From baby milk, meats, and vegetables to junk food, every processed food in Mexico contains oil derivates, such as benzene and tar. Bread, cereals, yogurt, cheese, meat, salad packs, and alcoholic beverages contain these toxic substances. In the short run, they create metabolic impairments and allergies. Moreover, they are associated with cancer development.
Infants, who do not consume maternal milk or complement their diet with the so-called baby formulas, ingest doses of oil. In Mexico, regardless of their age, every person is exposed to the consumption of food containing benzene, tar, and other oil derivates.
Yet, it does not happen accidentally. On the contrary, the food industry intentionally employs artificial additives in the production of processed and ultra-processed food, which swamps national markets and supermarkets. What is more, they are directly linked to the basic basket. Such substances are colorants, sweeteners, stabilizers, thickeners, antioxidants, preservatives, bulking agents, and flavor enhancers.
Not only does junk food present oil derivates but also packaged vegetables, bread, cereals, biscuits, milk, yogurts, cheese, processed meat, fish, shellfish, juices, syrups, flour, dough, tortillas, sauces, marmalades, ice-creams, food supplements, broth powder or cube, alcoholic, nonalcoholic and powdered beverages, and canned food. These are just some of the endless products and brands – that on paper are socially responsible – which employ that dangerous substance.
According to the consulted scientists, artificial additives are substances obtained from the chemical synthesis of oil derivates, coal-tar, and other mineral and vegetal components. Their effect after decades of consumption is unknown, but in the short term, they showed to cause human metabolism impairment, allergies, and cancer in animals.
There are over 2,500 food additives, but less than 600 are regulated by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Of such a total, at least 280 have a synthetic origin or can be elaborated artificially.
According to Adolfo Chávez Villasana, chief of the Department of Applied Nutrition and Nutrition Education at the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition Salvador Zubirán, it is evident that the current problem of public health affecting the country is related to the excessive consumption of these substances. Indeed, more than half of the population aged 55 and over are affected by illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, arteriosclerosis, and neurologic or rheumatic impairments.
Additives are substances added to food through technological means during the phase of treatment, production, or packaging. An ultra-processed product may contain up to 10 additives, especially if it is junk food. However, also, baby formulas and food supplements contain them.
To carry out this work, Contralínea looked into the baby formula of the line Baby & Me, by Nestlé. Aurora Garrido, of the area of public relations, requested to be sent the questions to speed up the procedure. Nonetheless, no answer has been received so far.
Significant oil use for more profits
The Emperador chocolate-flavored biscuits by Gamesa, for instance, contain five artificial food coloring added together with their dyes (sunset yellow, Allura red, tartrazine, bright blue, and class IV caramel) and two artificial flavorings (vanillin and cream flavor). However, also essential products, such as breaded fish by Sierra Madre, contain additives like TBHQ, riboflavin, sodium acid pyrophosphate, modified corn starch, and benzoyl peroxide.
This weekly magazine asked Pepsi Co Alimentos – through Efraín Villanueva – some explanations concerning the employment of oil-based artificial additives in products of their different brands, including Gamesa and Sabritas. Nonetheless, we did not receive any answer.
There is a wide variety of food additives: food colorings, sweeteners, stabilizers, thickeners, antioxidants, preservatives, bulking agents and flavor enhancers, among others. There are 27 functional classes, according to the classification by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives.
Yenizey Álvarez Cisneros, a researcher at the Department of Biotechnology of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, explains to Contralínea that the majority of synthetic additives also called artificial additives derives from benzene. This latter is a molecule known as aromatic hydrocarbon coming from oil distillation. The International Agency for Researches on Cancer (IARC) classified it as a carcinogenic substance to humans. Toluene and aniline are other oil-derivates from which food additives are synthesized.
During the oil refining process, the scientist adds, hydrocarbons are transformed into less complex molecules through the cracking or pyrolysis process. These simple molecules are subsequently employed in chemical reactions to create new particles, such as those found in additives.
