but not as strong. It's widely used in breads and cakes. Sorbic acid is the safest since it can be easily metabolized and turned into harmless carbon dioxide and water. But it costs a lot more.

Warning: because it's cheap, some producers choose it over safer sorbic acid; but too much can damage the liver and kidneys, and cause stomach upset.

Caution: considering the cost, some producers may choose benzoic acid over sorbic acid, but too much can be toxic.


Saccharine (糖精) is an especially cheap sweetener. It has debated for years whether it causes cancer. WHO approves it as relatively safe, in limited doses. It's common in cheap drinks and glaced fruit.

Molasses (甜蜜素) is often used in sweet foods like glace fruits or ice cream. But too much can be dangerous, as can aspartame (阿斯巴甜) which is approved to used in foods with limited amount except for canned food. These have been debated and studied for years concerning a possible cancer link; too much molasses isn't good for the kidneys; too much aspartame affects the nervous system.

Stevioside (甜叶菊苷) taste a bit bitter in high concentration. But it has been approved after extensive clinical experience.

Some natural sweeteners like sorbitol (山梨醇)and xylitol (木糖醇)are sweeteners that are low calorie. They are generally harmless sweeteners recommended to patients with diabetes. But too much can cause diarrhea.

Color formers

Apart from colorants, color formers are used in processing to create color, especially processed meats, like sausage and preserved ham.

Nitrate (亚硝酸) and nitrite (亚硝酸) are the most common color formers. They help the meat stay a bright red color and smell good, but they are quite toxic, as they may lead to lack of oxygen in tissues. Such preservatives have been linked to bowel cancer. They are widely used but the amount is supposed to be limited.

Caution: It's best not to eat too much processed meat as they contain preservatives and have no health benefits.


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