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Food Matters: The Basics


So is 2013 the start of a healthier lifestyle for you? Steering clear of processed and fast foods is the obvious route but there are also other hidden dangers in the foods that we consume that would prevent us from obtaining our goals.

In much of the developed world, cancer, asthma, heart disease and diabetes are on the increase, and all are related to the food we ingest, along with too many highly processed, sugary and fatty foods.

I have been researching healthy lifestyle options for more than ten years and each year it becomes more challenging to make optimal health decisions. Not because I lack the determination but because our so-called healthier options are not that healthy either. This is a vast subject but I would like to cover the basics for now. Below are some of the ingredients in our food that are obviously detrimental to our health and especially to the health of our children.


Practically all supermarket foods are processed in some way but many are highly processed and usually also contain chemical preservatives, additives and very little real or fresh food in them. The main purpose of these additives and colourants is to make the food look, smell and taste appealing so that you will purchase them.

What is concerning is that we are not aware of the dangers of many of these harmful ingredients because we are not alerted to them by mainstream media or even health professionals. In fact the opposite occurs, advertisements in South Africa are permitted to portray sugar-, colour and additive-laden foods as being part of a healthy diet. Advertisers also calculatingly add words such as “fortified” or “added vitamins”.

Have a look at most of the children’s cereal advertisements and then see what the products truly contain and this is something that children are consuming on a daily basis. Even the healthier options contain questionable substances such as genetically modified ingredients. A study in United States found that the marketing of unhealthful foods to children is a significant contributor to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

To compound the problem, food labeling in South Africa is inadequate and often misleading. This was confirmed once more while out grocery shopping. Almost every locally produced item and some transnational items had labels that stated ‘colouring’ and ‘preservatives’ but not actually stating which ones. This makes it very difficult for us to make informed choices; instead we remain in the dark on the true contents of our food.

Marketing and Our Children

The majority of foods marketed to children in supermarket stores feature characters on the packaging, often Disney characters, which has been shown to manipulate children’s food related beliefs and encourage them to request these products. Our role as a parent to be the “nutritional gatekeeper” is consistently undermined when we give in to placate our children. Our children don’t know the difference between additives, sugars and vitamins but we allow them to make purchasing choices based on Disney characters.

The Food Industry

Bluntly put, profit above customer’s wellbeing is the status quo. How else can one interpret the continuing stock on our supermarket shelves of toxic substances such as Blue #1 die and Blue #2 die (E133) found in sweets, children’s cereal, soft drinks and well-know sports drinks. These colourants have been banned in Norway, Finland and France due to concerns that they may cause chromosomal damage.

It is astonishing to think that the cost of food continues to rise dramatically and yet we are exposed to more harmful substances than ever before. More astonishingly is that we don’t seem to be concerned and have this belief that because it is on the store shelves that it must be fine to consume. Thousands of chemicals are added to what we consume without sufficient testing since they are presumed innocent unless proven guilty. As consumers we also don’t readily make the connection between poor health and what we are eating. So guilty substances are hardly ever critically tested.

In a popular and widely available energy drink in South Africa, stocked not only in supermarkets but at most school tuck shops, they use the following colourants:

E133, brilliant blue, which has been banned in Norway, Finland and France due to concerns that they may cause chromosomal damage. This gives the product the very artificial blueberry colour. It is a synthetic dye produced using aromatic hydrocarbons from petroleum. It can be combined with tartrazine (E102) to produce various shades of green.
E104, qunoline yellow, is banned in Australia, Japan, Norway and the US for its link with hyperactivity in children. Quinoline yellow is one of the colors that the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group recommends be eliminated from the diet of children.
E129, allura red, is banned in nine European countries and is not recommended for children as causes allergic reactions, particularly for asthma sufferers and those with sensitive skin. Red AC was originally manufactured from coal tar, but is now mostly made from petroleum. Despite the popular misconception, Allura Red AC is not derived from any insect, unlike the food colouring carmine, which is derived from the female cochineal insect.
E110, sunset yellow, is associated with nausea, vomiting, nasal congestion, abdominal pains and hyperactivity.

The Disconnect

A leading retailer is selling liquid eggs in bottles. I honestly did a double take when I saw this. It would seem that the eggshell is no longer a sufficient package for eggs or do retailers think that we have become too lazy to crack our own eggs? Are consumers so disconnected from real food and the source of food that we actually think it is ok to purchase eggs in bottles now?

