Certain snacks available to South African consumers contain excess amounts of a colourant that may cause cancer.
This was revealed by Maryke Herbst of the Department of Health's Directorate of Food Control at the 21st Biennial Nutrition Congress of the Nutrition Society of South Africa in Port Elizabeth.
According to Herbst, some varieties of the implicated azo dyes are safe when used in controlled quantities. But many smaller manufacturers of snack foods have been using these dyes in excess amounts to make products more attractive - even though azo dyes are well-recognised human carcinogens.
Cheaper varieties of chips, such as the so-called "corn extrusions" (usually sold in over-sized packets in underprivileged communities), seem to be particularly problematic.
Link to Sudan Red
Sudan Red, an azo dye of which the use in food products is prohibited, made headlines last year when its presence was detected in food products worldwide. Locally, producers of peri-peri spices, such as Robertsons Spices, were implicated.
Even though the azo dyes now implicated in the corn extrusion-type snacks are legal and safe to consume in small quantities, large amounts seem to have the same harmful health effects as Sudan Red, Herbst says.
According to regulations, azo dye quantities in food products may not exceed 200mg/kg. However, the Department of Health has come across products that contained more than 2000mg/kg.
The tragedy is that many of the consumers who are targeted in terms of corn extrusion sales already have compromised immunity due to malnutrition or disease infection. This makes these consumers even more susceptible to the potential negative effects of the dyes - a situation Herbst describes as "worrying".
These products are also often sold at schools.
Tips for consumers
Herbst advises consumers to steer clear of products with intense red/orange colouring, to stick to well-known brands (where possible), and to put pressure on manufacturers to produce products that are safe.
"The industry also needs to start regulating itself. The Department of Health simply doesn't have enough hands and eyes," she says.
(Carine van Rooyen, September 2006)
Read more: Healthy snack combos.