Nutritional Supplements: The Good, The Bad, The Unintentional

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Nutritional Supplements: The Good, The Bad, The Unintentional
Nutritional Supplements: The Good, The Bad, The Unintentional

Vitamins and minerals are considered "good" nutritional supplements, while sodium nitrates and nitrites, along with tartrazine, are considered "bad". In fact, the former are nowhere near as useful, and the latter are not as bad as they seem. The most dangerous of food additives should be considered the so-called indirect. Let's take a closer look at what is best to avoid and what not to pay special attention to.

nutritional supplements

To understand the topic of nutritional supplements, you need to understand where they begin and where they end. Often a resident of Russia believes that food additives are E102 and similar compounds with the letter "E" and a number after it. In fact, this is not the case. "E" means "Europe", that is, these are only food additives that are allowed in the European Union. However, their full definition includes all compounds that are added to food and are not initially included in it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 identified the problem as follows: "Some additives go directly into food, but" indirect "additives can include compounds from plastics, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard" and other components of food and beverage packaging. Among them, bisphenols, phthalates, perfluorinated organic compounds, perchlorates, dyes of children's food and nitrites with nitrates are the most worrisome for the academy. Let's deal with each of these groups.

Hit below the belt

Bisphenols are common organic compounds. They are mainly used as hardeners for plastics, epoxy and polycarbonate components for greenhouses. They are also used to cover the inner surfaces of metal soda cans. Alas, they can be found in solid plastic food containers.

Food packaging should not normally contain phthalates. Unfortunately, bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET, Polyethylene Terephthalate, code 01), for still not entirely clear reasons, can saturate the liquids contained in them with phthalates (apparently, some of the PET molecules are still destroyed, giving phthalates, although why is not clear). It is PET bottles that are used for soda, sweet teas, drinking water and the like.


The problem is that inside human cells there are estrogen receptors that respond to the main female sex hormone, estrogen. It is produced (and regulates physiology) in men, but much less than in women. So: all kinds of human estrogen receptors react to bisphenols and phthalates. That is, the body interprets these "indirect" nutritional supplements as a weak version of estrogen and reacts as if the level of estrogen in the blood has increased.

Of course, this does not mean that the bodies of men who consume soda are completely feminized in a female pattern, like those who take synthetic estrogens during sex reassignment surgery. To do this, you need to consume so much bisphenol or phthalates that a person will experience a banal severe poisoning (according to Russian GOST, bisphenol is a moderately dangerous substance, which should be worked with in goggles in production).

However, they have a certain effect. As noted in the WHO report, high doses of bisphenol A cause problems in mice, including sexual dysfunctions, precancerous changes, and a decrease in sperm quality. This concerns female mice less: for them, the effect of compounds taken by the body for estrogen is more natural.

Of course, the law does not allow taking human men and regularly feeding them large amounts of bisphenol. However, there is a nuance: in developed countries, the quality of sperm in men has been steadily declining since the 1970s. In 1973, a milliliter of semen of an American had an average of 99 million sperm, in 2011 - only 47 million.Moreover, the drop in sperm count is not slowing down even now, remaining at the level of 1% per year. The authors of the work, who discovered this problem in 2017, believe that we are living in an emergency situation and an impending reproduction collapse. After all, conception is impossible without sperm.

Scientists who have discovered a catastrophic decline in sperm quality since the 70s believe: "The fact that the decline is observed in Western countries suggests that some common chemical components are the cause of what is happening."


This is logical: bisphenols and phthalates came to Western countries first. The reason for concern is also understandable: due to the low sperm count, many men find it difficult to conceive a child outside of IVF. For example, today in Denmark 20% of all men of fertile age really cannot conceive children on their own. But for men from poor countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and so on, the quality of sperm did not have time to noticeably deteriorate - progress has not so much affected these parts of the planet.

