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New fears over E211 additive in fizzy drinks (Independent on Sunday)

May 27th, 2007 · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

E211 Revealed: Evidence highlights new fear over drinks additive

The row over artificial preservatives and flavourings in our foodstuffs has raged long and hard. Now the ‘IoS’ discloses how one substance may cause damage similar to alcohol abuse. Martin Hickman reports
Published: 27 May 2007

Like most other children, Lee Buniak enjoys swimming, basketball, burgers and, of course, fizzy drinks. But just one of those drinks can make him disruptive and aggressive, says his mother, Helen.

After having a soft drink, Lee, nine, from Waltham Forest, east London, can also suffer from headaches and occasionally develops itchy rashes on his body.

For years, his mother took him to all sorts of experts, without success. Finally, one suggested she stop allowing him fizzy drinks or sweets with E-numbers in them. The improvement was remarkable.

Lee is one of an estimated one million children in Britain who suffer reactions from behavioural problems to physical illness when they consume anything containing E-numbers.

The Independent on Sunday’s revelations focus on another potential side-effect of soft drinks and one that may have much longer-term implications.

The substance is known as E211, or sodium benzoate, and the findings of Professor Peter Piper, from Sheffield University, represent another challenge to the already blemished reputation of food additives.

New studies have emerged over the past few years that call into question whether E-numbers approved for use in Europe are as harmless as regulators and the food industry suggest.

The most famous of them all is probably E621 – monosodium glutamate, the “flavour enhancer” found in many takeaways and pasties.

In all, the EU sanctions 395 additives: 71 thickeners and emulsifiers, 64 colours, 54 preservatives, 54 antioxidants, 54 anti-caking agents and acidity regulators, 52 miscellaneous, 27 additional chemicals, and 19 flavour enhancers.

Some additives are just innocuous everyday things such as E601 (vitamin B2) and E901 (beeswax), but others have properties that alarm university professors.

Perhaps the most controversial are the “azo dyes”, a series of vivid yellow and orange colourings that give a lurid colour to fruit squash, fizzy drinks, sweets, jelly, cakes and other foods often eaten by children. The best-known azo dyes are sunset yellow (E110), quinoline (E104), and tartrazine (E102).

Professor Piper’s research touches on a common preservative, sodium benzoate, which is found in everything from Fanta to barbecue sauce.

For some time, there have been fears about the ability of sodium benzoate to form benzene (a carcinogenic chemical) when it reacts with another preservative in soft drinks, ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

When the Food Standards Agency (FSA) checked 150 soft drinks in March 2006, it found that, though undetectable in many samples, some drinks had up to three times the benzene level permitted by the World Health Organisation.

The FSA said levels in general were low; but it advised manufacturers to withdraw four products, and for the industry to be vigilant on benzene.

Like Professor Piper, Professor Vyvyan Howard, professor of bio-imaging at the University of Ulster, questions the practice of approving additives for use that have been tested alone. But in 2005, Professor Howard led a Liverpool University study that showed that, when combined, some additives in crisps and fizzy drinks had seven times the effect they had singly.

“No one really knows what this chemical cocktail could be doing, particularly in the early stages of development. This cocktail is far too complex,” said Professor Howard, who personally avoids eating anything with E-numbers.

Another study, conducted by the University of Southampton in 2004, had even more alarming findings for parents. Researchers gave 277 3- and 4-year-olds on the Isle of Wight either a placebo drink or a drink containing additives. Their parents, who did not know what their child had been given, were asked to rate their child’s hyperactivity. The number of children showing extreme hyperactivity on the additive-free diet was more than halved, falling from 15 to 6 per cent.

The FSA has commissioned a further study from the Southampton team which may provide conclusive evidence about the link between hyperactivity and additives.

Both the studies looked at six colourings: tartrazine (E102), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red AC (E129). There was also one preservative in the study: sodium benzoate.

