The European Commission (EC) has carried out Eurobarometer survey on public concerns about food and results of the survey have been announced. Results of the survey on processed food and food additives are remarkable. Results showed that public concerns on processed food and food additives increased from 2005 to date and information pollution in the communication channels played a key role. So, what are the scientific facts processed foods and food additives?
What is food processing and why is it needed?
Food processing and food additives used to establish food safety and preserve both nutritional value and food quality. Food processing helps maintaining safety and quality (properties such as nutritional value, colour, consistency, odour, crispness, etc.) and reduces food waste through prevention of spoiling during operations such as storage, warehousing and transport of foodstuff. In addition, urban life and intense business life increases the need for processed food and the use of such food products is becoming widespread.
Processed food and legal regulations
The European Commission (EU) has regulations in place in connection with processed food and food additives and these regulations stipulate whether food processing methods and the use of food additives lead to health risks or not. News in communication channels and personal opinions that are, unfortunately, far from scientific facts leads information pollution about this subject and they are shown as factors that have adverse influence on the public opinion about food processing and food additives. Results of the Eurobarometer survey conducted by the European Commission also support this situation.
Survey results indicates an increase for concerns about food additives
Participations were asked health risks related with food and 19% responded that they have concerns on pesticides and other chemicals. Frequency of participants who had concerns about food additives was 7% in 2005 and this ratio increased to 9% in 2010.
So, what are the most common myths about processed food and food additives among the public? Should we really concern about food processing and food additives? What are the scientific facts?
Are food additives safe?
It is accepted that food additives approved by JECFA, the Joint Expert Committee of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization on food additives, are safe and their use does not lead to any health risks if they are used at recommended safe quantities. EFSA and JECFA review toxicity and exposure researches on food additives while researching about potential health risks of food additives in Europe and the world, respectively. Subsequently, they publish their opinion on both unsafe and safe additives as well as the conditions on safe use. Then, the Europe Union Council and the European Parliament checks compliance to the legislation and the European Commission grants approval. Repetitive checks are performed on safety and health risks of food additives on regular basis.
In our country, the use of food additives is controlled by Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock. The Ministry grants approval to food products prepared in accordance with Turkish Food Codex, Food Additives Regulation that is in parallel with the European Parliament Council Directive.
When were food additives introduced in our diet?
In fact, food additives are used for processing for centuries.
• Egyptians and Romans extended the shelf life and improved the appearance of food using potassium nitrate, spices and colourants.
• Societies that discovered the possibility of extending shelf life through the use of spices had also added dynamism to the Silk Road trade.
• In 3000-9000 B.C., meat products were preserved using salt and cheese products were processed through smoking with wood fire or dehydration processes were used to extend the product life.
• In Dada Gorgud Epic, it is mentioned that the milk was preserved through dehydration.
Do food additives have adverse effects on health?
Food additives are compounds that exist in the normal structure of the food; for example, citrus fruits contains ascorbic acid or vitamin C and ascorbic acid can also be produced as a synthetic or artificial food additive that is also represented with the code E300. Food additives are compounds that are not affected by various food processing methods and they do not create any health risk from production to storage and consumption to removal out of the body. The European Commission underlines that natural and artificial food additives do not lead to any health risk when they are used in quantities and with target food products, in accordance with the safety standards.
Do food processing methods reduce the nutritional value?
No, technological processing of the food can even reduce the nutritional value losses that may arise during processing, storage and transport.
• Heat treatment improves the digestibility and it may even increase the quantity of beneficial compounds; for example, quantity of the lycopene compound that has an antioxidant effect increases when tomato paste is obtained from tomatoes.
• Frozen vegetables are frozen within a few hours after harvesting in order to minimize the loss of nutritional elements. Thus, nutritional elements are preserved in optimal manner during the transport and storage periods.
• There are also food processing methods that cause the loss of nutritional elements. However, the main purpose of such technological processes is to increase the bioavailability of the nutritional elements or other beneficial compounds in the body. For example, it is known that removing or separating the outer shell of wheat in order to facilitate the digestion would also lead to the loss of some group B vitamins, minerals and fibres.
EFSA “The Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food” (ANS) evaluates the safety of additives in accordance with the European Commission legislation. JECFA, the Joint Expert Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization on Food Additives conducts extensive researches and monitors the compliance to the regulations and legislation on regular basis in order to ensure the safety of food additives at an international level. During such evaluations, all scientific data available on chemical composition, biological and toxicological properties of the food and food additives as well as human exposure are reviewed, and a decision is made about safe use. These decisions are monitored by the relevant ministry, organizations and institutions of the countries and necessary legislations are adopted in connection with the respective dietary habits and other dynamics of each country.
• European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – Food Additives
• T.R. Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Turkish Food Codex Food Additives Regulation, Official Gazette, 2013.
• The Debate Over the Health Effects of Food Processing. American Society for Nutrition.
• The No-Observed-Adverse-Effect-Level (NOAEL) in Drug Safety Evaluations. Michael A. Dorato, Foods Food Ingredients Journal, 2007.
• Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Nisan 2010.
• Food Additives Fact Sheet, World Health Organization (WHO), Temmuz 2017.