Hypersensitivity to food additives
Food additives are substances added to food and drinks to improve their safety and shelf life, or add colour, flavour, stability and sweetness. In the European Union, food additives are identified by E-numbers.
E-numbers are always included in the ingredient lists of foods and drinks in which they are used and their function has to be defined (e.g. sweetener, colourant, preservative). Additives can be of natural or synthetic origin.
All potential food additives must pass a rigorous scrutiny by the European Food Safety Authority for their possible negative effects on human health. Only then are they considered safe and allowed to be used in food and drinks.
However, studies present evidence that challenges the safety of food additives and show that they can cause allergic reaction and sensitivities, as well as contribute to diseases such as obesity.
Types of food additives
Sulphites and sulphiting agents
Sodium and potassium sulphite, metabisulphite, bisulphites and sulphur dioxide (E220-E228) are used widely in food, drinks and medications mainly as preservatives (to reduce the growth of bacteria and fungi) and colour stabilisers (to protect from browning).
Sulphites are cheap and versatile since they can serve more than one purpose. They can be found in wine, beer, dried fruits and vegetables, pickled onions, sauces, relishes, bottled soft drinks and cordials, as well as medications and cosmetics.
Exposure to sulphites has been shown to lead to different negative effects in sensitive individuals, from dermatitis (e.g. eczema), flushing, hives, abdominal pain and diarrhoea to life-threatening anaphylactic and asthmatic reactions.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG (E621) is a flavour enhancer (known as China salt) present in many processed foods. In 1968, MSG was linked to the well-known ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ characterised by numbness or burning in the face, neck and upper chest.
Studies have shown that MSG can aggravate unstable asthma and also worsen persistent hives (chronic idiopathic urticaria). MSG has also been linked to obesity as well as having a toxic effect on the nervous system and the reproductive organs.
Aspartame (E951) is an artificial sweetener present in many sugar-free products such as diet drinks, as well as vitamin supplements and medications. It is 180 times as sweet as sugar.
Aspartame has been the subject of several controversies since its approval. Numerous studies have demonstrated its negative effect on human health.
It has been reported that aspartame has caused neurological and behavioural symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, and mood alterations, as well as allergic reactions manifested by gastrointestinal and dermatologic symptoms.
Aspartame consumption has been shown to have negative effect on gut microbiota (friendly microorganisms) and has been linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression.
Many scientists think that the approval of aspartame use should be reconsidered.
Lecithin (E322) is an emulsifier extracted from egg, soy, rapeseed and sunflower seeds.
Lecithin may cause adverse reactions in people sensitive or allergic to the proteins found in the foods lecithin is extracted from as their traces may be still present.
Colours are added to food, beverages, cosmetics and medications for colour enhancement or improvement.
They have been found to cause many adverse reactions. Carmine, a natural red dye has led to recurrent intermittent bouts of dermatitis, asthma and anaphylaxis in adults.
Tartrazine, a lemon yellow food colouring has been frequently linked to persistent hives of unknown cause and atopic eczema. Additionally, tartrazine was found to cause irritability, restlessness and sleep disturbances in children.
Food colours and hyperactive children
In 2007, a group of British scientists published a study showing that a mixture of synthetic food colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8- to 9-year-old children in the general population.
The level of colours and preservative in the experiment was comparable to the level children could consume in real life in brightly coloured sweets or soft drinks.
In 2008, the EFSA assessed the study results. It was concluded that the study findings cannot be used to change acceptable daily intake of these food colours or sodium benzoate. The colours used in the experimental drinks included:
- Tartrazine (E102);
- Quinoline Yellow (E104);
- Sunset Yellow FCF (E110);
- Ponceau 4R (E124);
- Allura Red AC (E129);
- Carmoisine (E122);
- and sodium benzoate (E211) as preservative.
- Andreozzi, L, Giannetti, A, Cipriani, F, Caffarelli, C, Mastrorilli, C, Ricci G. (2019) Hypersensitivity reactions to food and drug additives: problem or myth?
- The EFSA Journal (2008) Assessment of the results of the study by McCann et al. (2007) on the effect of some colours and sodium benzoate on children’s behaviour  – Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Food Contact Materials (AFC)
- McCann, D., et al. (2007) Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial