Health fears over chemical preservatives in food

Veronica Anyango (right) enjoys a meal with a
Veronica Anyango (right) enjoys a meal with a friend at a Nairobi fast food joint. NATION | SARAH OOKO.  

On most mornings, the sweet aroma of fried sausages, grilled bacon and sizzling meat patties easily draws one to Lilian Atieno’s kitchen. Once the cooking is done, she will hurriedly stuff the sausages in cylindrical buns, lay the bacon on flat plates and make sandwiches with meat slices or beef brawn.

The sight of these delicacies on her breakfast table is enough to whet appetites and make stomachs growl, especially after a long night’s sleep. But these mouth-watering dishes are not only a preserve of Ms Atieno’s family and guests.

“They are gaining popularity among Kenyans as people increasingly consume processed food,” notes Ms Leila Akinyi, Head of Healthy Diets and Lifestyle Programme at the Ministry of Health (MOH) Nutrition Department.

Compared to other diets, processed foods or drinks have been altered from their natural state either for safety reasons or convenience. This is usually achieved through the use of additives, artificial flavouring and other chemical ingredients. Examples include meat products such as ham, dairy products such as cheese, and liquids such as sweetened juices.

Jasper Imungi, a food and nutrition expert from the University of Nairobi notes that food additives, which are contained in most processed food or drinks, are often perceived to be “evil” chemicals that cause ill health.

“Yet this is not always the case. All additives allowed for use in food have been scientifically tested and found to be safe. But they should be used within the stipulated limits or amounts,” says Prof Imungi.
Prof Imungi adds that the additives perform various roles in food. They include: flavour enhancers that improve the taste of food, emulsifiers that allow water and oils to remain mixed together (as in ice creams), and preservatives that forestall rapid spoilage of food due to fungi or bacteria.

Despite their benefits, certain additives can pose health risks if consumed in large amounts over long periods of time.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised the alarm over the increased reliance on, and consumption of processed foods and drinks due to their link to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

“This is also a concern for us as a country. We are noticing that admissions due to NCDs have increased and are now almost at par with other disease,” says Ms Akinyi.

Indeed, the current WHO Global Report on Non-Communicable Diseases states that the percentage of NCD deaths among people below the age of 70 years in Kenya is now over 50 per cent. Economists are concerned that this catastrophe is causing a double burden of disease in developing nations.

Governments are now forced to address an upsurge in NCDs even as they struggle to reduce the prevalence of communicable disease such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia. This exerts additional pressure on healthcare expenses, which are already exorbitant.

Some of the controversial additives found in processed food and drinks include trans-fats, artificial flavours, nitrates, sulphur dioxide and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Trans-fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil.

These oils are used for making margarine that people spread on bread each morning. They are also used for baking and deep frying fast foods such as chicken and potato chips. Trans-fats are believed to increase the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes as they lower people’s HDL (good) cholesterol whilst raising their LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Majority of processed meat products like sausages, brawn and bacon that Ms Atieno enjoys cooking often contain sodium nitrate or nitrite. These chemicals are good colour stabilisers and will, for instance, turn meat bright red giving it a pleasant appearance. They also extend the shelf life of most cured meat products.

However, these chemical compounds are highly carcinogenic when consumed in large amounts. Upon entering the blood stream, they wreak havoc with a number of internal organs, particularly the liver and pancreas. Studies have linked them to colon, stomach and oesophagus cancers.

According to the National Cancer Control Strategy, about 28,000 Kenyans are diagnosed with cancer each year whereas 22,000 lose their lives to the disease. These figures could shoot up with overconsumption of such processed meat products.

Many processed foods also contain a flavour enhancing additive known as monosodium glutamate (MSG), which improves taste and makes them smell better.

Disrupts brain activity

However, this compound disrupts normal brain activity, undermining its ability to send the “I am full” signal which normally prompts people to stop eating. Ultimately this leads to weight gain and obesity cases.

Latest statistics from the WHO indicate that about 25 per cent of Kenyan women aged 20 years and above are overweight while only about 15 per cent of men in the same age group suffer from this condition.

“Processed foods are a major contributor to this problem,” notes Ms Akinyi. She adds: “We are also beginning to see an increase in obese children, which is a matter of concern as it makes them vulnerable to NCDs at such a tender age.”

The rampant use of MSG in processed foods (also contained in most food spices, beef or chicken cubes, sauces, soup mixtures and seasoning powders) has been known to cause headaches, chest pains and burning sensations in the body. The MSG may at times be referred to as Ajinamoto in most products.

Another commonly used additive is sulphur dioxide, which serves as a preservative in beer, wines, vinegar, soft drinks and juices. It induces asthma attacks and causes breathing problems if ingested in large amounts especially by children.

Scientists suspect that artificial food colours (such as those that make ice creams, baked products and candy bars look attractive) cause increased hyperactivity in children. Findings from a 2007 Lancet paper lend credence to this claim. Other studies conducted in animals found that large doses of artificial colours may also cause cancer.

A 2013 survey on daily eating habits conducted by the Youth Education Network (YEN) in selected primary schools in Nairobi and Mombasa found that 93 per cent of children – with an average age of 14 years – ate chips, 80 per cent drunk soda while 70 per cent admitted to taking ice-cream.

Health experts warn that children are especially vulnerable to the effects of processed foods as they are easily swayed by advertisements or peer pressure. Despite the controversy surrounding these additives, there is also the stark reality of the role they play in the food industry.

Mary Wambui, an avid consumer of processed foods, notes that even though she is aware of their side effects, she just cannot keep off French fries, meat pies and sausages. “As much as food should nourish my body, it should also taste good so I can enjoy eating what’s on my plate,” she says. Ms Wambui adds: “You can’t bring me bitter vegetables and expect me to eat them just because they are healthy and lack additives.”

Veronica Anyango, a college student in Nairobi notes that she prefers junk foods as they are delicious and readily affordable. “With just Sh100, I can have a meal of chips and sausages. But if I am to eat a healthier option of say rice and beans, I will spend more than Sh200,” she explains.

Riding on this popularity are investors who have dotted cities like Nairobi with fast food joints. Some supermarket chains have also joined the band wagon. The hotdogs grilled within these premises entice many buyers to buy them as they shop.


Professor Symon Mahungu, a food science specialist from Egerton University, says that what Kenya needs is a middle ground. He notes that all foods with the approved additives are safe but warns they should be consumed in moderation to prevent health risks.

“There’s no bad food. What we have are bad dietary habits. It’s okay to drink soda, eat chips or sausages once in a while. But don’t overdo it,” he says. He advises Kenyans to eat from a variety of foods – both fresh and processed.

Ms Akinyi notes that the MOH has already established a nutrition action plan to address the challenge of obesity which contributes to an increase in lifestyle diseases. The plan advocates for a reduction in the consumption of processed food and an increase in the intake of natural foods low in fat and high in fibre.

“Have a balanced diet always. But with more fruits and vegetables,” she says.

The nutrition guidelines – just like the WHO ones – also call for an end to sedentary lifestyles. “If people have meals with high calories such as processed foods and fail to exercise then they gradually increase weight and become obese,” warns Ms Akinyi.

The WHO recommends regular physical activity (60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes per week for adults). It also urges the food industry to play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed food.