We live in an era where there is an abundance of food, yet it's getting trickier than ever to feed our children healthy food with a balance between calorie intake and nutrient density.
We are told to go against our better judgment and trust that because a food additive is approved and deemed safe for human consumption, then we can confidently feed these foods to our children.
In an ideal world we would avoid all food additives. The reality is these sneaky little additives find their way into the most innocent foods.
Evidence suggests the additives listed below are worth avoiding although research has mixed results.
These additives are approved in New Zealand and can be found in children's food.
Artificial sweetener. Although there is mixed evidence to support its safety, there are many reports of effects on the nervous system, especially at higher doses. Because of the uncertainty and the delicate nature and developmental stages of a child's nervous system, this is best avoided. Aspartame contains the amino acid phenylalanine. People with the inherited disorder phenylketonuria should not use aspartame, as there is potential for this amino acid to accumulate to dangerous levels.
• Found in: Low-calorie drinks and confectionary. Sugar-free foods, some yoghurt and diabetic foods. Note: Can be found in children's medication, which in some cases cannot be avoided. Talk to your GP if concerned.
• Replace with: It's best to avoid all artificial sweeteners. Other numbers to look out for are saccharin (954), neotame (961), aspartame acsulphane salt (962). Stevia is making its way into a lot of products where you would often otherwise find artificial sweeteners. Stevia is a naturally occurring sweetener made from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana. It is best used when mixed with other whole food sweeteners for children.
Tartrazine (102) and Sunset Yellow (110)
Both of these additives are used to make food yellow. Symptoms of reactions can be immediate, in rare cases anaphylactic or, more commonly, behavior problems. Both are toxic substances in large doses.
• Found in: Some processed yellow foods, beverages and in some medications.
• Replace with: Look for natural colouring like curcumin (100) - extracted from turmeric - or lutein (161b) and kryptoxanthin (161c), which are extracted from butter or plant-based foods. Ideally eating whole foods - and avoiding colour additives - is best.
Used as a red food colouring. Reported in some cases to cause hyperactivity in children, can cause acute reactions like hives and asthma.
• Found in: Some red-coloured processed foods including some ice creams, lollies, jams and fruit juices.
• Replace with: Natural food colouring such as carotene (160a), paprika oleoresins (160 c) and lycopene (160d). Look for foods free of added colours.
Brilliant blue (133)
Used to colour foods bright blue (think of that bright blue tongue children love to show off after eating certain confectionary). Some reports say it causes hyperactivity, allergic reactions and, more seriously, is a carcinogen.
• Found in: Processed foods, mainly confectionary.
• Replace with: There is no natural blue food colouring approved in New Zealand that would replace what this is used for.
Flavours and flavour enhancers
It can be really tricky understanding flavours added to food. Here's a quick breakdown:
• Natural flavours: These come from natural sources like fruits, vegetables or animal origins.
• Nature-identical or natural identical: These are chemically identical to flavours found in nature.
• Artificial flavours: These are man-made, mostly of unnatural origin. Unfortunately, we have developed addictions to highly-flavoured foods that taste salty, sweet and umami. This is why flavour enhancers are added to so many processed foods.
MSG (621) or mono sodium glutamate
This is the most famous flavour enhancer. Originally, it was made by extracting MSG from seaweed. Now, it is made by a fermentation process using starches/sugars.
Some of the common signs of a reaction to MSG are headaches, dizziness, nausea and heart palpitations.
It is important for children to avoid added MSG because of the risk of addiction to over-stimulating flavours. Often foods with added MSG have low nutrition.
• Found in: In most savoury processed foods, sometimes even found in plain salted chips or plain rice crackers. Noodles, ready made meals and sauces.
• Replace with: Watch out for foods that say 'MSG-free'. Sometimes it is replaced with flavour-enhancing disodium 5'-ribonucleotides (635). Use foods naturally high in glutamate such as mushrooms, miso, parmesan cheese and tomatoes to create a more intense flavour without teaching the taste buds to set the taste explosion benchmark too high.
There are many other additives to avoid both for children and adults alike. The great little handbook The Chemical Maze by Bill Statham is very helpful at educating on additives and easy to pull out at the supermarket, but be warned there will be a few very long supermarket trips the first few times you bring it.