Among other dyes named azoic, tartrazine, azorubine, Allura red, patent blue, and FCF bright blue have this origin. The Mexican regulations, in charge of the Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risks (in Spanish, Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios, Cofepris) admit their use in bread, cereal, milk and its derivatives, egg, cheese, processed meat, fish, shellfish, juices, syrups, flour, dough, tortillas, sauces, jams, ice creams, food supplements, and alcoholic, nonalcoholic and powdered drinks.
Tartrazine is present in the following products: Ranch style dressing by Clemente Jacques, chicken broth by Knorr, Japanese peanuts by Mafer, Eggnog (rompope) by Santa Clara and cheese-flavored pop-corns by Act II. FCF sunset yellow is present in Ruffles and Cheetos crisps by Sabritas, and in peanuts by Great Value.
Food colorings are the most employed additives by the food industry, and for this reason, they are the most dangerous to health. Yenizey Merit says: ‘any processed food available on the market has an added colorant. We consume them, even without knowing it, when we buy cold meats, yogurts, and jams.’
Unfortunately, also vegetables contain them. According to the chemist and Ph.D. in Biotechnology, vegetables are sunk in a water-colorant solution so that, through absorption, they acquire more intense hues.
This phenomenon is what happens with some of the vegetables contained in the ready-to-eat salads. ‘Many people prefer them as they look greener, tastier, more natural, but it is all a lie. Even though their color looks more intense than regular vegetables, it does not imply that they are more natural,’ she points out.
The food industry also employs semi-synthetic additives, whose molecules exist naturally but are artificially produced through chemical synthesis. It is the case of citric acid -applied to acidify beverages, canned food, and sweets; the caramel color – present in distillers and biscuits -, and the monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer used in snacks and precooked food.
Doctor Chávez Villasana, the emeritus researcher of the National System of Researcher, reveals to Contralínea that 90% of the additives employed by the industry are unnecessary. His opinion stems from the fact that they are not used to preserve the nutritional content of the food. Instead, they are added to make a product more competitive by bettering its color, taste, texture, and duration.
‘They put on the market those products that have a shelf life of 6 months or over. Nevertheless, to achieve it, they add a series of chemical compounds. People are not aware of how many substances something so simple like bread or packed meat may contain’, he explains. They aim to preserve the aspect of food, retain its stability and homogeneity, as well as avoid that it spoils or dissolve.
In comparison with natural additives, synthetics have more considerable economic and technological efficiency advantages. It indeed is cheaper to carry out a chemical synthesis rather than a natural extraction. Artificial colorants, for instance, can keep more intense colors longer and are less sensitive to changes in temperatures. Hence, they facilitate the process of production, transport, and storage.
Chronic diseases, the real cost
The large food sales companies, such as supermarkets, have turned into ‘dictators,’ the Mexican nutritionist affirms. They only acquire products from providers guaranteeing a certain quantity of standardized food and with a long shelf life.
The supermarket earns between 30% and 50% of the product sales price, he explains, so that the industry must reduce production costs. ‘This creates a chain from agriculture to the table where it is almost impossible not to find additives in food.’
Therefore, artificial additives constitute an unbeatable advantage for the food industry. However, it is not the same for the human body, which finds it difficult to process these substances. Digestive enzymes are not able to break down some synthetic additives due to their molecular structure.
‘The majority of the molecule is made up of a hydrocarbon, and no biological system can completely break it down. The more complex are [the additives], the less they can be broken down, and they accumulate in the body. That is why many damages are observed in the liver,’ Álvarez Cisneros explains.
According to Adolfo Chávez Villasana, by digesting synthetic additives, the body carries out one of these three processes: it nullifies the molecule by adding a methyl radical to deactivate it, stores it in the liver or removes it through the urine.