Avoiding bisphenols and phthalates in food is seemingly simple: just do not drink from metal cans and plastic bottles, do not eat food from plastic containers. But there is a caveat: the inside of the tubes can be coated with bisphenol at a number of food processing plants. Therefore, it is difficult to completely zero its consumption.

Why are the components of Martian soil in food packages dangerous?

The word "perchlorates" is most often used in the media, telling readers that the Martian soil is poisonous: Mars rovers have discovered perchlorates, salts or esters of perchloric acid in it. It must be understood that this is not only a poison: potassium perchlorate (in very small doses) is used to treat an increased activity of the thyroid gland, since it inhibits its activity.

In 2017, U.S. authorities found that the amount of perchlorate in the average American's food had skyrocketed in less than 10 years. In food for children - by 23%, for babies - by 34%. This can be especially dangerous for them, since the thyroid gland regulates the growth processes in the body. Large doses of perchlorates can lead to impaired brain development in children, the FDA notes.

The question arises: where does the toxic component, which usually pops up when discussing Martian soil, come from in food? The fact is that in recent years, perchlorates are increasingly used in food packaging - mostly ready-made, sold in stores. One reason: Perchlorates reduce static electricity in sealed containers.

Most of the perchlorates are found in sausages and rice flakes - at least in the United States. Where we have the most of them is difficult to understand, because there is no US Food and Drug Administration in Russia, and Rospotrebnadzor is in no hurry to inform the public about such trifles as the concentration of perchlorates in food. Nevertheless, most likely, our picture is similar: we import food processing technologies from the West, and not vice versa. So sausage lovers can be considered warned.

Artificial Colors: Allergy or Worse?

From “unintentional” food additives, which are moderately approved in Europe and therefore do not have an E, we finally move on to those that do.

The first of the permitted, but not innocuous compounds is tartrazine, a food supplement E102. It is a food coloring that has been used for a long time. It is easy to find it in Mountain Dew, and in Tarhun, and in a host of other drinks. And also in ice cream (which has a color), mashed potatoes, yoghurts (having colors), store mustard (made of powder is often devoid of it), almost all store-bought yellow soft drinks, cakes, desserts, paellas and risottos (store-bought), chips, "quick-sale" cubes.


E102 can cause allergic reactions in about one in 900 people. If you have unpleasant symptoms after taking aspirin, often you will also have problems from tartrazine.The amount of it in products is different, so sometimes the symptoms can be stronger, sometimes they are weaker. One person out of 900 is not so many, but this means that in Russia there are about 150 thousand such people, and in the world there are many millions.


You can often hear that E102 carries another problem - allegedly it can cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children who consume it with food. In fact, there are no scientific papers that could show such a connection convincingly enough. Perhaps E102 is capable of provoking slightly earlier manifestations of certain symptoms of this syndrome, but even this is not yet fully clear from a scientific point of view, as well as the mechanism by which it could do this.


Interestingly, the regulations of the Customs Union, which includes Russia, oblige the manufacturer to indicate that E102 (tartrazine) is found in food and that it can reduce attention and cause problems with activity in children. Formally, however, the use of E102 is permitted here.

Nitrates and nitrites

Those who saw the end of the Soviet era remember: the press loudly shouted about the dangers of nitrates from fertilizers. Now the media have new times and heroes, but nitrates have not disappeared from food. Technically, some of them could have increased even more, as the consumption of ready-made food sold in packaged form has increased significantly.

Nitrates (say, E251) effectively protect the finished food from spoilage, in addition, give it a specific color: for example, they make the meat pinker or redder than it was originally. Sodium nitrite (E250) has a similar effect. Almost anyone who eats ready-made food or convenience foods will sooner or later come across them.

There are scientific studies according to which people who consumed E251 more than the norm show an increased mortality rate from a number of diseases. Among them are Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, stomach and rectal cancer.

