A journey with food additives
A few years back, it was distressing for my husband and I, to see our
younger daughter fall sick, every time she ate some of her favourite
food. She would either start coughing; a nagging cough which would
linger for sometime or she would get itchy red bumps on her arms,
sometimes on her face, (later I learnt the red bumps were hives.) We
were clueless as to why she got them constantly.
After many visits to the hospital, we learnt that it was due to an
allergic reaction, but was not certain what triggered the “hives” on
her. The thought of this, gave us many sleepless nights and constant
worries, until one day our very own Sri Lankan Doctor, a paediatrician,
who was attached to a reputed facility in Saudi Arabia, who on learning
of our daughter’s condition helped us identify the root cause of her
She was vulnerable not only to certain foods like coloured candies
and coloured drinks, but also to the strong smell of perfume, washing
powder, bleach etc, all, with a considerable amount of additive
compounds in them. Gradually, with much cajoling, we made her stop
eating her favourite titbits like the multi coloured candies, chocolate
chips and the luminous coloured drinks.
After following the doctor’s advice and guidelines, we saw a vast
improvement in our daughter’s health. He helped us to keep a food diary
and note carefully for any adverse reactions whenever she ate food.
In the case of a sensitivity being identified, the practice was to
eliminate all suspected foods from the diet and then reintroduce them
one by one, to see which additive (or additives) caused the reaction.
This was done under the supervision of this good-hearted doctor, whom
we are ever grateful to. With the invaluable information on food
allergies/additives, which my husband and I acquired, each time we
accompanied our daughter, during the fortnightly visits to the doctor,
we have become more selective in the choice of food we consume. Our
distressing nightmare maybe over, but with four growing children and
their immune system different from one another, I sometimes get the
creeps to think, what if , one of them goes through that agony again.
Some, like my younger daughter, are susceptible to particular food
additives and may have reactions like hives. This doesn’t mean that all
foods containing additives should be treated with suspicion.
Food additives play an important role in reducing serious nutritional
deficiencies and promoting food safety. A food additive is a necessary
substance added to food. it is a substance used in the production,
processing or storage of food. Additives can be used as ingredients to
preserve and give more color to the food. There are thousands of
ingredients used to make foods. The most common ones are sugar, baking
soda, salt, vanilla, yeast, spices, and colors which we use at home
Nutritionists too could play an important role in educating the
public, by creating awareness on the effects of food additives. The
effects of food additives could include .restlessness, mood swings,
urticaria and other skin rashes, diarrhoea/constipation, constant throat
clearing and cough. A child, who is affected by additives, could have
one or many symptoms.
In the book ‘Family-Medical-understanding-allergies’, it is quoted
under food additives; “Tartrazine(E102) a yellow dye found in many
sweets and soft drinks, known to bring on asthma attacks and suspected
of provoking hyperactivity. Sodium bisulphate (E222), an Anti oxidant,
widely used in helping to keep fruit and vegetables looking fresh in
salad bars. It is also found in canned and dry fruits, soft drinks,
packet sauces, soups and gravy mixes. It is believed to cause asthma.
Another preservative, such as the benzoates (E210-E219) is suspected of
causing asthma and allergic skin reactions such as; urticaria (hives).”
In our country, the use of food additives should be controlled both
by the Health authorities and The Food Industry. They should set up
unvarying safety standards so that all consumers receive the same levels
Overall, all products imported from other countries must be subjected
to a wide range of tests before they are allowed in. Food containing
added nutrients must be appropriately labelled. A wide check on the
safety of all additives must be carried out before they are allowed in
A list of all of the permitted additives, and the foods in which they
are allowed, should be published in the form of a regulation and made
available to the public. A regulation should be imposed to all
advertisers, that the products, they advertise, should not present any
hazard to health at any level, they should not mislead the consumer,
when advertising their items for consumption, they should also caution
consumers if the additives in them, are harmful. They could have the
food additives demonstrated in their advertisements (e.g. in the
processing or preservation of food).
Every time my children see the appealing food advertisements on
television, they plead with us, to buy the particular brand. Thus, we
give in, but having, a child, who was susceptible to additives; we tend
to be more cautious, carefully scrutinising the labels for any unsafe
“additives” before purchasing them.
Some advertisers use cartoon characters in their advertisements to
lure consumers into believing that their products are safe and healthy
for growth. In so doing, the children are significantly influenced. And
believe me, my youngsters easily fall prey to such advertisements, for
they think, by consuming the particular food, they could be the next
Spiderman, Batman or Iron Man. As adults, don’t we too, sometimes
As most of us don’t know which food contains additives, it is time;
we come together, in educating ourselves and one another, the damaging
effects of some food additives and the harm, it inflicts on our
Usage of melamine should be halted
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO) are urging affected countries to ensure safe feeding
of millions of infants following the ongoing melamine milk crisis in
China. The two agencies also called on countries to be alert to the
possible spread of melamine - contaminated dairy products.
