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Guarding against Nigeria’s deadly food additives

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Food additives are chemical substances added to food to enhance and improve its flavour, texture, colour, appearance, taste, consistency and other qualities of concern during production or processing depending on the food type. Food additives can be grouped based on their functions into acids, acid regulators, anticaking agents, antifoaming agents, bulking agents, antioxidants, food colourings, colour retention agents, emulsifiers, flavours, flavour enhancers, flour treatment agents, glazing agents, humectants, tracer gas, preservatives, stabilizers, sweeteners, caffeine and other GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). While some of these provide nutritional benefits or improve food safety, others are known to pose potential health risks and cause serious harm to human body when taken in large doses. Good additives can be harmful or harmless depending on the quantity used for production or processing and the potential risks that could follow.

For the purpose of this write-up, attention will however be centred on flour treatment agents (e.g. Potassium bromate) and Sweeteners (e.g. Saccharin) used as additives in the baking industries. Flour treatment agents are used to increase the speed of dough (a thick malleable substance obtained by mixing flour with other ingredients) rising and to improve its strength and texture. Enzymes, yeast and mineral salts are dough conditioners added to improve dough strength. Flour bleaching agents are added to flour to develop gluten (a protein found in wheat responsible for elastic texture of dough and helps to glue food together) and also make flour appear whiter because freshly milled flour is yellowish. Oxidising agents, reducing agents and emulsifiers are other good conditioners used in baking.

Among other food additives, potassium bromate, an oxidiser used for strengthening and enhancing the elasticity of dough is commonly used because it is cheaper and readily available than other additives. Potassium bromate comes in white crystals or powder. The use of potassium bromate in flour milling and baking in Nigeria was banned and removed from list of permitted food additives in the early 90’s because toxicology study revealed that it can cause cough and sore throat when inhaled. Among other health hazards, high dose consumption of bromate may lead to kidney damage as it is said to be a carcinogenic toxin too. Despite this ban, some baking industries still use this toxin called bromate as additives. It is also proven that some sandwich bread, burger, snack chips and pizza may contain potassium bromate. Food improvers and flour treatment agents approved by law that can serve as healthy alternatives or substitutes or alternatives to potassium bromate include Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), glucose, ammonium persulphate, ammonium chloride and amylases. Some experts argue that the baking process changes harmful potassium bromate to harmless Potassium bromide leaving no trace in the finished product but a residual amount of the bromate still remains if not baked long enough and if too much of the additive is used. So for safety purpose, the use should be avoided because of the potential harm it can cause.

A sweetener called sodium saccharin, is a non-nutritive, artificial, sweet-tasting synthetic compound used in food, pharmaceutical products and drinks as substitute for sugar. Saccharin is regarded a no-calorie sweetener because it is not broken down in the body during and after digestion. It is 200 to 700 times sweeter than regular sugar so only a small amount is needed to deliver same sweetness as regular sugar and also because it is bitter or metallic aftertaste at high concentrations.

The use of saccharin, however in human food been plagued by safety concern although with controversies trailing its safety and general approval for human consumption by health authorities and food regulators. Saccharin is used to sweeten carbonated diet drinks, candies, jams, jellies, cookies, biscuits, medicine and toothpaste. Saccharin is found to be stable with long shelf life which makes it still safe to consume after years of storage. Despite these benefits, saccharin may still cause side effects like cancer risk, weight gain, diabetes and allergic reactions when ingested. Saccharin causes allergic reactions in some individuals because it belongs to a class of compounds called Sulfonamides (sulfur-containing compounds). Such reactions include headaches, breathing difficulties, diarrhea and skin problems. Some experts therefore recommend that the intake of saccharin should be limited in infants, children and pregnant women.

Having underscored the pros and cons of the two commonly used flour treatment agents, it is time relevant authorities woke up to their respective responsibilities by sanctioning any food baking industry that does not comply with the use of only permitted food additives to save the lives of consumers. Strict compliance with use of regulated additives should be ensured and stiffer penalties meted out to defaulters to serve as deterrence to other companies. All hands should be on deck as government health agencies, our national food safety regulator, NAFDAC, Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria, Premium Bread Makers Association of Nigeria and other unions having Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies as their members all collaborate to rid the food industries of the use of unwholesome food additives. I will also strongly advise that all registered and approved baking industries must have labels carrying all the ingredients used in production and processing on their products. The enforcement and compliance unit of NAFDAC has a lot to do by seizing all baked food products in market without label carrying ingredients used for production. The onus to keep healthy also lies on the final consumer by going for only labelled bread loafs and snacks with detailed manufacturing ingredients well printed.

Ojewale, an industrial chemist, wrote from Idimu, Lagos and can be contacted via 07062027306 and kayodeojewale@gmail.com


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