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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 allergy.

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 every day.

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 of protection.

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 food.

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 succumb?

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 children.

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 age.

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 levels.

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 lactating mothers.

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 hospital.

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.


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