These products first came to the attention of the international
organisations on September 11, 2008. Both WHO and FAO have used the
International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) to inform and
update national food safety authorities on this food safety crisis, one
of the largest in recent years.
According to the Ministry of Health, China, 39965 infants have
received treatment after consuming infant formula and are in various
stages of recovery. In total, 12892 infants have been hospitalised,
among them 104 are still in critical condition. Three confirmed deaths
have also been reported. Over 80% of patients are below two years of
The information available to date indicates that this crisis occurred
as a result of the intentional adulteration of milk with melamine.
Melamine (C3N6H6) is a high nitrogen compound which appears to have been
added to diluted milk to give the appearance of normal protein levels
when subjected to a test for protein levels that is based on nitrogen
content. It is this characteristic that has led to its illegal addition
to food and feed for the purpose of increasing the apparent protein
content of food and feed products.
One of the standard tests for measuring the protein content in food
actually measures the level of nitrogen and based on this estimated the
level of protein in the food. As melamine is high in nitrogen such tests
will interpret this nitrogen content as protein.
Therefore, if milk has been diluted with water and melamine has been
added, measuring the nitrogen level to determine protein content will
disguise the fact that water has been added to the milk. However, there
are a number of other methods now available to test the protein content
in food which do not focus on the measurement of nitrogen content. When
such tests are used the increased nitrogen content due to the presence
of melamine will not be measured.
The level of melamine found in the contaminated infant formula was as
high as 2560 mg/kg in powdered infant formula produced by the company
Sanlu, one of the biggest dairy manufacturers in China. Products from 22
other companies have also tested positive for melamine albeit at lower
Several of these companies export their products. Recalls have been
issued within China and outside. Official reports from China indicate
that other dairy based products, including liquid milk, ice cream and
canned coffee drinks, have also been found to contain melamine. There
are further reports from importing countries of dairy-based candies and
confessionary products testing positive for melamine. Recalls and bans
of potentially contaminated products have been issued by many countries.
Melamine is commonly used in food contact materials (e.g. containers,
labels, etc.) and can also be used in agriculture production such as
fertiliser. Melamine is a by-product of the coal industry.
It is a chemical compound with numerous industrial uses, including
the production of plastics, dishware, kitchenware, commercial filters,
laminates, adhesives, moulding compounds, coatings and flame retardants.
Whether this has a potential for carry over into food at low
concentrations and could further impact human health may need further
evaluation. Melamine alone is of low toxicity, however animal studies
have suggested that kidney problems occur when melamine is present in
combination with cyanuric acid, a potential impurity of melamine.
The level of melamine found in the contaminated infant formula has
been as high as 2560 mg per kg of ready-to-eat product, while the level
of cyanuric acid is unknown.
Following the incident in USA in 2007 where pet food was found to be
contaminated with melamine, the USA and the EU have established
provisional tolerable daily intake (TDI) for melamine. Based on an
interim safety/risk assessment on melamine and structural analogues the
USFDA has established a TDI of 0.63 mg per kg of body weight per day.
The European Food Safety Authority has recommended to apply and TDI
of 0.5 mg per kg of body weight per day. After the recent melamine milk
crisis in China, the Government of Hong Kong has determined the level of
melamine to be added to the human foods. Accordingly, 2.5 mg of melamine
can be to 1 kg of food for normal persons whereas only 1 mg can be added
to 1 kg of food for children below 3 years of age, pregnant women and
However, the international organisations and the countries should
monitor the usage of melamine in the food industry to avoid incidents.
Food additives: The need for control
The latest scandal in the world of food is melamine contamination.
Melamine is familiar as a sort of alternative to ceramics and one would
not associate the substance with food.
The problem surfaced in China, where four children have died as a
result of melamine poisoning. More than 6,000 children are still in
The culprit was milk powder containing melamine.
Melamine, when added to food in considerable quantities, boosts
protein readings thus giving an aura of added nutritional value. It has
already become a worldwide phenomenon, no longer limited to China.
Several products from Sri lanka are suspected to have contained melamine
while health authorities have asked grocers to withdraw 60 items said to
be containing the chemical.
The whole issue brings into focus the need for food standards. Only
permitted additives and colourings can be used, but is it being strictly
followed ? The worrying factor is that Sri Lanka still does not have a
proper mechanism to screen food imports. The Sri Lanka Standards
Institution (SLS) certification applies only to local products, but
inferior foreign products can be found at lower prices. There are also
no standards regarding print and television advertising.
Many bogus claims on food are made in these advertisements with no
proof at all. In the light of the melamine scare, shouldn’t there be
some control over food advertising ?
The melamine issue has also brought to the fore the importance of
quality control at all stages of food production. Educating the consumer
on these issues is also important.
We will dwell on these issues in the coming weeks in the Daily News
Debate page as we take up the topic Food Additives: The need for
control. Send in your contributions (containing 750-1,000 words) to
‘Daily News Debate’, Daily News, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon
Limited, PO Box 1217, Colombo, or via e-mail to [email protected]
before November 04, 2008.