Food additives were introduced in the early 20th century to meet the demands of food manufacturers who wanted their products to last longer, look better or taste better.
According to the definition of the European Food Authority (EFSA), "food additives are substances intentionally added to food to perform certain technological functions, for example to color, sweeten or help preserve the food". In the European Union, all food additives are identified with an E followed by a number. Food additives must be included in the list of ingredients of the foods in which they are used. The most common additives that appear on food labels are antioxidants (to prevent spoilage caused by oxidation), colors, emulsifiers, stabilizers, gelling and thickening agents, preservatives, and sweeteners.
Food additives were introduced in the early 20th century to meet the demands of food manufacturers who wanted their products to last longer, look better or taste better. As Deborah Bloom, author of The Poison Squad , recalls , chalk was added to bread, borax to various foods, strychnine to make beer more bitter, and formaldehyde to milk and meat to preserve them! Consumers, writes Deborah Blum, believe that food comes to them directly from farms, pure and unadulterated. Unfortunately, this was not true at all.
In 1903, a chemist named Harvey Wiley, commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture, published the first report on the health effects of supplements commonly used in North America and Europe. For this purpose, he had volunteers swallow these substances. They got very sick. Wiley concludes that borax, boric acid, salicylic acid, benzoic acid, benzoates, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, and sulfates are dangerous when added to foods. The US food industry tried to smear Wiley before paying parliamentarians to legalize the substances in question, but to no avail. Food regains its naturalness, but only for a while.
"The use of additives," explains Prof. Jean-François Narbon, toxicologist, became widespread again after the war, along with the ever-increasing processing of food. »
This is the beginning of the management of ultra-processed foods (UTF). The deconstruction (cracking) and reassembly of these TUEs results in a degradation of textures and flavors that must be compensated for. We also look for the longest possible storage and, of course, minimum costs: additives allow to reduce the quantities of more expensive natural ingredients.
" In this way, a whole chemical arsenal belonging to different chemical families is made available to the food industry ," says Professor Narbonne, whether it is colourants, preservatives, antioxidants, texture, anti-caking agents, flavor enhancers or sweeteners. »
Today, the presence of additives in a product signals that it is an ultra-processed food , the consumption of which is associated with a higher risk of chronic diseases.
Here are the important takeaways from this new study:
However, the authors caution that these data underestimate the actual consumption of supplements by the French, given that the NutriNet-Santé cohort rather recruited people concerned about their health and the quality of their diet.
In fact, data previously published by EFSA suggest that for modified starches, i.e. family of supplements consumed the most by study participants (91.48%), consumption would average 112 mg per kg of body weight, while in the NutriNet-Santé cohort it amounted to 24 mg per kg of body weight.
These studies raise other questions. For example: Is the acceptable daily intake (ADI) sufficient to determine the safety of the substance used, given the amount and variety of additives consumed daily by consumers of ultra-processed foods? Probably not. Indeed, according to Dr. Anne-Laure Denans, LaNutrition team author of the New Guide to Additives, “a cocktail effect occurs when related chemicals produce a toxic effect on the body at doses where each would normally be taken harmlessly individually ."
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For the New Guide to Supplements, a team of scientific journalists from LaNutrition.fr, which is already at the heart of Good Choice in the supermarket, collected over several months the scientific and toxicological data on supplements under the guidance of Dr. Anne-Laure Denance. Unprecedented work on synthesis and popularization, which made it possible to classify these substances into 4 categories.
The book visually classifies 338 supplements into four categories based on the latest scientific research:
Results: 90 add-ons "cause problems". While their occasional low-dose consumption is unlikely to be risky, the editors advise against regular consumption or high-dose consumption. They could then lead to problems that have been identified in experimental studies (in vitro, in animals) or in humans, such as: behavioral disorders; cell damage; change in gut flora, even cancer and cardiovascular disease.
To read: The list of additives allowed in Europe, classified according to their level of risk (Subscriber)
Among the questionable substances:
Experimental studies on the most consumed nutritional supplements show that some of them pose a potential health risk.
Product labels must identify both the function of the additive in the finished food (e.g. colouring, preservative) and the specific substance used by referring to either the E number that designates it or its name (e.g. E 415 or xanthan rubber ). In recent years we have noticed that mentions in the form of E tend to disappear, replaced by the names of the supplements themselves, probably because the manufacturers know that the user is warier of the E than the name of the supplement, especially if it looks like something famous ( monoglyceride of fatty acid for example).
Additives are an integral part of processed and ultra-processed foods. Since the 1960s, with the development of the food industry and its food processing techniques, but also due to the distance between the places where food is produced and where it is consumed, supplements have experienced a real boom. The more processed a food is, the higher its additive content will be. This is probably the first rule to apply: if you don't want to encounter additives, avoid ultra-processed foods!