Monday, 29 May 2017

Curcumin — A Novel Treatment Alternative for Depression

Curcumin, the active ingredient in the Indian spice turmeric, is a polyphenol with over 160 potentially therapeutic activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects.1

May 18, 2017

Story at-a-glance-

    turmeric curcumin for depression
  • Curcumin may be helpful against depression, especially atypical depression. No significant difference in efficacy between high and low dosages were found
  • Two active components in saffron, crocin and safranal, also have antidepressant effects, and at least three studies have found saffron is as effective as generic Prozac
  • One of the mechanisms behind curcumin’s beneficial impact on depression appears to be its ability to tame the flames of inflammation, which is now thought to be a foundational cause of depression

By Dr. Mercola
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the Indian spice turmeric, is a polyphenol with over 160 potentially therapeutic activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects.1
Importantly, it has the ability to cross your blood-brain barrier and exhibits potent neuroprotective properties, suggesting it may be useful for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease. Recent research also suggests it may be helpful against depression.
Remember, though, that curcumin is very poorly absorbed, so if you want to use it therapeutically, make sure you use a supplement that is optimized for maximum absorption; otherwise you won't get the results described below. Many believe that using black pepper helps. And while it does, it is only a marginal increase. 

Curcumin Helps Relieve Depressive Symptoms

According to a meta-analysis2 of six short-term, placebo-controlled clinical trials, curcumin "appears to be safe, well-tolerated and efficacious among depressed patients," and could serve as a "novel antidepressant." Three of the trials also reported significant anti-anxiety effects.
Another recent study3,4 evaluating curcumin's effect on depression was done in Australia. A total of 123 people diagnosed with major depressive disorder were included in the double-blind, randomized study, receiving one of four treatments for 12 weeks:
  1. Placebo
  2. Low-dose (250 mg) curcumin extract
  3. High-dose (500 mg) curcumin extract
  4. Low-dose curcumin extract with 15 mg of saffron
Compared to placebo, all three treatment groups experienced improvement in their symptoms. Curcumin was particularly effective for those with atypical depression. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in efficacy between high and low dosages. According to the authors:
"These findings suggest that there was insufficient power in the study to detect group differences, or that there was a ceiling antidepressant effect of these natural spices. This ceiling may have been achieved with the administration of the low-dose curcumin alone. The inclusion of a stand-alone saffron condition would be desirable in future studies."

Saffron Also Has Antidepressant Effects

Indeed, saffron may actually have antidepressant effects in its own right. Other studies have shown two of its active components, crocin and safranal, have antidepressant effects.5
In one study,6 depressed patients taking 30 mg of Crocus sativus (saffron) each day for eight weeks experienced the same amount of relief as those taking 20 mg of fluoxetine (generic Prozac). Two additional studies7,8 have confirmed saffron has an effectiveness equal to that of fluoxetine.

Curcumin May Benefit Many Neuropsychiatric Disorders

Another scientific review9 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, which assessed curcumin's beneficial effect on depression and other psychiatric disorders, noted that:
"[C]urcumin can influence an array of biological activities. Many of these, such as its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotective and monoaminergic effects are dysregulated in several neuropsychiatric disorders …
[I]n vitro, animal and human studies investigating … curcumin as a treatment for neuropsychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder … and autism are reviewed … It is concluded that curcumin is a promising, natural agent for many of these conditions …"
One of the mechanisms behind curcumin's beneficial impact on neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression appears to be its ability to tame the flames of inflammation, which can wreak havoc on your psychiatric health.

Gastrointestinal Inflammation Raises Depression Risk

Previous research10 suggests gastrointestinal (GI) inflammation in particular may play a critical role in the development of depression, as depression is often found alongside GI inflammation and/or autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Chronic low-grade inflammation is a hallmark of and significant contributing factor to all of these conditions, leading researchers to suggest "depression may be a neuropsychiatric manifestation of a chronic inflammatory syndrome." The study of these connections is known as psychoneuroimmunology, i.e., the impact of inflammation on behavior. As noted in a 2012 study:11
"Elevated biomarkers of inflammation … have been found in depressed patients, and administration of inflammatory stimuli has been associated with the development of depressive symptoms.
Data also have demonstrated that inflammatory cytokines can interact with multiple pathways known to be involved in the development of depression, including monoamine metabolism, neuroendocrine function, synaptic plasticity and neurocircuits relevant to mood regulation …
Psychosocial stress, diet, obesity, a leaky gut and an imbalance between regulatory and pro-inflammatory T cells also contribute to inflammation and may serve as a focus for preventative strategies relevant to both the development of depression and its recurrence."

Controlling Inflammation Is Best Done Through Lifestyle Changes

According to Dr. Hyla Cass,12 whom I've interviewed on this topic, approximately one-third of depressed patients have high levels of inflammation, and anti-inflammatory drugs have actually been shown to favorably alter neurochemical pathways involved in depression.13
The arthritis drug sirukumab is currently being tested on depressed patients. GlaxoSmithKline and others are also working on developing anti-inflammatory drugs targeting depression. The problem with this approach is that most drugs have side effects — sometimes terminal, as the 60,000 who died from the anti-inflammatory Vioxx. Fortunately, you don't need drugs to combat inflammation.
One of the most effective ways to quell inflammation is to eat a cyclical ketogenic diet. In fact, one of the most remarkable effects of nutritional ketosis is that your C-reactive protein (CRP) level (an inflammatory marker) virtually disappears. It can really drive your inflammation levels about as low as they can go.
Other important anti-inflammatory strategies that are strongly recommended for prevention and treatment of depression are animal-based omega-3 and vitamin D. It appears curcumin may be a valuable adjunct as well, judging by recent studies. Another crucial contributor to inflammation is to reduce your exposure to EMF. This means keeping your cellphone in airplane mode unless you are using it and never holding it next to your ear. Turning off your Wi-Fi router at night is also crucial.
Aside from general GI inflammation, a number of studies have concluded the primary cause of inflammation is related specifically to dysfunction of the gut-brain axis,14 which is largely lifestyle driven. Diet, exercise and toxic exposures, for example, all have the ability to influence your gut microbiome, thereby affecting your gut-brain axis.
One of the reasons sugar is so detrimental to your mental health is because it triggers a cascade of chemical reactions — starting with elevated insulin — that promote chronic inflammation. Excess sugar and processed fructose also distort the ratio of good to bad bacteria in your gut. Sugar does this by serving as a fertilizer/fuel for pathogenic bacteria, yeast and fungi that inhibit the beneficial bacteria in your gut.

Chronic Inflammation May Be More Than a Risk Factor for Depression

What this all boils down to is that chronic inflammation not only disrupts the normal functioning of many bodily systems, it can also wreak havoc in your brain and affect your psychological health. In fact, at least one previous study15 has suggested chronic low-grade inflammation may be the very root cause of depression. Published in the International Breastfeeding Journal, the researchers stated:
"Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has revealed that depression is associated with inflammation manifested by increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines. The old paradigm described inflammation as simply one of many risk factors for depression. The new paradigm is based on more recent research that has indicated that physical and psychological stressors increase inflammation.
These recent studies constitute an important shift in the depression paradigm: inflammation is not simply a risk factor; it is the risk factor that underlies all the others. Moreover, inflammation explains why psychosocial, behavioral and physical risk factors increase the risk of depression. This is true for depression in general and for postpartum depression in particular …
[L]evels of proinflammatory cytokines significantly increase during the last trimester of pregnancy … Moreover, common experiences of new motherhood, such as sleep disturbance, postpartum pain and past or current psychological trauma, act as stressors that cause proinflammatory cytokine levels to rise."

Inflammation and Depression 101

In this model, depression is the result of your body's attempts to protect itself from an inflammatory response, and involves hormones and neurotransmitters. Depressive symptoms most strongly associated with chronic inflammation include:16
  • Flat mood
  • Slowed thinking
  • Avoidance
  • Alterations in perception
  • Metabolic changes
Cytokines in your blood, or inflammatory messengers such as CRP, interleukin-1, interleukin-6 and TNF-alpha are all predictive of17and correlate18 to depression. In melancholic depression, bipolar disorder and postpartum depression, white blood cells called monocytes express pro-inflammatory genes that provoke secretion of cytokines.19
At the same time, cortisol sensitivity goes down, and cortisol is a stress hormone that buffers against inflammation. Together, these inflammatory agents transfer information to your nervous system, typically by stimulating your vagus nerve, which connects your gut and brain.20
During inflammatory states, brain cells called microglia are activated. When this happens, an enzyme called indoleamine 2 3-dioxygenase directs tryptophan away from the production of serotonin and melatonin, instructing it instead to produce an NMDA (an amino acid derivative) agonist called quinolinic acid, which can trigger anxiety and agitation.21

Curcumin Goes Head-to-Head With Blockbuster Antidepressant

One last study22 on curcumin and depression worth mention is a randomized controlled trial comparing the efficacy of curcumin and fluoxetine (generic Prozac) in patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Sixty patients were given one of three treatment protocols:
  1. 20 mg fluoxetine
  2. 1,000 mg curcumin (500 mg standardized curcumin extract taken twice a day)
  3. Combination of fluoxetine and curcumin
According to the authors:
"The proportion of responders as measured by the HAM-D scale was higher in the combination group (77.8 percent) than in the fluoxetine (64.7 percent) and the curcumin (62.5 percent) groups; however, these data were not statistically significant. Interestingly, the mean change in HAM-D score at the end of six weeks was comparable in all three groups.
This study provides first clinical evidence that curcumin may be used as an effective and safe modality for treatment in patients with [major depressive disorder] without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders."

Certain Supplements Boost Effectiveness of Antidepressants

Other research has shown nutritional supplements can boost the effectiveness of antidepressants. Unfortunately, they did not look at supplementation only, which might have offered valuable insights. The analysis in question looked at 40 clinical trials in which supplements were added to the drug regimen.23,24,25 
Four supplements were found to improve the impact of the medication — which included serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants — compared to medication only:
  • Animal-based omega-3 (in the form of fish oil)
  • Vitamin D
  • Methylfolate (an effective form of folic acid)
  • S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)
In my view, there's reason to suspect the supplements provided the true benefit. Other studies have shown both omega-3 and vitamin D can improve mental health all on their own — in part by regulating inflammatory processes and responses — and studies have repeatedly demonstrated that antidepressants are right on par with placebo in terms of effectiveness.
In one vitamin D study,26 seniors with the lowest vitamin D levels were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. It makes little sense to take the extra risks with a drug if they don't add anything of real value.

Addressing GI Inflammation May Ease Your Depressive Symptoms

If you suffer from depression, it may be well worth your effort to take steps to reduce the level of inflammation in your body. Remember, no drugs are necessary for this. In fact, the most effective strategies for this are to:
Address your diet. Limiting net carbs in all its forms (think added sugar, processed fructose, refined grains and most processed foods in general) is a key step. A ketogenic diet, high in healthy fats, low in net carbs with a moderate amount of protein can really drive inflammation levels way down.
Make sure to get enough animal-based omega-3.
Optimize your vitamin D level, ideally through sensible sun exposure, as sunlight has been shown to improve depression in ways that are unrelated to vitamin D as well.
Address your gut health, as impaired gut flora is frequently involved in depression. Regularly "reseed" your gut with beneficial bacteria (probiotics and prebiotics), as this is the foundation of a healthy GI tract. Eating plenty of fermented foods is your best bet. It's also the most economical.
If you do not eat fermented foods, taking a high-quality probiotic supplement makes of sense considering how important probiotics are for your mental health. In fact, probiotics are thought to have a direct effect on brain chemistry, transmitting mood- and behavior-regulating signals to your brain via the vagus nerve.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

How to count on food – Part 2

As you might surmise by now – after reading Part 1 – not everything is as it seems.
Brown bread or stone-ground bread, for example, has no formal definition in EU law and can be made with white flour with added colourings plus optionally some cheap roughage material.

A peculiar additive is E524 (sodium hydroxide) as this is the same chemical used to clear drains. This additive is used to coat certain breads to get a shiny brown surface. Photo: The Star
The brown colour can be introduced, for example, by coffee or perhaps E150a (caramel) or some of its derivatives, E150b (caustic sulphite caramel), E150c (ammonia caramel) and E150d (sulphite ammonia caramel).
So if you want proper brown bread, make sure it is actually made with wholegrain or wholemeal flour.

On the outside too

Note that chemicals can also be applied to the exterior of foods.
In the EU, it is common to have the skins of fruits sprayed with combinations of imazalil, orthophenylphenate, propiconazole or thiabendazole – these are anti-fungal agents used to delay the rotting of fruit.
Label of Spanish oranges sold in Germany and France. Note the external spray use of 
imazalil, propiconazole and thiabendazole. Photo: Chris Chan

In large quantities, they have been linked to cancers and deaths in test mammals – but in the amounts sprayed on fruits, they should not be problematic for healthy humans.
Just make sure fruits are washed thoroughly before handling or eating them, especially those which are often ingested with the skin on, such as grapes, pears, peaches and apples.
We have briefly covered some of the psychological aspects of commercial food production, including presentation and preservation of food items so that they appear wholesome, edible – and remain generally safe to eat.
The following now deals mainly with how textures of processed food are maintained consistently and why such foods feel good in the mouth.

Why we like eating

Why we like eating has been covered in an earlier article and you may find it interesting to review the seven physiological factors that commercial food producers engineer to please our palates and induce us to buy processed foods.
Not all the engineering is about adjusting base food ingredients; for example, blending fats and other ingredients to achieve the optimal Calorific Density that is most appealing to humans – there is also an arsenal of natural and synthetic chemical compounds which can be added to the ingredients to considerably enhance the textures of even heavily-processed foods.

More additives than sense

It is regrettable but in not uncommon cases, there are actually more food additives than the supposedly main food ingredient – which may even be missing.
An example is a label for “liquid apple” from a major US supplier.
Generally the less there is to read on the label, the better the product. The bad news is that some of the 
information can be a little technical.
The ingredient list is a chemical bath of just about everything unrelated to apples (except for a cursory mention of some natural flavour, but not natural juice), and it bizarrely also has a warning that some unlisted milk ingredients are also included in a supposedly apple drink.

Good baking vs my baking

When I was younger and trying my hand at baking, it soon became obvious that it is impossible to achieve the consistent, homogenous distribution of tiny air bubbles found in commercial bread loaves.
Every homemade batch was different, with irregular bubbles and varying textures no matter how long the dough was proofed.
My own breads also harden pretty quickly after baking but that is because I did not use the preservatives mentioned earlier.
Visiting artisan bakeries in France and Germany later made me feel better because the handmade loaves there also had irregular bubble patterns and were closer in texture to my own breads, except of course, the professional breads tasted much better.
This sort of leads to questions about other packaged foods in general: how do creams remain creamy, why do tinned vegetables not turn into mush, why do colours of canned food remain bright and attractive, how come powdered foods/flours do not clump together, how do sauces/jams/relishes retain their consistency years after they have been stuffed into bottles, how do large bakeries dependably churn out exactly the same cakes, biscuits and breads every day – and so on.
And the answer, not unexpectedly by now, is often due to the chemistry of additives.
So let us see how all this works.

Thickeners, gelling agents, emulsifiers and stabilisers

The E4xx category of food additives are mostly emulsifiers, stabilisers and humectants (compounds that help moisture retention), though a few artificial sweeteners are also included.
These E4xx compounds mainly add texture to foods – they ensure that soups, gravies and creams retain a creamy uniformity, baked goods do not get lumpy, ingredients bind or gel properly, meats taste “juicy”, and sauces and jams stay consistently thick.
There are several thickeners, gelling agents and stabilisers commonly used in food processing – they are used to improve the textures of food ingredients and a lot of them are derived from natural sources.
Examples are E406 (agar) and E441 (gelatin) which are often found in processed meats, ice creams, cakes and gum sweets; E410 (locust bean or carob gum) is used in ice lollies, cordials, dressings, essences, also as a chocolate substitute; E412 (guar gum, or guaran) and E415 (xanthan gum) are found in sauces, ice creams, cheese spreads, cake mixes, et cetera.
The E415 is also commonly used as a binding agent for gluten-free baked goods. Pectin or E440a is used to thicken sauces and jams in particular. And so on.
An interesting texture-improvement additive is E407 (carrageen), partly because it has been recently banned by the US-based National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as an additive in organic foods. This compound is derived from red seaweed (originally harvested around Carrigan Head, Ireland) and has been consumed for centuries.
This is a curious compound because large concentrations have been known to kill test rodents but toxicity in humans is hard to establish, despite unverified claims of intestinal irritation and damage.
However, there is a degraded version of carrageen called poligeenan which may be the actual culprit compound – and poligeenan is not a permitted additive.

Why emulsifiers?

Emulsifiers are added when it is necessary to keep oils and water-based ingredients consistently blended so they do not separate. They work because the emulsifying molecules have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic attributes – hence the hydrophilic end will bind with water and the hydrophobic end will bind with anything that is not water, like oil, resulting in a smooth, homogenous distribution of the bound ingredients.
This normally improves texture and taste significantly. Examples of emulsions are mayonnaise and ice creams. There are not many naturally-extracted emulsifiers – mainly E407 (carrageen, though mostly used as a thickener), E413 (acacia gum or gum Arabic) and E322 (lecithin, which is also an antioxidant) spring to mind.
E472a-f (esters of mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids derived using organic acids, for examples, acetic, citric, lactic or tartaric) are somewhere in the middle between natural and synthetic emulsifiers.
Many emulsifiers are therefore synthetic compounds and the most fascinating ones are possibly esters. Simply defined, esters in food are compounds derived from an acid reacting with fatty acids – they are formed by the replacement of hydroxyl (oxygen-hydrogen, -OH) groups of molecules with alkoxy (oxygen-bond, -O-) groups of molecules.
As an aside, other kinds of esters are also derived from organic acids reacting with various alcohols – and these esters are used in the perfumery business or even as food aromas for they can smell very pleasant; for example, pentyl ethanoate smells of ripe pears and octyl ethanoate has the scent of bananas.

