The hidden link

The Hidden Link Consumer champion - and proud mum - Julie Eady draws our attention to the often hidden truth about food additives.

TheHidden Link Consumer champion - and proud mum - JulieEady draws our attention to the often hidden truth aboutfood additives.

Story by Margaret Evans

A discussion with Perth housewife and mother JulieEady suggests an uncanny resemblance to US consumeradvocate Ralph Nader - at least before he became theserial pest of American presidential politics.

Where the US consumer advocate once had multinationalconglomerates quaking in their boots with his doggedpersistence, the deceptively demure Mrs Eady has Australia'sfood labelling laws in her sights. And she's not goingto rest until they're a huge improvement on what weapparently have operating on our behalf today. The phrasecomplacently repeated to her over and over, "Ifit's approved, it's safe" has become her catchcrybecause she believes - and her extensive research backsher up - that it often masks the truth and she looksto a time soon when it actually rings true.

Julie Eady's particular beef ("without sulphitesplease") is additives in our foods - everythingfrom artificial colours and flavours to "hidden"antioxidants, carcinogenic substances, MSG, aspartame,sulphites, salt. Even natural additives, in which wealmost implicitly place our faith these days, come underher critical gaze.

Driven, and it's the only right word for her approach,by the desire to provide better health choices for herfamily - she has two young children aged five and sixmonths - Julie has compiled her copious notes from time-consumingsupermarket shopping into a self published paperbackbook called Additive Alert. The slim volume fits easilyinto a shopping bag (she admits to being a crusaderon behalf of other mothers, mostly) yet manages to packin a wealth of detail that is certain to have you changingyour shopping habits, probably hastily. I know I have- and I'm not a big fan of processed foods in the firstplace - but convenience has to win out sometimes. Andthat's always where the manufacturers have us over abarrel. In fact, the most telling impression that leapsfrom this book is the absolute necessity of eating adiet of natural, unprocessed, unrefined, preferablyorganic, wholefoods. Nothing else comes close.

After reading Additive Alert, I came away with a clearsense of something very unsettling about our food labellingpractices in Australia - both in the products that arefinding their way into our processed foods and the attitudeof the national authorities who are meant to be guardiansof our welfare as consumers.

Of her many phone calls and emails to Food StandardsAustralia New Zealand (FSANZ), the body with responsibilityfor maintaining a safe food supply to consumers hereand across the Tasman, Julie says, "the brush offwas incredible". "They really acted as ifthey were more of an industry help service than a consumerhelp service. And even though some of the staff werequite well meaning, they simply didn't have the informationavailable"

One short, but damning, chapter in her book detailingparts of conversations with FSANZ representatives makesher point for her. The mantra, "If it's approved,it's safe" and, elsewhere, the reassurance that,"just because something causes cancer in rats andmice doesn't mean it will cause cancer in humans",are worrying to read in an era when we demand greaterpublic accountability from our bureaucracies.

Having worked in government departments herself, ("Ialso have a background in marketing and PR but I don'tthink I'll be working for any food companies soon."),Julie has some sense of how the process works and, shebelieves, the confidence to follow things through whereothers would be thwarted by the bland indifference.

The lack of any mechanism for reporting or lodgingconcerns about food additives and the failure to keepeven a summary of the latest research findings are otherareas of concern about the FSANZ's approach. In contrast,the US Food and Drug Administration keeps detailed recordspointing to, for instance, the grave concern about useof the sweetener, aspartame. First approved for usein 1981, the records show aspartame accounts for over75 per cent of adverse reactions reported to the FDA.Yet it's still widely used in the US, as in Australia,and if you think you're avoiding it by taking sugarin your coffee or even going without any sweetening,think again. Aspartame has found its way into yoghurts,desserts, juices, instant coffee, vitamins, even ricecrackers and sausages! Insidious is a word that comesto mind.

"I found through talking to mothers especially- my thrust is very much on mothers at the moment becausethat's my demographic - many have a definite belieftheir children react badly not just to colours (whicheveryone is aware of) but to preservatives and antioxidants,"says Julie. "A lot of people have worked this outfor themselves, but there is no mechanism for reportingany complaints to the FSA - it simply doesn't exist.

"In Australia, there's a body where you can reportthe adverse effects of veterinary chemicals, but notfood for humans."