According to Professor Piper, sodium benzoate has a destructive effect on living cells, destroying the DNA in the mitochondria. In essence, his laboratory tests on yeast cells suggest that such preservatives generate free radicals which, in turn, damage cells. This oxidative damage, he says, is the kind of done by ageing and by alcoholic binges. Professor Piper is disappointed at what he sees as a “complacency” among the soft-drinks industry over the potential dangers of additives.

He believes the industry has been relying on safety tests that are old and incomplete and has chosen to prioritise other research in other areas. “If they do any basic research, it’s more into whether it tastes good rather than trying to reduce additives and make it more natural.”

He stressed that he was not saying that sodium benzoate was unsafe, but that the food industry could not state with certainty that it was safe. “We are feeding vast amounts of them to children inadvertently. Is this a completely safe process? This is what we have to worry about.”

Drinks manufacturers point out that sodium benzoate has been approved for use by regulators. A spokesman for Britvic, which makes Pepsi Max in the UK, said: “Obviously, like other soft-drinks manufacturers, we will only use additives that are thoroughly tested and approved for use in this country by both the FSA and the EU.”

Coke contains no sodium benzoate, but it is found in many of Coca-Cola’s other brands such as Oasis, Dr Pepper and Sprite.

A spokesman for Coca-Cola said: “We use preservatives in some of our products – particularly those that include fruit – to ensure that they remain unspoiled throughout their shelf life, whether people are able to store them in a fridge or not.

“All our ingredients have been approved as safe by the food regulatory authorities in Britain and the EU and that is where we take our guidance from.”

The British Soft Drinks Association described the safety of additives as “an area” for the Food Standards Agency.

The FSA said additives had been approved by the European Commission. “Sodium benzoate and benzoic acid are approved for food use,” the FSA said in a statement. “Food additives are only permitted for use after a long and careful process of evaluation. This includes rigorous assessments for safety, undertaken by independent scientific committees.”

Nonetheless, manufacturers and retailers have begun to remove additives from food and drinks. Sainsbury’s will have removed almost all artificial colourings, flavourings and benzoate preservatives by the end of June. Marks & Spencer will phase out additives by the end of this year. And Asda will do the same for its own-brand products by the end of 2007.

Despite maintaining that there is no safety risk, the soft-drinks manufacturers are also responding to public and especially parental concern.

Britvic, which issued the statement above, has taken sodium benzoate out of several drinks aimed at children, such as Fruit Shoots and some of its Robinson’s range. Its website says it recognises parental concern about sodium benzoate, will not use it in new products and intends to remove it from other products “where possible”.

Richard Watts, of the Children’s Food Campaign, said: “We have been told for some time now that parents should not be concerned about preservatives in soft drinks, but we keep on hearing of new concerns. These concerns will not go away until there is an authoritative study of the risks.”

Helen Buniak agrees. “I think the Government has to bring in a blanket ban on these E-numbers, such as sodium benzoate.”

The chemicals in our food and drink, and what they can do to us

E102

Tartrazine: colouring.

Can provoke asthma attacks and has links to thyroid tumours. Colours soft drinks.

E104

Quinoline yellow: colouring.

Used in a wide range of medications but can cause dermatitis. Banned in US and Norway.

E110

Sunset yellow FCR: colouring.

Side effects are hives, kidney tumours, nausea and vomiting.

E122

Carmoisine: colouring.

Derives from coal tar. Can cause bad reactions in asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin.

E124

Ponceau 4R: colouring.

Carcinogen in animals, can produce bad reaction in asthmatics.

E407

Carrageenan: thickener.

Fibre extracted from seaweed, recently linked to cancer.

E412

Guar gum: thickener.

Derived from seeds fed to cattle in the US. Can cause nausea.

E621

Monosodium glutamate (MSG): flavouring.

Flavour enhancer found in many canned foods. Not permitted in foods for young children. Adverse effects appear in some asthmatic people.

E622

Monopotassium glutamate: flavouring.

Can cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps.

E635

Disodium 5-ribonucleotide: flavouring.

Associated with itchy skin rashes up to 30 hours after ingestion. Often found in instant noodles and party pies.

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