It smells great, but …

But being fascinating and nice-smelling does not necessarily mean that synthetic esters are wholly safe to ingest, especially in large quantities. The additives in the range E432 (polysorbate 20 or polyoxyethylene 20 sorbitan monolaurate or Tween 20) to E436 (polysorbate 65 or Tween 65) may be the most well-known examples, being derivatives of sorbitol (a low-calorie sweetener extracted from glucose) reacted with a well-known mammalian carcinogen called ethylene oxide in a process called ethoxylation.
The number after polysorbate indicates the number of parts of ethylene oxide present – but the issues are compounded by the possible presence of another potent mammalian carcinogen called dioxane as a by-product of ethoxylation.
If you are curious about E432-E436, then check your bathroom because these chemicals are also used as surfactants in beauty creams, shampoos and soaps. Although polysorbates in food have been evaluated and deemed safe in 2015 by the European Food Safety Authority in the quantities permitted, the possibility of contamination by ethylene oxide and dioxane may not have been fully considered.
A little personal comment about E471 (mono-and di-glycerides of fatty acids) might be in order now, mainly because I am not a little against trans-fats (the reasons have been covered in a previous article). Although trans-fats are banned in the EU, it is still a little unclear if mono- and di-glycerides derived from trans-fats are included in the ban as they are not fats (triglycerides) in the classic sense. In any case, many countries will probably still be using trans-fats to produce E471 as it is the cheapest way to manufacture a widely-used emulsifier.

If you like fibre

If you are fond of foods with fibre, then you are possibly in luck because the food industry introduces a lot of fibre as a filler and binder in processed foods such as cakes, breads, muffins, scrambled eggs, mash potato powders, grated cheeses, et cetera.
The main fibre used, primarily because of its low cost, is E460 (cellulose) which is made from wood pulp.
In fact, despite the image that added food fibre is derived from oats, bran, wholegrains, et cetera, the reality is that most of it actually comes from specially processed wood.
Different characteristics of fibre (eg. textures, binding, dispersal qualities, et cetera) can also be readily synthesised resulting in additives such as E461 (methyl cellulose), E462 (ethyl cellulose), E463 (hydroxypropyl cellulose), E464 (hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose), E465 (ethyl methyl cellulose), E466 (carboxy methyl cellulose), E468 (crosslinked sodium carboxymethyl cellulose) and E469 (enzymatically hydrolysed carboxymethyl cellulose).
The main side effect noted from consuming cellulose-based additives is flatulence, simply because cellulose is indigestible by humans.

Other food improvers

We now start to get to the more oddball sections of E-numbers. For example, the next group of E5xx numbers deals generally with compounds also used to improve textures and retention of food colours, including coagulants and treatments for flours used in baking, such as anti-caking and browning agents. Some components of the E5xx groups are also considered as mineral supplements in addition to its function as an additive – though this is possibly not wholly by intent.
An immediately peculiar additive is E524 (sodium hydroxide) as this is the same chemical used to clear blocked drains.
This additive is used to coat the external surfaces of certain breads and causes them to develop a shiny brown surface during baking. If you are curious how this works, it is because strong alkalis degrade the proton linkages in starch polysaccharides, thereby loosening the molecular structure of the polymers and causing them to react more easily with sugars under dry heat – then they turn brown due to the Maillard reaction.
Due to its acute toxicity and difficulty in obtaining food-quality sodium hydroxide, very often E500 (sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sesquicarbonate) is now used instead. E500 is a major component of baking powder – it is also used to curdle milk for certain cheeses.
Another interesting additive is E516 (gypsum or calcium sulphate) which is commonly used to coagulate tofu though it is also used as a bleaching and flour treatment agent. This natural compound is sometimes present in health drinks and infant milk formulas as a calcium supplement.
A synthetic additive is E518 (magnesium sulphate, also known as Epsom salts) – it is used to maintain the structure of canned vegetables, and also utilised in cheese, sweets and flours. If consumed in excess, E518 is a pretty strong laxative.
E579 (ferrous gluconate) is a very water-soluble black crystal, and often included as an iron supplement – its main food use is as a food dye, particularly for dark olives.
A somewhat intriguing additive is E541 (sodium aluminium phosphate) for this synthetic compound has both acidic and alkaline variants. The acidic variant of E541 is heat-activated and used commonly in baking as it combines with E500 to produce carbon dioxide but only at baking temperatures – this makes the dough easier to manage and also obviates the need to proof the dough. The alkaline variant of E541 is used to emulsify processed cheeses.

