Taiwan has been through a number of food safety scares related to additives, for example products tainted with plasticizer; soft drinks and soy sauce containing caramel pigment; food products with excessive preservatives; maleic acid in modified starches; as well as the recent scandal involving the Top Pot Bakery chain, where flavorings were not listed.
Because such incidents have wide-reaching effects while misinformation abounds, the public is often put under unnecessary stress about food safety, which also causes a lot of trouble for the food manufacturers that follow the law.
Many consumers do not understand why food products cannot be fully natural and instead often include food additives. According to Article 3 of the the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法), “food additives” refer to “substances that are added to, or brought into contact with foods, for the purpose of coloring, seasoning, preserving, bleaching, emulsifying, flavoring, stabilizing quality, enhancing fermentation, increasing viscosity, enriching nutritional value, preventing oxidation, or other necessary purposes.”
Therefore, while additives do not need to be added to every food product, to maintain quality and stop consumers from questioning the quality of a product because of its natural appearance — most of our food contains additives.
The most serious food safety infringements in recent years, such as those involving plasticizer and maleic acid, were caused by unscrupulous manufacturers adding certain chemicals to their products.
These additives should not be lumped together with legal additives, or the derivative substances produced through normal chemical reactions during the food manufacturing process.
According to the WHO and the US Food and Drug Administration, the latter is not added on purpose and as long as the contained amount does not exceed the allowed standards, they are not harmful to humans.
Looking at modified starch or artificial food flavorings for example, if a product contains a small amount of maleic acid that was formed during the production process — as is the case with Greater Tainan’s regional specialty, Guanmiao noodles (關廟麵 ) — or other legal artificial food flavorings, they are basically safe for human consumption.
In addition, some media outlets often mention raw chemicals and chemical additives as being one and the same. However, the former is used as a raw material in the chemical industry, while the latter occurs as a result of a chemical reaction that occurs during the manufacturing process.
The latter must also pass through full safety evaluations from food safety bodies both here and abroad before they can be used as synthetic materials in food products. By confusing these two very different things, consumers are often filled with unnecessary fears about legal food additives.
Legal additives — even if they are synthetic or can be toxic in high amounts — given they are not consumed in high amounts, and judging from the scientific evidence we have, should not cause harm to consumers.
The only way to stop scaring consumers is for manufacturers to become more active in their self-management of the production process, while also meeting the requirements for the use of additives.
They should also label their products correctly and cooperate with the governing authorities while assisting consumers in developing the right ideas about food safety.
Yang Chen-chang is an attending physician in the Division of Clinical Toxicology at Taipei Veterans General Hospital.
Translated by Drew Cameron