Much of the food on our supermarket shelves contains food additives to make it look, smell and taste better, or last longer, as well as to aid in processing. If you read the label of your average food product you'll find among the ingredients preservatives, flavour enhancers, thickening agents and food colourings. Some unexpected ingredients don't even end up on the label: pesticides, antibiotics and hormones can be found even in apparently unprocessed foods. With animal products hormones are used to encourage growth or maximise milk production, and animals are often liberally dosed with antibiotics to protect their health. Pesticides and fertilisers meanwhile, are widely used to protect crops and boost production. But are these added 'extras' dangerous, and if so, what can you do about them?
Additives to avoid
The first thing to say is that there's no need to fly into a mad panic about food additives in pregnancy, most women don't change their diet that much during pregnancy and most have perfectly normal, healthy babies. However, while all the ingredients in your average supermarket product will have been declared safe to use in food by EU law, much depends on available research and where lawmakers decide to draw the safety line: what's listed as safe in the EU may be banned in the US or elsewhere in the world, and vice versa. What's more, the list is revisited as fresh research is conducted, and sometimes additives previously considered to be safe are then banned.
While no legally allowed additive in the UK has been proven to have a damaging effect on developing babies, there are question marks over some additives and several that have been linked to allergic reactions. So there are certain additives that it makes sense to avoid to be on the safe side, particularly during pregnancy when you're more susceptible to allergens.
- MSG (Monosodium glutamate) - A flavour enhancer most commonly found in Chinese and also Japanese foods, it also crops up on the ingredients list of some stocks, sauces and many brands of crisps. It can cause headache and stomach upsets to those with an MSG sensitivity and is high in sodium. Studies in mice have shown evidence of MSG passing through the placenta and damaging brain development, but there's no research suggesting that the same applies to human fetal development. However, as MSG isn't needed for safety or nutritional purposes it makes sense to avoid it if possible.
- Some artificial food colourings – Research has suggested a link between artificial food colourings and hyperactivity in children and several artificial food colourings have been linked to allergic intolerances - although there's not yet enough evidence to convince the Food Standards Agency to review the safety of food colourings currently allowed. Ones to look out for include Quinoline Yellow (E104), Cochineal (E120), Indigo Carmine (E132), Green S (E142), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red AC (E129), Erythrosine (E127), Patent Blue V (E131) and Tartrazine (E102).
- Saccharin – An artificial sweetener found in many soft and fizzy drinks, saccharine passes through the body undigested. The sweetener also passes through the placenta to the baby and may accumulate in the baby's bladder. Animal tests have shown higher incidences of cancer in the babies of mothers who had saccharin in their diet. There isn't a great deal of research available on the effect of the use of artificial sweeteners by pregnant humans, but it is generally thought that aspartame, rather than saccharine, is the safer sweetener. That said, the more you avoid artificial sweeteners in general during pregnancy, the better.
- Olestra (Olean) – A fat substitute created by mixing sugar and vegetable oil and which passes through the body undigested. It's found in low-fat and fat-free products. The additive has been shown to suppress the absorption of some nutrients (particularly beta carotene and lypocene) and deplete the body's store of certain vitamins (A, D, E and K). As pregnancy is a time when you need to maximise your intake of nutrients it makes sense to avoid this relatively new and untested additive.
Useful tips to regulate your consumption
Check the label - The most obvious way to avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful additives is to check the label and avoid products with any of the ingredients listed above, or those with many additives. Bear in mind that even apparently unprocessed food may contain additives, such as food colourings added to raw meat.
Be shop-wise - Knowing a supermarket's policy on additives can save you a lot of time label-browsing. In July 2005 the Co-op became the first supermarket chain to ban the inclusion of MSG in its own-label products and it also added a further 12 artificial colours to its banned list, bringing the total to 21. The offending ingredients were either replaced with natural additives or the products were phased out. It's worth finding out what the policy is at your local supermarket.
Eat higher up the food chain - The more processed a food is, the more likely it is to have more additives so diets that are high in processed foods are generally higher in additive consumption. Eating fresh produce and avoiding pre-prepared meals will help you avoid many unnecessary added extras.
Eat a varied diet - Try to get a balanced diet and spread consumption through food groups to avoid a too-high intake of any one ingredient or additive.
Naturally sweet - While you want to make sure that you don't have an overly high sugar intake in pregnancy, taking in calories from natural forms of sugar is preferable to sugar substitutes. If you have a sweet tooth try sweetening with honey or malt sugars and cut back rather than substitute with artificial substitutes.
Wash produce - Wash fresh produce well to ensure that pesticides and fertilisers that they may have been sprayed with are removed as much as possible. Chemicals often concentrate in the core of fruit and veg, so cut the ends of carrots and remove the stem join from tomatoes and other fruit.
Cut off the fat - Apart from being the least healthy part of an animal, the chemicals in animal diets often concentrate in the fat, so cut the fat off meat cuts before cooking.
Consider going organic - Organically produced fresh produce and meats are one way of avoiding exposure to chemicals as organically reared animals can only be fed 100% organic feed and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic farming methods of produce are designed to minimise contamination from pollutants in the growing environment. You should still wash organic produce carefully before eating.
What about processed organic foods? - It's important to be aware that only processed foods labelled as 100% organic are guaranteed to be 100% organic. Foods labelled simply as 'organic' must be 95% organic but are allowed up to 5% of non-organic added ingredients, such as additives. However, organic foods are still a more sensible choice for avoiding additives, as they generally contain lower levels of additives than non-organic products. What's more, whereas around 500 additives are approved for general consumption in products, only 29 additives are permitted by Europe's organic food regulations.