However, should the body manage to break down these substances, the risk that it manifests an allergic reaction to some of the resulting products is always possible. ‘Some sweeteners break down into amino acids, such as the phenylalanine, and some people are allergic to it. They are not ingesting it directly, but they may manifest an allergic reaction,’ Álvarez Cisneros explains.
Doctor Chávez Villasana reiterates that another scenario may occur, even though no extensive research supports it. In other words, it is possible that when digesting food rich in synthetic additives, their interaction inside our organism creates chemical reactions, which produce derived substances. The chances are higher when such edibles are liquid.
According to the nutritionist, regular consumption of such substances mainly affects the liver and arteries. Indeed, the most frequent illnesses are hepatic steatosis (fatty liver) and strokes, thrombosis and clotting impairments following the apparition of wrinkles in the endothelium of the arteries. Nowadays, these diseases are ordinary, even though they were rare some decades ago.
The researcher considers that it is a severe problem for public health. Moreover, it is closely linked to the epidemic of chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, conditions in which Mexico is a world champion.
Part of the problem originates in the so-called moderate child malnutrition, a condition caused by the type of food consumed in large quantities since childhood. In his opinion, children represent the most vulnerable population as they stick to this dietary pattern for the rest of their lives.
In Mexico, eight out of ten children between the age of 5 and 11 consume sweetened drinks. Seven out of 10 eat snacks, candies, and desserts, and five out of 10 ingest sugary cereals. On the contrary, only two out of 10 minors in school-age consume vegetables, the 2016 National Survey on Health and Nutrition – Encuesta Nacional de Salud y Nutrición de Medio Camino 2016 – shows.
Nutritionist Julieta Ponce Sánchez, a member of the Food Orientation Centre (COA Nutrición), explains that the population who does not rely on enough refrigeration facilities is hugely affected. ‘Every Diconsa shop located in rural areas lacks refrigerators. Therefore, additives become fundamental to keep products on the shelves.’
The expert adds that one of the crucial problems related to the consumption of additives is the loss of food autonomy. The persistent usage of artificial sweeteners – such as saccharin, acesulfame-k, aspartame (with a sweetening power between 200 and 300 times higher than regular sugar) or sucralose (600 times higher) – makes people adjusted to it. In other words, consumers increasingly tolerate the sweet taste while their perception of natural flavors decreases.
The nutritionist highlights that in food, the mix of a sweetener, as sweet as it is, with a preservative or enhancer of salty flavor, such as monosodium glutamate, does not make it cloying. This loss of tasting capacity is called ‘sequestered palate.’
‘Food autonomy starts in the palate. People having a sequestered palate are not free to choose what to eat and be aware of the consequences of their decision’, Ponce Sánchez affirms.
Eduardo GaliRanch Corona, director of the Research and development plant of Alpura, comments to Contralínea that the company tries not to employ artificial sweeteners and more in general sugar, considering the current debate on the damage that they bring.
The director participated in a seminar on the food industry organized by the Department of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics of the UNAM. On that occasion, he said that ‘it is necessary to reduce the consumption of sweeteners in general, either natural or artificial, and employ creative solutions. For instance, dairy-free milk is sweeter, and this explains the reason why many products are lactose-free even though there is no apparent claim on their packages. Their sweeter taste comes from glucose and galactose.’
Nonetheless, the flavored milk of the line Vaquita by Alpura – destined to children consumption – besides being lactose-free also contains sucralose and acesulfame-k, artificial flavors, Allura red colorant, and niacin as an acidifier.
COA Nutrición sustains that the corn syrup rich in fructose (it is natural but highly-refined) is one of the most dangerous additives. It is employed as a substitute for sugar because of its lower price and more extended durability. Its consumption generates metabolic alterations such as resistance to insulin. Moreover, it increases pro-inflammatory markers and uric acid levels, triglycerides, and cholesterol. Throughout the years, it may bring about fatty liver and diabetes.
