Chemicals in food and packaging can be potentially harmful
When you order takeaway food, whip up a quick meal from the canned food in your pantry or opt for a frozen dinner, you may be exposing yourself to potentially harmful chemicals.
Over the years, more and more chemicals have been added to food and its packaging to make it last longer or look better.
Some chemicals are put directly in foods, others indirectly. The latter include chemicals from plastic, glue, dye, paper, cardboard and different types of coatings used for processing and packaging.
Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a medical organisation representing more than 60,000 paediatricians in the United States, recommended that parents and children avoid certain chemicals found in food colourings, preservatives and packaging as these may harm children's health.
An increasing number of studies suggest some food additives can interfere with a child's hormones, growth and development, it said in a policy statement.
Possible side effects include thyroid hormone disruption, endocrine disruption that involves mimicking oestrogen and blocking testosterone, brain development effects, increased risk of childhood obesity and decreased birth weight.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chemicals added to foods because they eat more per pound than adults, and their developing organ systems may be susceptible," said the AAP, which also called for the US government to adjust its methods of deeming substances to be safe.
As Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food, the same concerns on the impact of chemicals would apply here, according to Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University's food science and technology programme.
"The chances of a child falling ill from exposure to such chemicals need to be investigated," he said.
But the risk is there, until proven otherwise, particularly considering the widespread use of plastics and the non-acute late onset nature of most metabolic and endocrine diseases, he said.
Dr James Huang, an associate consultant at the division of paediatric gastroenterology, nutrition and hepatology at the National University Hospital, said extensive research has shown that diet heavily influences the type of bacteria in people's intestines, and the latter in turn is associated with various diseases, from obesity to diabetes mellitus to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
"Of note, IBD, an autoimmune condition causing chronic inflammation and ulcers in the gastrointestinal system, was once rare in Asian populations, but is now sharply rising in incidence in both adults and children," he said.
"Evidence suggests this trend may be due to a rise in consumption of a 'New World' diet - one that is high in saturated fat, processed foods and food additives, leading to changes in one's intestinal bacterial flora."
For instance, commonly used food emulsifiers in beverages, whipped cream and ice cream products have been shown to induce gut inflammation in mice, Dr Huang pointed out. "We generally advise our paediatric patients with IBD to limit intake of processed foods as far as possible," he said.
STAY INFORMED AND BE CALM
Prof Chen added: "Chemicals are cheap and added to keep food fresh longer. The intention is good."
For example, chemical preservatives are used to fight microbe contamination and oxidation.
"Otherwise, consumers won't buy the food as it would perish faster and look less pleasant. Just imagine a cut apple - if you leave it there, it will turn brown from oxidation."
The problem is that these chemicals may be converted to free radicals in the body, which may harm our health, he said.
Having said that, the body can remove these chemicals as they are not meant to stay in it.
"The amount of chemicals found in food is relatively low, so our body should be able to remove them. This is why people don't fall sick immediately from eating processed foods," said Prof Chen.
"But if you eat instant noodles twice a day every day for, say, more than six months, then of course, you are exposing yourself to more harmful chemicals and your body may not be able to cope with the process of clearing out the chemicals."
The risk of harmful chemicals corresponds with the amount absorbed. This is why nitrates and nitrites are the chemicals of the most concern, as these are added directly in food as preservatives.
With food packaging, the issue is that with time, there is the risk of the chemicals in the packaging migrating into the food, said Prof Chen.
Still, there is little cause for alarm.
"When you buy fast food like a burger, you usually eat it almost immediately so there is very little risk of the chemicals migrating into the food."
At the end of the day, consumers need not be unduly worried about the harmful chemicals in food and food packaging, as these can be managed, said Prof Chen.
"We can't do away with the chemicals in food and food packaging because they are everywhere and a reflection of urbanisation and industrialisation," he said. "They make our lives easier. If not, we will have to go back to the Stone Age."
The key is to make informed choices in food and food packaging.
Besides, in Singapore, only food additives that have passed the safety assessments of the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) will be permitted for use in food products, said its spokesman.
The AVA also conducts surveillance, involving the sampling and testing of pre-packaged food and food-contact articles, to ensure that additives and packaging used and food contact articles comply with its safety requirements.
"It is difficult to quantify the degree of harm each type of food additive causes; the general advice would be to be aware of the risks these food additives can cause and to take such processed foods in moderation," said Dr Huang.
"Parents should make an effort to increase the serving of fresh fruit and/or vegetables for their children; frozen food is preferred to preserved or canned food."
Apart from eating less processed food and using less packaging, there are solutions such as using biodegradable disposable packaging like plates made from corn starch and replacing chemical preservatives with natural food preservatives, Prof Chen said.
He and his team have discovered a natural preservative that keeps food fresh for at least eight times longer than artificial preservatives, and at roughly the same cost. They hope to get the product on the market within two years.
He added: "It is all about striking a balance in the choices we made because, if you think about it, with fresh food, there is also the risk of bacterial contamination."
FROZEN VS HOME-MADE
If you fancy a chicken burger at home, is it cheaper to make one using a frozen patty or a homemade one?
A quick search on online supermarkets shows that a frozen patty can cost between $3 and $5, while it would cost about $5.60 to make one from scratch, said Ms Fiona Chia, director of nutrition consultancy Health Can Be Fun.
"Mass production has helped to lower food cost. It is effective to save cost by buying food in bulk," she said.
"The disadvantage is that these foods have gone through so much processing that most of the nutrients would have been lost during the manufacturing process."
Hence, chemicals are then added to the food to keep the taste and nutrient value similar to the original food product, said Ms Chia.
These added ingredients may not necessary benefit our health much.
It is best to consume foods that are high in fibre, rich in vitamins and minerals, and to have a balance of proteins and carbohydrates, said Ms Chia.
"It is alright to have chicken nuggets, but relying on these as staples and forgoing fruits and vegetables will not teach our children about healthier eating habits," said Ms Chia.
Also, there are so-called healthier alternatives to chicken nuggets, but these "healthier versions" would also contain saturated fat if they are made from very fatty cuts.
Making a chicken patty from scratch allows you to choose the cuts of meat as well as control the type of oil used, which can help to increase the nutrient quality of the food, Ms Chia advised.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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