Not such a beautiful mind

As an aside, I confess to not being a great fan of ingesting compounds containing aluminium, primarily because the metal has been known to impair the absorption of calcium by the body, potentially leading to bone tissue diseases.
Despite some studies suggesting a link between aluminium and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, the verdict is still inconclusive on this matter.
Regardless, it has been established for some years that aluminium is definitely neurotoxic – and humans accumulate the metal in their brains over time.
How aluminium may or may not trigger neurological degeneration could be related to its interaction with calcium and magnesium ions in the brain – but this is all somewhat theoretical at present and subject to research.
When more scientifically-conclusive details are known about the effects of ingesting aluminium compounds, it would be very interesting, not least because of the pervasiveness of aluminium in our lives.
In any case, aluminium is not in any way a critical mineral for survival and hence I would personally be wary of ingesting any foods with these E-numbers: E520 (aluminium sulphate), E521 (aluminium sodium sulphate), E522 (aluminium potassium sulphate), E523 (aluminium ammonium sulphate), E541, E554 (sodium aluminium silicate), E555 (potassium aluminium silicate), E556 (aluminium calcium silicate), E559 (aluminium silicate, or kaolin) and E1452 (starch aluminium octenyl succinate).
In short, I shy away from ingesting any compound where aluminium is named as part of their chemical structure. E541 has been discussed above and the rest of these additives are mostly anti-caking agents or firming agents for processed fruits and vegetables. Oddly, there is another additive, E173 (aluminium) which I would also avoid as it is just powdered aluminium in a pure form.
In case you are now wondering about the ubiquitous aluminium tins used to hold fizzy drinks and certain foods, the contents of these tins are protected from the aluminium by an epoxy resin barrier, usually derived from bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS).
There are too many E5xx additives to list and comment on – but E512 (stannous chloride) caught my eye as there are very few tin-based compounds used in food, being mainly used for the external cans that hold food. E512 is used to retain the colour of tinned or bottled vegetables, mainly asparagus.
In large amounts, this compound is known to damage DNA in human white blood cells – it is also a hazardous skin and eye irritant and can kill test mammals administered with excessive doses of the compound.
Another curious additive is E553b (talc) – yes, the same stuff you used to put on babies’ bottoms. The exterior use of talc-based powders for infants is now banned in the EU due to the potential of asbestos contamination – but it seems it is possible to use pure talc in food as a separation agent for rice, powdered foods (and medicines), cheese slices, sausage skins, table salt, et cetera.
Again, please note that despite some of the hazards and side-effects mentioned above (it is simply not possible to cover all potential reactions due to the numbers and combinations of additives), most food additives are regulated in their use and therefore should not cause problems when processed foods are consumed in reasonable amounts by healthy humans.
So we conclude a brief, perfunctory (but hopefully interesting) excursion into the additives which help processed foods attain their pleasant textures, retain their colour and make commercial baked goods so consistent.
The next part explores how processed meats and other foods can be made to taste better than real meat and real foods – well, sometimes.

How to count on food – Part 1

A curious human phenomenon is the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE), which states that the LESS some people know about a subject, the MORE entitled they feel that they are experts in the subject. This may sound ridiculous but it is a fact – and it is also pretty certain you would already have met people operating under this delusion.

How to count on food – Part 1
Are you among the small percentage of people who habitually read the ingredients information and nutrition panels on packaged foods? As a food mensch, it simply makes good sense to know what can end up on our dinner plates. Photo: Reuters

A simple example might be a bicycle – a majority of people would probably claim to know how a bicycle works. However, rather fewer people would know the fundamental requirements – tensile strengths for the frame metals, force transference on the linkages on the drive chain, chain ratios, gear ratios, wheel bearings, suspension, brakes, et cetera.

In short, despite thinking they know a lot about the workings of a bicycle, all many people only know is how to pedal (and buy) them – which is not the same as knowing how a bicycle comes together and actually work.
As such, despite owning a few of them, I personally cannot claim to know much about bicycles – all I know is that I like them not-too-heavy, with some sort of suspension.
The DKE also states that as people start to learn more about a subject, their confidence level falls dramatically, and only recovers once they actually get to finally understand the subject in great detail, at least for people with the ability to learn.

The disappointment

So it has been a disappointment that the digital age has generally managed to breed more stupidity, ignorance and intransigence in humans, despite the undisputed wealth of information available on phones, tablets and computer screens – witness Brexit and Trump.
Apart from the DKE, there are several reasons for this – and one major explanation regrettably lies deep in the human psyche. It is the same reason why some subjects at school are enjoyable and some rather less so – and it is to do with people’s relationships with their mentors and peers.
If people enjoy what they are being taught or have their opinions reinforced by their peers, then they are much more likely to continue listening to their mentors and peers.
This may always have been so in the past but the onslaught of digital media means that we now have less and less time to digest the vast amounts of diverse information being force-fed into our devices – as such many people have lost the ability to be analytical and objective, and prefer to believe and trust their peers based on less and less facts (or even lies) just as long as it fits in with their limited, personal view of the world.
Effectively, many people are now cultists, unable and unwilling to plough through available information to reach the truth, because there are too many “truths” to derive and too little time.
So they are happy to allow Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, advertorials, blogs, biased newspapers, et cetera, to tell them what to believe – and this lack of analysis and objectivity plays neatly into the hands of corrupt politicians, unethical corporates, and marketing manipulators.
And that is why I habitually read the ingredients information and nutrition panels on packaged foods. Thanks to mandatory regulations in developed countries, many food producers are forced to routinely provide data about the contents of their food products, even for less-developed countries.
Generally the less there is to read on the label, the better the product. The bad news is that some of 
the information can be a little technical.
As a food mensch, it simply makes good sense to know what can end up on our dinner plates – hence I am innately curious about what really makes up the comestibles inside the packaging rather than rely on the external pretty packaging.
The good news is that such information is often concise and detailed – there often is not really that much to read. And generally the less there is to read, the better the product.
The bad news is that some of the information can be a little technical; in some cases even obfuscated and confusing (eg. by the use of E-numbers, duplicative ingredients, chemical names, et cetera) – also the print font sizes tend to be (very) small, presumably to allow for more room for glitzy pictures or logos on the packaging.