One of the effects of the resistance to insulin – due to the ingest of this substance – is acanthosis nigricans. The latter is an impairment characterized by the thickening and darkening of the neck, the appearance of white channels on neck, groin, and armpits of overweight or obese people.
Corn syrup rich in fructose is present in the following products: canned legume salad by Herdez, Multigrano, and Barritas bars by Bimbo, biscuits such as Chips Ahoy by Nabisco, Príncipe, Sponch and Gansito by Marinel, and Florentinas, Emperador and Chokis by Gamesa.
The industry knows how to produce food, which creates pleasure and ‘addiction’: it offers crunchy texture, spreadable cream, and sparkling drinks, Julieta Ponce says. Nonetheless, they also employ flavor enhancers such as the monosodium glutamate. Simultaneously, the usage of additives allows them to cut costs and reduce the quantity of raw material used. For instance, yogurt contains less milk, cold meat, less meat, and bread, less flour.
The associated risks
The food industry employs a wide range of additives to create stable and attractive products; each food may contain a different quantity based on what they consider necessary. The primary purpose is to make production rentable. That is why they often use unregulated additives on which no broad research is available, or even there is evidence of being hazardous.
To determine whether food additives are dangerous to health, researchers conduct experiments on mice, guinea pigs, and other animals. The substances are used in a concentration at least ten times higher than those admitted commercially in similar additives. If this concentration does not cause obvious pathological problems in soft organs, the substances are authorized, explains the chemist expert in Biotechnology Yenizey Álvarez Cisneros.
Conversely, for the commercial release of a food additive (be it of vegetable, animal, mineral, or synthetic origin), an acceptable daily intake value must be established: a concentration at least ten times lower than the quantity in which no damage to health was observed in animal experiments. It is assumed that the daily consumption of such a dose does not expose people to risks.
Through research, they found that some additives above their daily permitted intake may cause liver, stomach and colon cancers, neuronal impairments, allergies, infertility, and hyperactivity. However, the toxicity of the substance depends on the doses ingested. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO), the FAO, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still admit the employment of most of these potentially hazardous substances setting the allowable daily intake values below the risk indicator.
Even though experiments on animals are fundamental to discover what short term effects are, it is impossible to establish the consequences of ingesting additives for a period of 40 or 50 years, that is to say, throughout life.
The Mexican law establishes the maximum employable quantity (milligram per kilogram or liter) of an additive according to the food to which it is added. ‘Every additive currently used in Mexico has been approved by the Cofepris. However, there is no rule regulating their frequency of use, a safe practice to mix them, or if a certain population consumes them,’ affirms Julieta Ponce.
Although there is not enough scientific evidence, a person likely ingests a substance above the recommended dose due to their eating habits. For instance, when eating many fried or high-fat edibles, one is exposed to the risk of excessively ingesting antioxidants added to oils to prevent oxidation. It is the case of Butyl hydroxyanisole (BHA), tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT), linked to metabolic problems and potential carcinogens.
In Julia Ponce’s opinion, the most unsafe daily consumed products from a nutritional point of view are broth powder and cubes (containing trans fats and sodium), sausages (containing sugar, corn syrup, salts, and food colourings), cookies, box cereals, coffee cream substitutes, jellies, yogurts, drinks, sports drinks, cakes, bread and spreadable creams such as Philadelphia cheese, peanut butter and Nutella.
Titanium Dioxide: a pigment associated with colorectal cancer
Biologist Luis Guillermo Garduño Balderas, professor of Biomedical Physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, explains to Contralínea the outcome of the research on the effects of titanium dioxide on mice in which he took part. This substance is a food whitener present in dairy products, sugar-coated sweets, pasta, flours, ice-creams, cheeses, canned seeds, and dried fruit.
The Titanium Dioxide used in food is an additive of mineral origin, synthesized through coloring or sulfuric acid treatment. It is a nanomaterial, that is, a blend of micro and nanoparticles that, according to 2018 records, is employed in 3 thousand 516 products worldwide.
