Mathew Bose


Antioxidants E – numbers from 300-399

When foods are exposed to oxygen they begin to break down and decay (oxidation) and this causes discolouration, rancidity and can change/destroy the nutritional value of the item (e.g. they are used to prevent vitamins combining with the air and being destroyed). Antioxidant additives are used to stop or delay these processes. Foods made using fats or oils are likely to contain antioxidants too even if they are low in fat, as they help prevent decomposition especially when unsaturated fats are involved. The decomposing fat reacts with the oxygen creating the release of peroxides which we know by that characteristic rancid fat smell. Grim…

Many processed and prepackaged products contain an antioxidant; a majority contains citric acid (although vitamin C** (ascorbic acid/E300) is one of the most widely used). Citric acid (which occurs naturally in fruits such as lemons) is used extensively to prevent discolouration, help increase the antioxidant effects of other substances and, in some cases, help regulate the PH balance (marmalade, jellies etc). Ascorbic acid is used to prevent discolouration but largely to replace vitamin C**, or add it back in to, any products where it might have been lost in processing or needed for an extra vitamin boost to the product (fruit juices etc. especially orange juice).

**However, this is contentious (isn’t everything?!) as many noted experts have pointed out that added elements such as ascorbic acid, retinoic acid and types of tocopherol (…er…sorry getting carried away (showing off more like?!?) I mean, added elements labelled as vitamin C, vitamin A or vitamin E) are not the actual vitamin at all but just a lab created isolation of them (synthetic versions needed to replace the naturally occurring versions lost during processing – especially vitamin C which is destroyed by heat). The essential theory being that vitamins are complex compounds that need to work within a set of multi level parameters and so creating an individual molecular compound from them might well work as a preservative, antioxidants etc. but does not therefore consequently also work within the body as a fully fledged vitamin. I.e. you’re getting the vitamin just not any benefit. The American company ‘Real C’ use the analogy: ‘If you compare Vitamin C to an egg, ascorbic acid would be just the egg shell with nothing inside’. Hmmm…

There are only a few available to producers in the EU and the most popular/frequently used in processed foods are:

  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C/E300)
  • Citric acid (E330)
  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole/E320)
  • Tocopherols (vitamin E group/E306-309)

BHA and BHT are considered safe in the small doses used by the food industry (for the protection of fats and oils in foods) as they perform better at high temperatures than their natural equivalent vitamin E, but they remain contentious to pressure groups.

Synthetic and natural versions are often used in combination as this can increase their effectiveness. The arguments for the inclusion of antioxidants extend past their usefulness for food preservation etc., but to their reported use in the body for fighting free radicals. These ‘unpaired’ electrons are a danger as they ‘attack’ other molecules to gain a pairing. Antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin E especially, stabilize these electrons by ‘donating’ one of theirs and as they are stable in either state (paired or unpaired) they do not become a free radical themselves. Increasingly, however, the results from major clinical trials are claiming that too many antioxidants in the body can be dangerous. A good intake is found in balanced, varied diets with fruit and vegetables, but the imbalance forms when the ‘added’ antioxidants are also factored in from processed and fortified foods. Some of these research reports are arguing that some antioxidants do indeed become, at least temporarily, radicals as they are only neuralised by another member of the antioxidant team. Again, this supports the need for a balanced diet of varied antioxidants to ensure there is no imbalance in the levels of a particular antioxidant, which might leave the body vulnerable without enough other antioxidants to restore the balance. Think on…

MAP or EMAP (Modified Atmospheric Packaging or Equilibrium Modified Atmospheric Packaging) are further examples of antioxidant additives at work. The process essentially replaces the oxygen within the sealed packaging (meats, seafood, crisps, salad bags etc.) with higher levels of CO2 (anti-bacterial and anti fungal) and Nitrogen (inert gas used as a filler) and used extensively to prevent further ripening or spoilage and discolouring.

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