What is there and what is really there

Let us start with the ingredients list. The stuff you look for in a packaged food item should reflect roughly your expectations – so if you bought a tub of tuna salad, most of the tub should contain tuna meat.
In fact, the order in which the ingredients are listed should reflect the content percentage in descending order – and reading the list of constituents can throw up some surprises.
That was how I noticed that sausages can legally contain less than 28% meat, even in Britain – with some packs listing the main ingredient as wheat rusk (processed wheat flour, water and salt).
It is a bit better with sausages labelled as “pork sausages” – in which case they have to contain a minimum of 42% pork meat. But as with all British sausages, this “meat” can consist of up to 30% fat and 25% connective tissue (muscle sinew, tendons, rind, cartilage, et cetera) so real meat as you and I know it would only make up 45% of the so-called “meat” in economy sausages – and that is one good reason why my family is not allowed to eat them.
Things are even worse with items like sausage rolls – where one would expect a hefty proportion of sausage meat. But in reality, even allowing for meat cheapened with fat and connective tissue, the “meat” in sausage rolls can actually be only the third item in the ingredients list (in some cases 8% or less), overtaken comprehensively by processed wheat flour and plain water.
But even I have to admit that regardless of the contents, a lot of processed foods can still taste plausible, and often not vastly different from proper, expensive versions of the same foods – at least, economy processed foods are good enough to convince a significant proportion of consumers that it is not worth paying more for proper food. How this happens is where the ingredients lists get really interesting.

Psychology and physiology in processed foods

Why and what humans enjoy eating has been extensively (and expensively) researched for many decades, even centuries – and special technical and chemical solutions have been developed which cover both psychological and physiological aspects of eating.
The psychological facets cover not only the pretty packaging formats, but also how processed food itself can be made visually desirable and safe to eat, while the physiological aspects involve texture, taste, smell and chemesthesis (chemical stimulation of various receptors in the mouth) – with nutrition often an afterthought.
All this must, of course, be achieved without killing consumers immediately, though longer-term health effects often appear to be ignored.
While the actual food production processes and flavour solutions used to enhance basic ingredients to yield the finished food products are often very tightly-kept secrets, the ingredient list does shine some light on the technology involved in manufacturing packaged foods.
Some of the ingredients are likely to be additives, either listed by their customary or chemical names but often summarised by the use of E-numbers, possibly for brevity but also possibly to obscure the actual compounds.
Please note that not all additives have E-numbers (eg. caffeine) – but as E-numbers are usually the most obscure items on a list of ingredients, some of the more interesting or common ones are highlighted in this series.

Heavy psychology

It might surprise you that psychology plays a heavy part in modern food processing – and that is simply because us humans have (reasonable) expectations about what we put into our mouths.
We are conditioned to link, for example, colour with taste – so if we see an orange-coloured drink, we expect it to taste of orange. We also link shapes with taste – so if we see sausage or burger shapes, we expect them to taste of meat, even though animals do not look like sausages or burgers.
Actually, processed meat is normally grey, not reddish-pink – the pink hue is introduced artificially because we associate grey meat with rancidity and putrefaction.
With processed meats, the nice colour we see is often a fortuitous byproduct of certain preservation additives, often enhanced by some additional colourants.
In summary, humans very much prefer food that is visually appealing, tastes like it is supposed to taste and actually safe to eat – that is why presentation and food safety are linked to psychological considerations for processed food.

Pretty colours

The need for good presentation brings us to the first group of E-numbered additives. E-numbers are always prefixed with “E” followed by a 3 or 4 digit number and sometimes further suffixed by a letter – but the numbering system is not always consistent as additives are sometimes seemingly assigned random numbers in various groups.
Regardless, the first group of E-1xx numbers is generally to do with the colour compounds allowed in processed foods. Some of these colours are extracted naturally, such as E100 (curcumin) and some are wholly artificial such as E133 (brilliant blue FCF), which is derived from coal tar.
The E1xx colours can be mixed; eg. E133 is sometimes combined with another artificial yellow compound E102 (tartrazine) to produce a green dye for colouring food (eg. processed peas, vegetables and cakes).