By itself, it does not bring about severe damages, the scientist affirms. On the contrary, problems arise when people suffer from previous illnesses. For instance, people affected by ulcerative colitis, early colorectal or stomach cancer, could see these conditions exacerbated by such a bleaching agent. ‘It has been observed that the titanium dioxide employed in food is associated with inflammatory processes and, as far as we are concerned, a chronic inflammatory process may cause carcinogenic events.’
Indeed, the IARC has classified industrial level titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogenic factor to humans. ‘This also raises worries: if it can be carcinogenic to humans in the respiratory tract [for workers who synthesize the commercial substance], why orally cannot it cause harm’?
In Mexico, its use is permitted if the ‘good manufacturing practices’ are followed.
It implies that, instead of setting a maximum permitted quantity for each food, they allow the industry to add the minimum amount needed to obtain the desired effect.’
The fact that no maximum use is established and that no employed quantity appears on the label creates a severe problem, as it is impossible to keep track of the amount of dioxide titanium ingested by Mexicans. Considering that our exposure to its chronic consumption is increasingly higher, this situation is so critical, he concludes.
Victor Manuel Borja, director of the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology at the National Institute of Pediatrics, sustains that there is little scientific evidence that allows establishing a link between additives consumption and the occurrence of cancerous diseases.
The expert in oncology points out that the consumption of processed foods is just a facet of the complex issue characterizing our times: the increase in cancer incidence in the country. He adds that even ignoring the effects of synthetic additives, obesity is an illness that favors the occurrence of cancer, as well as the limited consumption of natural foods having anti-carcinogenic properties.
The problem is that most people’s diet is based on processed foods because they are cheaper, easier to find, and ‘tastier,’ the doctor affirms. Moreover, it is essential to factor in toxic substances contained in house chemicals and environmental pollution.
From individual awareness to State responsibility
Nutritionist Chávez Villasana, a member of the American Society of Nutrition, remarks that it is necessary to regulate the market of processed foods at the national and international levels. However, it a hard task, he denounces. Indeed, the international authority on food regulating matters – the FAO – through its Codex Alimentarius is made up of industry representatives instead of bodies of the member states responsible for food health (such as the Cofepris in Mexico and the FDA in the U.S.).
On the other side, he considers it necessary for Mexicans to discover the pleasure of eating natural foods again. Consumers always demand the same color and taste in food, which is not naturally possible. ‘If for once a jam is acidic or yellowish, people stop buying that brand. ‘What does the industry do’? It may be that it adds some strawberries but standardizes their flavor, aroma, and texture. We have to keep in mind that strawberries are not that red nor that sweet.’
On this, chemist Yenizey Álvarez says: ‘we are so adjusted to bright colors that when we see a natural food, we feel there is something wrong with it.’
Nonetheless, she reiterates, in the last few years, research on natural additives has increased to reduce the use of synthetics. For instance, they propose to employ lactic bacteria to produce preservatives or to use red fruits to create antioxidants. She is working on the realization of an antioxidant of animal origin, extracted from grasshopper, to preserve meat.
Nutritionist Julieta Ponce underlines that Mexico lacks a public food policy that is above all the secretariats and guides food decisions from production to consumption through regulation and advertising.
In her opinion, it is urgent to provide more fresh edibles, increase breastfeeding, suggest a basic food basket for pregnant women, infants, and the school population, improve product labeling and enhance the scientific evidence on which the regulation is based.
‘We need through an institutional mandate that the State protects us. If we made campaigns, it would seem that everything depends on a personal decision, and this is not the case,’ she explains. It is not a matter of discouraging individual consumption. The State must ensure the population, in constitutional terms, nutritious, sufficient, quality, and accessible food, she concludes.
Contralínea has tried for over a month to discuss with the Social Communication area of the Cofepris about the health assessments on which Mexican regulations are built. By press time, no response has been received.
By Alba Olea
(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)