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Impact of Processed Foods: Understanding additives, preservatives, and their potential effects on children

Impact of Processed Foods

The way we consume food has seen a drastic disruption over the turn of the 21st century. The basic raw and freshly prepared food has been significantly complemented and, in many cases, completely supplemented by heavily processed food. The complex delivery and distribution supply chains and the evolving consumption pattern of modern-day consumers require food items to last for longer durations, stay fresh and taste good as well. A quick look at your kitchen cabinets and inside the refrigerator and you would notice a barrage of food items that could last for days, sometimes months, and even years without losing even an iota of their freshness and taste. This has been achieved via food processing and a heavy dose of preservatives and chemicals in the foods that we consume. 

The addition of chemicals in our food has skyrocketed over the past decade or so. These chemicals serve a multitude of utilities such as making sure the food doesn’t go stale for longer durations, it tastes and looks fresh, doesn’t smell bad even after days, and sometimes purely for enhancing the look and texture of the food. Don’t we sometimes wonder how amazing restaurant food looks and tastes as compared to freshly cooked home food? If you do, then you have these chemicals and preservatives to credit. These chemicals, while serving a multitude of purposes, do add significant damage to our bodily system and functioning. This overdose of chemically processed food can have dire effects on the health and development of young and growing children.

When it comes to food processing, there are broadly four types of food additives: nutritional additives, processing agents, preservatives, and sensory agents. This article looks at what these are and what are the potential effects of food additives and preservatives on children.

Also Read: Foods That Increase Your Metabolism In Children

Nutritional Additives

As the name suggests these are additives which are added to foods to enhance their nutritional value. These additions are made either to make up for the deficiencies that might creep in during production, to enrich certain food items with dietary deficiencies, to forfeit certain harmful side effects, or to add nutrients to food substitutes. One of the most popular examples of nutritional additives was the addition of iodine to common salt to prevent the prevalence of goitre. Similarly, vitamins are frequently added to food items to enhance their nutritional value, especially for kids. For example, vitamins A and D are added to dairy and cereals to enhance their nutritional quotient, vitamin C is added to beverages and confectionery, and vitamin B is added to flour, cereals, baked products, etc. Other common nutritional additives are calcium, iron, fatty acids, minerals, and dietary fibre.

Processing Agents

Processing agents are ingredients that are added to food items to maintain a level of consistency in the food product. Some of the popular processing agents are

  • Emulsifiers: Used to maintain a uniform dispersion when two liquids are mixed, such as oil and water. Common applications of emulsifiers are ice cream (to prevent large ice crystal formation), mayonnaise (oil and water), and bakery products (to improve their volume, uniformity, and fineness) There have been reports that suggest that some of these emulsifiers can lead to obesity and even lead to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular and liver diseases.
  • Stabilisers: These serve the purpose of thickening the viscosity of the food items. Common examples of food items that use stabilisers are ice cream, margarine, dairy products, salad dressings and mayonnaise. These are starches, gums, or proteins such as gelatin. While there is limited conclusive evidence on their effects on children there are reports that suggest that excessive consumption of stabilisers can cause allergies like nausea, flatulence and bloating.
  • Anticaking: These are additives used to avoid lump formation in food items. A common example of anti caking additives usage is salt.
  • Chelating: These are additives that prevent food items from deteriorating during processing and storage. They are commonly used in canned food items, carbonated beverages, etc. These are generally safe for humans but can be damaging to the environment.

Preservatives

Preservatives serve the purpose of preventing spoilage of food over longer periods. Preservatives are of two types – antioxidants and antimicrobials. Antioxidants prevent the deterioration of food items by oxidative mechanisms. Antimicrobials prevent the formation of pathogens and microorganisms in food that can lead to spoilage.

Examples of antioxidants are ascorbic acid, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), citric acid, sulfites, tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), and tocopherols. While most antioxidants are approved by food regulation agencies, there have been studies that suggest possible implications including heart disease and certain cancers in case of excessive consumption of antioxidants.

Examples of Antimicrobials are acetic acid, benzoic acid, natamycin, nisin, nitrates, nitrites, propionic acid, sorbic acid, sulfites and sulphur dioxide. Antimicrobials provide no necessary nutritional benefits and excess consumption could cause hormonal dysfunction, developmental and reproductive effects, allergen sensitivity, and antibiotic resistance.

Also Read: 15 Best Healthy Foods For Blood Circulation

Sensory Agents

Sensory agents are added to enhance the sensory appeal of foods. Sensory agents are commonly used to enhance colour, odour, flavours, and sweeteners. Colourants could be natural and synthetic. Natural colourants are additives extracted from plant tissues. For example, the following are the popular natural colourants commonly used, and their source:

  • Red: from strawberries
  • Blue: from grapes
  • Red: from beetroot
  • Yellow: from saffron
  • Red: Paprika
  • Orange: Carrot
  • Red: Mushroom
  • Orange/Yellow: Turmeric

Also Read: What is the Difference Between Essential and Nonessential Nutrients

While natural colourants are largely safe, synthetic colourants have in some cases even been found to be carcinogenic. Similarly, in the case of flavourings and sweeteners, the natural forms are largely believed to be safe as long as used within approved limits. However, artificial forms of flavourings and sweeteners must be avoided as much as possible as they have been found to have possible side effects such as digestive issues, increased blood sugar levels, a higher risk of cancer, increased blood pressure and adverse effects on those with pre-existing mood disorders.

It is generally advisable to keep your diet as fresh and natural as possible. Processed food must be avoided as much as possible. While many additives and preservatives might be harmless as per the available studies, the possibilities of adverse effects on our unique bodily functions cannot be entirely discarded.



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