The Alarm List

In 2007, a British study published in The Lancet concluded that consuming artificial coloring and preservatives in food could increase hyperactivity in kids.

For starters, try to avoid food products with any of these substances as they raise many red flags, especially if your children suffer from allergies, asthma and behavioral problems:

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) – a processed flavor enhancer.
There are links to obesity, type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome X.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG): a villain and promoter of liver inflammation and dysplasia. These results take on considerable significance in light of the widespread usage of dietary MSG and we suggest that MSG should have its safety profile re-examined and be potentially withdrawn from the food chain” from a study in Japan, the birthplace of MSG.

Some food labels come right out and say that a product contains added MSG but others hide the fact by using different names for it. From my understanding any small amounts of free glutamic acid found in unprocessed and unfermented food will be L-glutamic acid only and will not cause typically adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive people. Processed free glutamic acid causes adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive people and therefore any product that uses this process should be labeled as allergen sensitive to MSG. Names of ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid are Sodium caseinate, calcium caseinte, textured protein and yeast extract.

Sodium benzoate – a food additive used as a preservative. It’s suspected that sodium benzoate, in addition to artificial food color, may increase hyperactivity in some children. Sodium benzoate in soft drinks may also react with added vitamin C to make benzene, a cancer-causing substance. The 2007 Lancet study that linked additives with increased hyperactivity included the preservative sodium benzoate.

Sodium nitrite – an additive used for curing meat. There is a theory that eating a lot of sodium nitrite might cause gastric cancer. This theory has been debated for decades, and it is still an open question but best to avoid.

Trans fats – these “partially hydrogenated oils” are used most often for deep-frying food, and in baked goods. Margarine and vegetable shortening may also be made with partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are believed to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Aspartame E951– is an artificial, non-saccharide sweetener used as a sugar substitute in many foods and beverages. Aspartame is a methyl ester of the aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide. Aspartame breaks down in the body and the chemicals it breaks down into are said to be potentially toxic.
It was first sold under the brand name NutraSweet. Soft drinks that contain it are; all varieties of Diet Coca Cola, Coca Cola Zero, Sprite Zero, Lucozade Sport, Schweppes, Fanta Zero, Fanta Orange. Canderal, the tabletop sweetener also contains aspartame.

Nutrasweet was not approved until 1981, in dry foods. In 1980 a FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” For over eight years the FDA refused to approve it because of the seizures and brain tumors this drug produced in lab animals. The FDA continued to refuse to approve it until President Reagan took office (a friend of Searle) and fired the FDA Commissioner who wouldn’t approve it. Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes was appointed as commissioner. Even then there was so much opposition to approval that a Board of Inquiry was set up. The Board said: “Do not approve aspartame”. Dr. Hayes OVERRULED his own Board of Inquiry. Shortly after Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., approved the use of aspartame in carbonated beverages, he left for a position with G.D. Searle’s and Monsanto’s Public Relations firm. Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle in 1985.

As of January 2013, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is re-evaluating the safety of aspartame. All stakeholders and interested parties have been invited to comment on the draft opinion through the online public consultation by 15 February 2013.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)– What is it?

There’s been a conscious effort on behalf of biotech companies to confuse people, saying that farmers have been using genetic modification for generations,” says Jeffery Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of Seeds of Deception.

The difference between GMO and hybrids is that with hybrids, plants have been crossbred to create a plant with the best features of both parents. According to the World Health Organization, Genetically Modified Organisms on the other hand are “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally.” “The process involves using randomly inserting genetic fragments of DNA from one organism to another, usually from a different species.” That could mean that some of our food can even contain human DNA.  One other major difference between the two: Hybrid seeds are allowed for use in organic production, while GMO seeds most definitely are not.

South Africa is the only country in the world that has a staple food produced using GMO, more than 70% of our maize is genetically modified. Other crops are soya and cotton in South Africa.

 How Safe is Genetically Modified Food

GMO’s have never been proven to be safe for human consumption. No human tests have ever been done as it is deemed unethical! Safety assessment of GM foods has been based on the idea of “substantial equivalence” such that “if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food.”However, several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.

The experiments simply haven’t been done and we now have become the guinea pigs,” says renowned Canadian geneticist David Suzuki. He adds, “Anyone that says, ‘Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,’ I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying.”

Do we know which foods contains GMO’s?

