The safety of food additives in pregnancy is a bit controversial, as you will find from a quick internet search of the topic. While most people agree everyone’s health improves by limiting foods with additives because the quality of nutrition improves, not everyone agrees that foods using additives need to be avoided. Finding out where you fit in the spectrum of opinions will help you decide what additives, if any, you want to use.
What are food additives?
Additives are ingredients used in most commercially prepared foods and some home prepared foods. That’s because an additive is, by definition, any substance added to food. When you use baking soda, salt, or sugar, you are using food additives. Some additives help to prevent food from spoiling. Others help to avoid the growth of bacteria that can cause illness. Some additives help to prevent color and flavor changes in foods. By expanding the storage life of many foods, additives have made it possible for large quantities of foods to be distributed throughout the world.
Additives can also improve the nutritional value of a food. For example, adding iodine (a substance necessary for thyroid health) to table salt has helped prevent goiters in parts of the world with low levels of iodine in their local diet. Adding folic acid to some grain products like bread and cereals has helped ensure women get adequate folic acid in their diet to prevent neural tube defects. Fortifying foods with wide appeal can also help individuals on restricted medical diets achieve balanced nutrition.
Are food additives safe?
Sometimes, simple sounding questions have complex answers. The safety of food additives has a complex answer because “food additives” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of substances that do many different things.
Most people are not going to be concerned about the fortification of foods with vitamins and minerals, in fact many people choose to fortify their diets with multivitamin supplements. I grew up in a family that preserved foods at home, so I know that even home preservation of foods often requires additions of salt, sugar, and ascorbic acid depending on the preservation method. This makes me less nervous about finding terms like ascorbic acid on the ingredients list of foods like apple sauce; I know it is added to prevent discoloration and that it is just like dipping my sliced apples in lemon juice to prevent browning. As home cooking techniques have changed over time families have become more comfortable with “mystery” ingredients like xantham gum, a thickener that is now common in home gluten-free baking.
But not every food additive is familiar to home cooks. This leads to increased demand for information about food additive safety. Food additive safety falls under the category of environmental health, a very difficult realm of research. One difficulty lies in the problem of determining how much of anything an individual is exposed to. For example, if a particular substance used in a food is under study, you have a few options for determining who actually ate food. If you survey households, you may be able to determine what households purchased the food, but are not guaranteed to know who in the house consumed the food. If you get a list of who in the household consumed the food, you may not be able to determine how much of the food each individual ate…and this leads to the second difficulty.
The second difficulty is understanding what type of effect to expect if a food additive is unsafe. Except in instances of allergies or food triggers of chronic conditions (like chocolate and migraines), most problems with food additives are likely to be over time. There may be problems only when a person eats a large amount of a particular additive; or a person may have more symptoms when they eat more of the additive. Or, there may be a build up to over time, so a person has problems after years of eating a particular food additive.. Or, the woman may not feel any symptoms, but the additive may have effects on the rapidly dividing cells of the unborn child.
Despite the difficulty in determining risks and safety of food additives, researchers continually try to work out answers. In the United States, it is the Food and Drug Administration that is responsible for ensuring the safety of food additives. In 1958, all food additives in use at that time were placed on the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list, since they had been used for such a long time. To remove a food from this list, the FDA must prove it is unsafe.
For a new food to be added to the list, the manufacturer must supply information such as its chemical composition, how it is manufactured, how to measure its presence in food and proof that it actually accomplishes what it is intended to accomplish. The FDA tests new additives in at least two animal species to determine the highest dose that produces no observable effects—a dose that is much larger than what humans are exposed to. The maximum dose is then divided by at least 100 to set the safe intake level for humans; the FDA believes humans are at least 10 times more sensitive to food additives than the laboratory animals. Dividing by 100 allows for a range of sensitivities to additives in humans. If the additive is shown to cause cancer at any dose, it is not allowed (although there have been a few exceptions).
Even though acceptable levels must be established before a product is used, some people show sensitivity or allergies to certain additives. Some people complain of headaches, fatigue and other symptoms when using additives that are triggers for them. These sensitivities may be heightened during pregnancy. Also, specific testing on the safety of food additives during pregnancy is rarely done, so although the additives appear safe for the general public, some families feel uncomfortable eating foods with additives.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that everyone avoid some additives: sodium nitrite, saccharin, caffeine, olestra, acesulfame K, and artificial coloring. According to CSPI, these are the most questionable additives and tend to be used in foods that add little to your overall nutrition. They also advise people to pay attention to sugar and salt, the two most common additives which may pose the most danger since they are so heavily used.
Some people rely on food additives to maintain a healthy diet. Artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers and fat replacements allow people with specific dietary limitations, such as diabetics or those requiring a low-fat diet, to enjoy a wide range of foods. Avoiding food additives in these situations requires learning new eating strategies, this is not always possible during the short 40 weeks of pregnancy.
If you are not working with a medically restricted diet, limiting your food additive intake may be better for your health than you think. One of the best ways to eat less additives is to prepare your own food from the freshest ingredients possible. This allows you to control everything that goes into a food, including the salt, sugar, extra fats and any extra protein you may wish to add. This can have a significant impact on the overall nutritional intake of the food you eat.
However, some families find it difficult to prepare every meal at home. Other families need food strategies that allow for frequent room temperature storage of foods for lunch or dinner while traveling. If you find yourself in this situation, you may find an exploratory trip to your local market helpful. Learn to read the ingredient lists and nutrition labels on prepared foods. This will allow you to compare shelf-stable foods for both overall nutrition and additive content. Be sure to pay attention to the nutritional value of potential alternatives. For example many basic potato chips are only potatoes, salt and oil; however they add no nutritional value to your diet.