However, it is difficult to understand what is the matter here and whether the E251 is really "extreme". After all, the more often a person is sick with, say, diabetes, the more often he consumes ready-made or semi-prepared food from the store. Again, with such a diet, he is more likely to have chronic inflammatory processes in the gastrointestinal tract, and inflammatory processes in certain tissues increase the risk of cancer. How to understand: his chances of dying grew from E251 or from the mass of other components of ready-made food (one sample of it can contain dozens of "eshek" at once)? Be it mice, we could divide them into groups and give one with food E251, and not give the other, and then calculate their mortality statistics.

But humans are not mice. Such an experiment cannot be carried out on them. Mice, alas, have a slightly different digestive system and a different risk of getting the above diseases. Therefore, it is not just difficult to prove exactly that E251 is to blame, but very difficult.

The situation with E250 (sodium nitrite) is no simpler. Yes, pigs are poisoned with it in Australia, where these feral animals breed uncontrollably. Undoubtedly, the pigs, having eaten food with E250, die, having previously lost consciousness. This happens because E250 greatly reduces the ability of blood hemoglobin to carry oxygen. In animals that ate it, oxygen starvation begins, and then death occurs.


But don't think that people and pigs are the same. To die with a probability of 50%, a person needs as much as 4.6 grams of the E250 dietary supplement, and it is difficult to imagine a consumer who can get that much with ready-to-eat food. Pigs are simply very greedy and can eat significantly more people at a time, which makes them so vulnerable to this dietary supplement. Therefore, they gorge themselves on E250 - they put the additive in any food - and after a few hours they lose consciousness and die. But the average consumer of store products is practically not threatened.

A really unpleasant feature of almost all nitrates and nitrites is not that they slightly impair the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, but that they also "knock down" the normal natural levels of thyroid hormones. This is especially dangerous for a growing organism. Yes, there are suggestions that nitrates and nitrites are correlated with some types of cancer, but researching this question in humans is understandably difficult. Therefore, today there is no exact data in this area.

"Useful" nutritional supplements

For many years, it was believed that the cause of diabetes lies in the excessive consumption of calories, including sugar - although, strictly speaking, there is no scientific evidence for this view. To reduce the risk of diabetes, various artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, or E951 food supplement, were added to food.

In 2016, a group of Israeli scientists decided to test how aspartame affects the likelihood of problems with glucose tolerance. Such disorders are a critical step towards type 2 diabetes. Experiments on mice have shown that consumption of E951 increases the risk of developing diabetes. The mechanism is not entirely clear: apparently, aspartame acts on microbes living in the intestines of mice, and changes their species composition in such a way that rodents cease to normally "cope" with glucose.

It is interesting that the number of diabetics in the world in 1985 was 30 million, and nowadays it exceeds 400 million, that is, the disease is spreading rapidly, and the causes of this epidemic are poorly understood today. More people die from diabetes and complications than from wars and all other epidemics, so it would be nice to find out what is the reason for this surge.

Yes, in theory, the growing popularity of aspartame - E951 may be involved in the diabetes epidemic. It was allowed to be used only in 1981, after which the popularity of the supplement grew. But we must understand that it is difficult to prove it. Mice, pigs and other model animals are different from humans. To get "iron" results, it is necessary to feed a large sample of volunteers until they become pre-diabetic. It is clear that such a study will not be missed by any ethical committee that approves of experiments on humans. That is why there is no definitive answer to the question about the dangers of aspartame yet - and this food additive is unlikely to be banned in the foreseeable future.

However, this does not mean that consumers themselves cannot eliminate the threat from their lives. It is enough to eat and drink less often with E951. This group includes many soda and other sugary drinks.

Vitamins: useful or useless?

Advertising systematically tells us that vitamins are good for our daily activities. Supposedly with food we receive a little of them, hence the deficiency of these substances.

A reservation must be made here. If you are sitting at the polar station and your food is corned beef and water, then yes, you need to carefully monitor the intake of vitamins of a number of groups. A similar situation - if your diet contains a high proportion of semi-finished products, which are also not particularly balanced in terms of vitamins.