No we don’t because our food labeling in South Africa is so inadequate as retailers are not adhering to the GMO labeling law amended in 2014. A packet of maize that would almost definitely be GMO still has the label “May Contain GMO”.  Most of our gluten-free products contain GMO due to the soya and maize substitution of wheat in these products. Products that are sold in health stores and online health stores need to be verified since much of our soya and maize are genetically modified crops. Also read bread labels to see if they contain soya or other known GMO ingredients.

GMO labeling and the Law

“The proposed amendments convey the clear intention of government that the food industry must now step up to the plate and label their products,” said Mariam Mayet, Director of the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB), which has been actively working to protect Africa’s food systems from privatization, industrialization, and genetic engineering.
You can read the full draft amendments here: http://www.acbio.org.za/ACB_35776_9-10_TradeIndustryCV01.pdf

The amended labeling law states that foods containing 5% or more of GM content must be labeled as containing GMO’s. This 5% threshold was chosen out of commercial considerations. As consumers we should demand the right to know all the contents of our food, even if less than 1% content. Many retailers and manufacturers continue to disregard this law, as they are yet to correctly label their products. Are they waiting for consumer pressure to make the changes to their labeling?

GMO & Food Security

According to the United Nations, by the end of the century the world could have an extra 3 billion people to feed. Is GMO food the answer to the worlds’ food burden? If we consider that the global study by the London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently reported that half the food produced worldwide is being thrown away then surely the answer is not more food but better food policies? There is obviously enough food to feed everyone. Simply put, greed in the food chain has stopped the hungry from obtaining nutritious and affordable food. People are starving not because there is not enough food but because deficiency of distribution. GMO seeds have an inborn gene to not produce seeds, which allows Monsanto the monopoly on food; they can decide who will grow what and when. Farmers are forced to continue purchasing from them.

Is meddling with the genetic make-up of our food the answer? Before you say we have been modifying our food sources for decades, let me say yes we have and that is why we have and increase in food intolerances and chronic health issues caused by the way food is produced.
For example, 50 years or so ago, wheat contained only five percent gluten, today it has risen to up to 50 percent gluten content. It’s only been post World War II, that wartime chemicals and technologies have found new uses in agriculture.

The Consumer Protection Act

We have the legal right to know exactly what ingredients are in our foods, how they were manufactured and where they come from. We have the legal right to expect safe food for our children.

You can download The Consumer Protection Act here: http://www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=99961

So what do we do right now?

Stop being a human guinea pig for the food industry. Protect your health and stop believing the marketing lies by becoming an informed consumer.

Go to your grocery cupboard and read the labels of the food products you have purchased, especially the products that you or your family consume daily. See which are the potentially harmful ones and write to the producers, demand to know why they continue to use harmful ingredients. Stop purchasing their products until they take your health seriously.

Research and start a petition of your own, have a look at this one for example http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/295/394/006/

Read about the dangers in South Africa of genetically modified foods and the action you can take (www.acbio.org.za).

Spread the word, email your friends and family and tell them to read this blog right now.

Write to Ms. Tina Joemat-Pettersson, [email protected] Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department of Agriculture, Forestry and ask for the immediate banning of Genetically Modified crops and imported foods in South Africa.

Write to the Minister of Health and ask why foods which are potentially dangerous, don’t carry warning labels for allergy sufferers, asthmatics, children with behavioral and learning problems etc. List the foodstuffs that you are concerned about and the ingredients that you are concerned about.

Minister of Health: Dr Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi
Director General of the Department of Health: Ms Precious Matsoso
Chair: Portfolio Committee on Health: Mr Bevan M Goqwana

Write to Mr Ntutuzelo Vananda from the Department of Trade and Industry and list the products that you find are not adhering to the GMO labeling law.

Sources for this blog include:

Image Credit: mysuccessprinciples.com


  1. Food is what sustains us, it gives us life, it gives us love. we need to be informed as to what we are really eating, we then need to ensure that we don’t continue consuming harmful additives, preservatives etc. thanks Sonia, I’ll read labels much more attentively now.

  2. Such an informative and thorough article; thank you Sonia. I will be scouring our grocery cupboard to establish which of our household staples contain the nasties pinpointed in your piece – I’m sure that I’ll be amazed at how few products are keepers!

    We need to educate ourselves with regards to what we buy and eat; and be aware of how much current labeling practices in South Africa omit. Your article certainly provides a great outline of just how misleading and purely profit-minded the food industry is at large! Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Sonia de Villiers

    This is only the beginning…. we must become informed consumers and then act on this information, for our health and the health of future generations….
    Thank you for comments

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