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Diet Food and Additives

Answered by Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

Q: I’m worried about all the additives in ready-made ‘healthy’ and ‘diet’ foods, but eating fresh, natural foods seems to tip me over my calorie allowance. Is it safe to eat foods with so many additives?

A: According to the Food Standards Agency, any additives used in food have been scientifically tested to ensure they are safe and not harmful to health. This means you shouldn’t need to worry about the inclusion of additives in the food you eat. In fact, rather than being sinister ingredients, if an additive has an E number it simply means it’s passed safety tests and has been approved for use here and in the rest of the European Union.

Food additives tend to be grouped according to what they do. The additives seen most commonly on food labels include antioxidants, colours, flavourings, preservatives, sweeteners and a group that includes emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners. You’ll find a list of food additives and their e-numbers by visiting the Food Standards Agency website at www.food.gov.uk

In the meantime, salt is the main additive we should all really be concerned about. High intakes of salt are linked to high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. At the moment, most of us consume, on average, around 9.5mg salt every day (the equivalent to almost 2 level teaspoons), when in fact, we should have no more than 6mg every day (just over 1 level teaspoon). Unfortunately, around three quarters of the salt we consume comes from ready-made foods such as ketchup, pickles, soups, pizza, cooking sauces ready meals, takeaways, fish fingers, chicken nuggets and meat products such as sausages and burgers. Even ready-made foods in ‘diet’ and ‘healthy eating’ ranges can still be packed with salt, so it’s important to check labels carefully. It’s sodium that’s the harmful component of salt and many food labels give values for this. To convert this into a salt equivalent, multiply the sodium value by 2.5. This means, if a product contains 1g sodium, that’s the equivalent to 2.5g salt – almost half the recommended daily maximum!

Eating fresh foods is certainly one of the easiest ways to cut your salt intake as well as slashing the amount of additives you have in your diet. Lean meat, chicken, fresh fish, eggs, low-fat milk, natural yoghurt, fruit, veg, rice and pasta are all naturally low in salt and are additive free, plus they’re all reasonably low in fat, making them great choices if you want to eat healthily and lose weight.

In the meantime, I’m surprised that eating fresh foods pushes you over your daily calorie allowance. A medium-sized grilled chicken breast with a jacket potato, 1tsp low-fat spread and salad provides less than 400 calories – around the same amount as in a typical ready meal. You might want to check your portion sizes as it sounds as though it’s quantities rather than the types of foods that are pushing up your calorie intake. Bear in mind that most ready meals are quite small and only weigh around 300g to 400g so try and keep home-made portions to around that size.

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