When buying food these days, some Chinese consumers are nervous at the mere mention of food additives.
Their concern is understandable given numerous incidents, from KFC's Sudan I (carcinogenic food coloring)-tainted food in 2005 to the Sanlu Group's melamine-contaminated infant milk powder and milk products (causing kidney stones) last year.
Caution is required, but extreme aversion is unnecessary. Consumers should inform themselves about additives, not eat too much of any one kind, eat a varied diet and go for fresh unprocessed food whenever possible. Some additives, of course, are necessary as preservatives or are beneficial, such as vitamins, calcium, lycopene, etc.
Most problems are caused by the misuse or overuse of food additives, or by the addition of non-food chemical products. Some are misused deliberately to make profit, others are misused out of negligence.
In China, a food additive is defined as any synthetic or natural substance used to improve the quality, color, fragrance, flavor of food, and used to add to the food or put together with the food for processing technology requirements.
Neither Sudan I nor melamine is a food additive. They are industrial additives, Guo Hongwei pointed out to Shanghai Daily. Guo is director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Hygiene, School of Public Health, Fudan University.
A common problem today is the misuse or overuse of flavor enhancers and coloring agents in so-called freshly squeezed fruit juice. A crackdown is underway by the State Food and Drug Administration.
"Long-term over-intake of coloring agents, for instance, may cause cancer," warned Jiang Peizhen in an interview with Shanghai Daily. Jiang is directing physician of the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sometimes there's too much additive although the producer follows regulations but does not know additives are already in raw materials.
For example, antiseptics must be used when producing canned foods. But some raw materials, such as soy sauce, may contain antiseptics. Adding more may be overuse.
Blame lies both with negligent food producers and lack of industrial guidelines and monitoring of food additives. Chinese regulations do not specify, for instance, the maximum allowed residue levels of food additives in raw materials.
"It is always suggested that they use as few kinds of food additives and as little of each food additive as possible," Fang Youzong told Shanghai Daily. He is a consultant and directing physician of the Shanghai Food Production Administration.
Research into compound food additives lags far behind the development of the food industry, and the effects of many compound additives are not yet clearly known, Fang said.
The situation is improving.
The new Food Safety Law effective June 1 calls for a nationwide mechanism to assess food safety risks of a biological, chemical and physical nature. Scientific methods and other relevant information will be used. This will take time.
On the other hand, it's unrealistic to expect to live without food additives. "Without food additives, there would be no food industry," said Fang.
Many kinds of food, like fruit-flavored drinks and biscuits might not exist without food additives and preservation of food would become difficult.
Food quality expert Yu Yuqin gives an example. He is a certified HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) auditor.
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is a good sugar substitute for diabetics. As its main ingredient is one of the 18 essential amino acids, it does not raise the glycemic index. And it tastes much sweeter than sugar.
Generally, as long as appropriate food additives are used in line with laws and regulations, they're safe to the human body, Jiang Peizhen noted. "Each allowed food additive has passed safety assessment," she said. Today there are over 1,500 permitted food additives in 22 categories, she said.
Their allowable uses and maximum levels are listed in the Hygienic Standards for Uses of Food Additives, 2007.
Consumers should inform themselves about food additives. For example, when choosing food, be cautious if the products take on an unnatural glow.
(Shanghai Daily April 10, 2009)