But most people on the planet have access to relatively fresh animal and plant foods. If you eat vegetables and fruits at least once every couple of days, you will not be deficient in most vitamins.

There are certain types of vitamins that are less common than others in regular food. For example, this is often considered vitamin E (food additives E306-E309). Until recently, they tried to ascribe almost miraculous properties to him: it was believed that he both reduced the risk of cancer, and made Alzheimer's disease less likely, and even cardiovascular diseases because of him allegedly get sick less often.


Alas, everything is not as simple as we were told in childhood. In fact, the main sources of naturally occurring vitamin E are vegetable oils (olive), nuts and seeds. But the fact is that these same oils and nuts contain many healthy components at once - any natural food product, as a rule, has a complex composition. Almost all studies that find a link between increased intake of food with vitamin E and a reduced likelihood of heart attacks and strokes have this problem.

There is a lot of olive oil in the Mediterranean diet - but it contains a lot of other components, and it is impossible to separate vitamin E from others in practice.You cannot force a large group of people to take and give up vitamin E for life in order to see what their likelihood of heart and vascular diseases will be. And if they give up on it only for a short time, then the research will not have time to produce statistically significant results.

There is one more problem. High doses of vitamin E can be hazardous to health. With ordinary food, without artificial additives, this is very rare: no one drinks liters of olive oil and does not eat 10 kilograms of nuts a day. But with cooked food, where there may be "shock" doses of E306, E307, E308 and E309 (different forms of synthetic vitamin E), the situation is much more complicated. Carried away, you can get a dose higher than the recommended safe.

And yes, what does “above the recommended safe” mean? The American analogue of Rospotrebnadzor believes that for adults it is one gram per day. His colleagues from the EU - 0.3 grams. Do you feel how poorly worked out the question? Rospotrebnadzor generally refrains from publicly speaking out on this issue, apparently trying to avoid solving all these difficulties.

By the way, vitamin E supplements in vaping liquids are also blamed for the recent epidemic of vaping deaths in the United States. But what was the mechanism by which artificial vitamin E caused death is not yet firmly known. All this shows that with nutritional supplements in the form of useful vitamins, not everything is clear yet and one should rush at them in food with the utmost care.

And what to do?

We emphasize right away that there is no complete guide to all potentially hazardous food additives above. Their list is too long, and the elaboration of the issue, from a scientific point of view, is small, so that, in principle, it would be possible to make such a list with confidence. We have just identified the most common bottlenecks in the food supplement industry - in a situation where a number of scientific papers strongly recommend thinking about the safety of such products.

However, even our short list gives rise to the unpleasant feeling that food additives are plentiful. Since they write about them in as small print as possible, it is difficult to find all the "difficult" connections on the packaging. And is it really necessary? If we bother ourselves with elections for each pack in the store, we can get to the point of chronic stress, which is far from harmless.

General recommendations are clear nonetheless. It makes sense to try to eat foods that are minimally processed by the food industry: for example, unprocessed meat, vegetables and fruits. If you heat and season them yourself, the chances of getting enough extra are noticeably reduced.

Yes, there are bottlenecks. No additives are available in baby breakfast cereals, just like in soda. However, it is worth reducing the consumption of the latter by children - the harm from this product has long and reliably been proven.

Another possible way to consume fewer insecure connections is to not get carried away with standardized online fast food. All these McDonald's and KFC have long and traditionally used large amounts of food additives to obtain the desired signature flavor, and their additives do not always seem harmless. Restaurants that are far from fast food often use fewer yeshekas in their meals, although this rule is not without exception.

However, the most justifiable step a modern person outside of the poorest countries can take with regard to nutritional supplements is to simply relax. It is impossible to avoid their consumption, only to minimize it. But there is no point in being nervous about this, further shortening your life.

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