Humans very much prefer food that is visually appealing – that is why
presentation and food safety are linked to psychological considerations
for processed food. Photo: Reuters

Colours can also be lightened by adding E171 (titanium dioxide), a strong white colour used in chewing gums, toothpaste and paints.
The use of E1xx numbers is very versatile – as an example, for cooked meats and meat pastes, the colourings permitted can involve E127 (erythrosine), E150a (caramel), E160c (paprika extract, or capsanthin and capsorubin) or E172 (iron oxides and hydroxides).
In the past, other food dyes such as E154 (brown FK) and E128 (red 2G) were also permitted but have since been banned by the EU due to various health issues.
This is not to say that the currently permitted colours are free from any side-effects, especially if consumed excessively – as an example, E110 (sunset yellow FCF, orange yellow S) is used in cereals, baked goods, sweets, ice cream, et cetera, and has been linked with hyperactivity, allergies, kidney problems, tumours in test mammals, and so on.

Preservatives – Part 1

Meat also leads us to the next section of E numbers – those in the E2xx category, which are mostly food preservatives and acidity regulators.
The most commonly used E2xx numbers for meat are probably E250 (sodium nitrite) and E251 (sodium nitrate) – for not only do these compounds cure and conserve meat, they also add a nice pink hue to meat products (due to the nitrites combining with pig haemoglobin to form pink nitrosohemoglobin).
Other similar compounds used in processed meats are E249 (potassium nitrite) and E252 (potassium nitrate), though not as extensively.
Without nitrites or nitrates, hams would be dull grey, bacon would be brown and salamis would be black and brown – the reason is that these nitrogen-based compounds inhibit the actions of bacteria and fungi which cause putrefaction.
Unfortunately, nitrites and nitrates are also converted by the digestive system into nitrosamines – and most nitrosamines are known carcinogens.
The story of how processed meats are now listed as Group 1 carcinogens by the WHO and why nitrites and nitrates are still being used has been documented in an earlier article.
The other E2xx compounds may or may not be as parlous as nitrites and nitrates – it seems not all of them have been extensively tested for carcinogenicity in humans.
However, there are quite a few other items already known to have side effects in humans. Hyperactivity in children has been linked to E210 (benzoic acid), a chemical used in sweets, chewing gum, cheeses, baked goods, cordials, et cetera.
Sulphur-based compounds in the range E220 (sulphur dioxide) through to E228 (potassium hydrogen sulphite) are commonly used to preserve fruits, juices, cordials, wines, et cetera, and have implications for people with asthma and kidney conditions.
If you tend to get headaches, then watch out for propionates in the range between E280 (propionic acid) and E283 (potassium propionate) which are often used as preservatives for baked goods, dairy products and meat – these propionates have been linked with migraines.

Preservatives – Part 2

Meat and in particular, bacon, also brings us around to the following group of E3xx additives, which relate mostly to another class of preservatives known as antioxidants – although this section also include food acidity regulators (as food decompose slower in an acidic environment).
You might think that antioxidants are good compounds to ingest and to some degree, the natural antioxidants may be of some benefit – however, there are also artificial antioxidants which are rather curious.
For example, E319 (tertiary-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ)), E320 (butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)) and E321 (butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)) are used to inhibit the spoilage of fats, oils, fish and other foods – but the toxicity of TBHQ in humans is unclear, BHA can either promote or restrict cancer growths, high doses of BHT are known to kill test mammals; and additionally they may also interact with nitrosamines with indeterminate results.
BHA and BHT are even banned in parts of the EU but remain commonly used in other countries, including the United States. Note that antioxidant additives are added to prevent the oxidisation of food which happens when processed food comes in contact with air – not necessarily to tackle free radicals in human bodies.
Where bacon gets involved is that the US Department of Food & Drug Administration (FDA) now requires that commercially-produced bacon include either the antioxidant additive E301 (sodium ascorbate) or E318 (sodium erythorbate).
The reason is that cooking bacon can produce a nasty nitrosamine called nitrosopyrrolidine but treatment with E301 or E318 has been found to significantly reduce its production.
The most common antioxidant additive is probably E300 (ascorbic acid), which is simply vitamin C – this versatile compound has no known side effects and is commonly used in meats, cereals, wine, fish, flour, drinks, et cetera.
As with all additives, over-ingestion of some compounds beyond the normal expected levels can lead to issues; excessive doses of E222 (lecithins) can cause stomach problems, E330 (citric acid) can lead to eye or skin problems, E375 (niacin) can provoke liver dysfunction and headaches, et cetera.

Generally safe

Please note that despite the synopses of fluctuant side-effects mentioned (it is simply not possible to cover all potential reactions due to the numbers and combinations of additives), most food additives are limited in their use and therefore should not be problematic when processed foods are consumed in reasonable amounts by healthy humans.

Coming up: We will continue with the presentation and safety aspects of processed foods in the next part. That will be followed by how textures of processed foods can be made to feel quite pleasant in our mouths due to the use of various chemical additives.

SEE ALSO: How to count on food – Part 2