Would you like to try food supplements, but avoid unnecessary substances? You've tried to decipher food labels, but the endless list of molecules with complicated names has put you off. These European codes indicate emulsifiers, sweeteners and other preservatives that technologically modify our food. While some of them are quite benign, others are really harmful to our health. How do you recognise them? We explain everything about the dangers of food additives.
What is an additive?
A food additive is a chemical substance that is not primarily intended to be ingested, but which is added to other ingredients in our food. Additives are incorporated during the manufacturing, preparation, processing, packaging, transport or storage phases. They are found in most supermarket products and in some non-natural food supplements. But rest assured, food additives are not automatic.
Why are there additives in food supplements?
Il existe deux types d’additifs bien distincts : les additifs naturels, obtenus à partir de plantes, algues ou autres microorganismes végétaux et minéraux, et les additifs de synthèse, technologiquement fabriqués par l’humain. À quoi servent les additifs ?
There are two distinct types of additives: natural additives, obtained from plants, algae or other plant and mineral micro-organisms, and synthetic additives, technologically manufactured by humans. What are additives used for?
Their purpose can be varied:
- Preservatives and antioxidants keep food fresh and safe;
- Colourings and sweeteners ensure physical palatability;
- Flavour enhancers improve flavours (salt, sugar, glutamate);
- Thickeners and gelling agents ensure a particular texture;
- Emulsifiers, stabilisers and anti-caking agents give them a certain shape or content.
You can detect the presence of these food additives in your ingredients by their name or code (example: E951 Aspartame). The only way to find out if they are dangerous or not is to find out for yourself. In the rest of this article, you will find out which additives you should absolutely avoid.
Are additives allowed?
Yes, additives are allowed under certain conditions. It is only allowed to add an additive if :
- The dosage of the additive does not represent a major danger for the consumer: possible side effects must be studied.
- The addition of the substance must have a real interest for the food: the technological effect sought must be proven.
The authorisation process is complex and double-checked, to ensure the safety of consumers. Additives are first submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for evaluation. After this initial screening, the European Commission analyses the remaining list and labels the validated substances with an E-number, then indicates the foods in which the additive may be added and the maximum permitted doses. Emulsifiers, sweeteners and other preservatives that do not appear on this list are prohibited from being used in foodstuffs. This double assessment is regulated at European level by Directives EC/1331/2008 and EC/1333/2008.
Between 2013 and 2020, a re-evaluation of food additives, from colours to sweeteners, has been carried out by EFSA, on request of the European Commission, to update the risks, according to the progress of studies and research. The report will be published and publicly available at the end of the study.
At Lepivits, we use only natural products and guarantee that our supplements are free of chemical excipients.
The dangers of food additives
Despite this monitoring of harmful substances in our food, studies have shown that even permitted additives can have serious consequences for our health.
A risk of colorectal cancer
Emulsifiers can dissolve fats and thus alter our protective barriers, which are supposed to be insoluble.
This is the case, in particular, of the mucus layer that covers our intestines, thus preventing micro-organisms (toxins, antigens, pro-inflammatory molecules, etc.) from reaching the bloodstream and provoking an overactivity of our immune system. If this mucus layer were to be weakened by emulsifiers such as polyabsorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, even in small quantities, there would be a risk of chain reactions.
In addition, recent studies on animals claim that this inflammation would promote the risk of colorectal cancer. The emulsifiers mentioned earlier actually modify the microbiota and thus cause intestinal dysbiosis. The overactivation of several cellular processes then promotes the growth of cancer cells.
The dangers of aspartame
In her book Additifs alimentaires Danger : Le guide indispensable pour ne plus vous empoisonner, Corinne Gouget highlights the harmful effects of aspartame, which can cause serious health problems. And indeed, two European studies have brought the subject back to the fore. The first suggests a carcinogenic risk of this synthetic sweetener, while the second highlights the impact of aspartame on premature delivery in pregnant women. However, these findings have been controversial for many years, leaving aspartame in doubt. In the re-evaluation of additives, EFSA concluded that the levels of aspartame in foods on the market were safe for the consumer.
How to avoid dangerous emulsifiers?
It is difficult to recognise a dangerous additive from a benign one on the basis of name and code alone when you are a novice. Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on food information for consumers requires companies to list the ingredients of food, including additives and flavourings, on their packaging. The rule also states that the explanation must be clear and not mislead the reader. From there, it is quite possible to avoid emulsifiers and other harmful additives. However, if you don't have the desire or patience to scour all the labels on your groceries, there are mobile apps, such as Yuka, that scan products for you and give a full report on harmful substances. With a score or a green/yellow/red colour code, you know if your ingredient is more or less toxic.
Le meilleur moyen de se prémunir contre les effets indésirables des additifs alimentaires est encore de réduire le plus possible votre consommation d’aliments transformés et industriels. Ce n’est pas forcément facile et accessible à tout le monde, mais chaque petit geste compte. Procurez-vous vos produits dans les magasins zéro-déchets, biologiques, locaux. Vous consommerez des fruits, légumes, viandes et produits d’épicerie sains et sans additif néfaste. De plus, les aliments végétaux contiennent des nutriments indispensables à l’organisme et des fibres alimentaires bénéfiques pour l’équilibre de la flore intestinale. Ainsi, en évitant les additifs dans l’alimentation industrielle et en les remplaçant par un régime alimentaire naturel et végétal, vous réduisez les risques de cancer colorectal et intestinal.
The best way to protect yourself from the undesirable effects of food additives is still to reduce your consumption of processed and industrial foods as much as possible. This may not be easy and accessible to everyone, but every little bit helps. Buy your products in local, organic, zero waste shops. You will be eating healthy fruits, vegetables, meats and groceries without harmful additives. In addition, plant foods contain nutrients that are essential to the body and dietary fibre that is beneficial to the balance of the intestinal flora. So by avoiding additives in industrial food and replacing them with a natural, plant-based diet, you reduce the risk of colorectal and intestinal cancer.
List of food additives to avoid
Even so, it is not easy to be careful with everything you buy or ingest. To limit the risks, here is a non-exhaustive list of the most dangerous food additives:
- Polysorbat (E432 to E436);
- Magnesium stearate (E572);
- Silicium dioxide;
- Titanium dioxide;
- Microcrystalline cellulose (E460i);
- Disodium ethylene diamine tetra-acetate (E386);
- Potassium bromate (E924);
- Calcium bromate (E924b);
- Chlorine oxide (E926);
Although not all food additives are necessarily dangerous to health, some represent a very real risk for the consumer. We invite you to consult the food additives website for a complete list of food additives and their degree of safety. At the top of this list, you will notice that curcumin is used as a yellow dye, but it is also a very effective herbal medicine ingredient.
Dyes, sweeteners, emulsifiers, these food additives are worrying and for good reason: even when authorised by the European Commission, some of these substances are still being debated, particularly because of food intolerances, inflammation and destruction of the digestive mucosa, and even the risk of cancer. This is a cause for concern when we know the quantity of additives in our food.