Dried fruits may be harmful to your health

Consumer Council survey finds dried-fruit products may do you more harm than good, with poor labelling on packaging in part to blame

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 3:14am

Hongkongers often snack on dried fruits because they are seen as healthy and natural. In fact, they can be laced with unhealthy preservatives, the Consumer Council warned yesterday.

A survey conducted by the council of 50 dried-fruit products available on the market found that they each contained at least one type of preservative, among them sulphur dioxide, sorbic acid and benzoic acid.

The samples tested included dried mangoes, kumquats, prunes and lemons, sold both loose and packaged.

Professor Ron Hui Shu-yuen, vice-chairman of the council's community relations committee, said: "Despite its low toxicity, sulphur dioxide can cause allergic reactions like asthmatic attacks, headaches or nausea in some people sensitive to the chemical."

Artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin and aspartame, were also present in the samples and could have adverse health effects.

Although saccharin has been evaluated as safe by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), some countries - including the United States - permit its use only in specified foods.

For example, a 60kg adult can approach the upper limit of JECFA's acceptable daily intake for saccharin by eating 14 to 15 dried prunes containing the highest level of saccharin found - 8,300mg/kg.

Aspartame poses a danger, Hui said, to people suffering from phenylketonuria, a rare condition in which their body cannot properly metabolise an amino acid called phenylalanine, which is a breakdown product of aspartame.

The council said the dried fruit samples contained no disease-causing bacteria, such as salmonella or Staphylococcus aureus.

The Consumer Council also examined packaging, and found that some food additives were not accurately reflected on packages or labels.

For example, benzoic acid, which was present in all the tested samples of dried prunes, was not marked on the labels of any of the pre-packaged samples.

Some distributors claimed that additives not marked on the labels were natural substances, the council said.

One dried kumquat product wrongly displayed the functional class of the sweetener saccharin 954 as an "anti-oxidant".

"Customers may find it hard to make an informed decision by reading the labels, because some of them are not correctly listed," Hui said.

The council has passed its findings to the Centre for Food Safety, which says it will take legal action against manufacturers that breach the levels of preservatives set out in regulations on food composition and labelling.

The council advises consumers to read food labels to avoid an excessive intake of food additives.