Food Additives, Part 1
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | January 22, 2008

Food today is produced to satisfy the tastes and convenience of the public and then deliver it for a low price. Many convenience foods and dietary supplements contain nutrients, chemicals, and fillers that contribute to taste, provide bulk, or increase shelf stability. Many people want to know if these substances are safe “because my nutritionist, chiropractor, naturopath, neighbor--or whoever--said it wasn’t.” We’ll look at the substances that have generated the most questions in the next two Newsletters. In this Newsletter, I’ll cover taurine and silicon dioxide.

Taurine is an amino acid primarily manufactured in the liver from cysteine and methionine. While it’s not incorporated into proteins as are most other amino acids, it’s found in high concentrations in white blood cells, the retina of the eye, and in skeletal and cardiac-muscle tissue. Taurine seems to occupy receptors on nervous tissue although it may not act directly as a neurotransmitter. Due to the locations where taurine is found in the body, research has examined the benefits of taurine for the cardiovascular system, exercise performance, and neurological functions.

Taurine and a synthetic analog called acamprosate are used in the treatment of alcoholism together with counseling. Because of the effect on brain functioning, many people have tried taurine for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease. However, there’s no substantive research in either area. That doesn’t mean it won’t prove useful; it just means that it hasn’t been researched to a great extent.

Taurine supplementation does seem to positively impact exercise performance (1,2). Healthy subjects who supplemented with taurine and caffeine had improved stroke volume during exhaustive exercise (1) and reduced oxidative damage after exercise (2). Simply stated, they could pump more blood per beat and the damage after exercise was decreased. But the benefits were not limited to exercise. Obese and overweight subjects experienced a reduction in triglycerides and other lipid parameters as well as increased weight loss when compared to control subjects (3). While all of the studies were small and had a limited number of subjects, the results are encouraging.

Taurine is found in many energy drinks together with caffeine. The thinking is that it will increase energy and mental alertness. Based on the research to date, that may prove to be true. What I could not find were any studies suggesting that taurine supplementation had negative effects. The reasons for avoiding products with taurine are non-existent in the literature.

Silicon Dioxide
Silicon is one of the most ubiquitous substances on the planet. It’s the principle component of sand found on much of the planet. Silicon dioxide or silica for short is found in many dietary supplements. It adds bulk without being absorbed by the body. Silica is approved for this use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. The research on the safety of silicon dioxide dates back to the 1940s. There are no negative studies related to the ingestion of silicon dioxide in animals or humans.

The only studies that relate silica to disease are when it’s breathed as a fine particulate in dust. This often occurs in people who work with asbestos or sand blasting. Because the particulates remain lodged in the lung, it can contribute to silicosis and other lung diseases, including lung cancer (4).

Silicosis is also related to autoimmune diseases. Research on silicon gel found in breast implants as well as the respiratory conditions associated with breathing silica may be the source of concern. In both cases, the exposure to silicon dioxide is chronic and at much higher levels than are found in supplements. This may just be a case of guilt by association; there’s no research to suggest that it’s any more than that.

Next Time: Dextrose, Maltodextrin, Carnauba Wax, and the Bottom Line.

  1. Baum M, and Weiss M. The influence of a taurine-containing drink on cardiac parameters before and after exercise measured by echocardiography. Amino Acids. 2001;20(1):75-82.

  2. Zhang M et al. Role of taurine supplementation to prevent exercise-induced oxidative stress in healthy young men. Amino Acids. 2004;26(2):203-7.

  3. Zhang M et al. Beneficial effects of taurine on serum lipids in overweight or obese non-diabetic subjects. Amino Acids. 2004;26(3):267-71.

  4. Otsuki T et al. Immunological effects of silica and asbestos. Cell Mol Immunol. 2007;4(4):261-8.
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