What angers, and thus drives, Julie Eady most, is therealisation that additives banned in other countriesbecause they are "particularly nasty and have stronglinks to cancer in rats and mice and cats and dogs"are still appearing in Australian foods.

Antioxidants figure prominently in this list, yet arealmost always hidden because of "a five per centloophole" in our recently updated food labellinglaws. (More on this later). Antioxidants are used widelyin processed foods that contain oil or fat and theirfunction is to prevent rancidity. Julie's detailed researchincludes lists of additives by number and her book states:

"Antioxidants 310-312 and 319-321 are extremelyquestionable and should be avoided wherever possible."Documented adverse reactions include links to cancer,asthma, liver damage, skin irritations, birth defects,delirium... the list goes on. The additive 320, butylatedhydroxyanisole, for instance, was banned in Japan aslong ago as 1958! And Japan doesn't figure highly amongcountries which have taken the lead in protecting theircitizens' health from harmful foods. The US, the UK,France, Austria, Germany and the Scandinavian countriesare much more proactive in this area.

The contrast with our approach couldn't be more marked,Julie believes. "I always assumed Australia wouldbe very stringent and right up there as a world leaderin regulating strongly on behalf of the consumer andit seems it's just not that way at all. Other countriesregulate much more stringently in terms of food."On the matter of the evocatively named butylated hydroxyanisole(BHA), in Australia it appears in many brands of peanutbutter and even crops up in icecream cones. And it justso happens our children have a love affair with both.Artificial colours are another major concern and Julieinstantly proffers the example of the colour 155 BrownHT which her book describes as a "suspected carcinogenand mutagen. Linked to asthma, skin irritation. Bannedin US, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden,Australia, Norway, Belgium". But on our shelveshere in Australia. Maybe those chocolate biscuits youfancy do more than stack on the pounds!

So why, when our food labelling regulations were changedamid much fanfare at the end of last year to providethe consumer with more information upon which to maketheir purchasing decisions, do we still have hiddeningredients?

It seems that while nutrient content is much more visible,something Julie welcomes as a "very positive change",many additives have escaped being listed because ofa small but critical hole in the legislation - "thefive per cent loophole". Manufacturers are notrequired to list any product that is present in an ingredientthat comprises five per cent or less of the product.And, says Julie, antioxidants in vegetable oil are themost common example of this gap in action.

"When they had to change their labels anyway,why they bothered to go from ten per cent (which existeduntil December 2002) to five per cent is just incredible.And the only reason that could happen is industry lobbyingagainst it. "The five per cent loophole is importantbecause it limits consumers' rights and abilities tochoose with confidence."

Margarine is one substance that warrants a closer lookin this context. As Julie Eady writes: "Manufacturerscan list compound ingredients such as margarine andbreadcrumbs and not list what is in those ingredientsif they make up less than five per cent of the finalproduct." And while the popular myth is that margarineis somehow better for us than fatty old butter, awarenutritionists have been telling us for years this justisn't so. In contrast to natural butter, margarine isa hydrogenated fat and thus high in trans fatty acids.These are dangerous substances linked to higher cholesterollevels and the formation of carcinogenic substances.In many parts of Europe, trans fats are severely restrictedand, Julie Eady tells us, limited to no more than 0.1percent in food products. In Australia, it's only mandatoryfor the label to declare the total amount of fat andto provide a breakdown of the amount of saturated fat.And, of course, there's the question of colours, preservativesand antioxidants, none of which is likely to constitutemore than five per cent of your tub of margarine. Butteris fatty, of course, but it has no additives or transfats. Make your own choice.

Would low fat be the way to go then? If you mean naturaland unprocessed, undoubtedly yes as the basis of a gooddiet. But processed foods that promote themselves aslow fat could be something else again. On this, as withmany other food choices as we try to do the best byour own and our family's health, Additive Alert hassome very useful advice.

Julie Eady's vision is to provide us with the informationwe need to make confident and informed choices. Maybethen, she says, we can avoid such aberrations as thepacket of rice crackers in the kindy fruit bowl, "becausethey're healthy". And she knows her message isalready making a difference because more mothers aredemanding its removal and she's no longer the lone voice.

Additive Alert - Your Guide to Safer Shopping By JulieEady

Available through www.additivealert.com.au