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Exposed: Hidden Hazards in UK’s Top Treats

Rehan, King’s College School, Wimbledon, UK

‘Hazardous!’, screamed the food analysing app Yuka when I scanned my favourite chocolate bar! Most of us know sugary, fatty, salty snacks are bad for us. But did you also know that hidden dangers could be lurking in your chocolate, crisps or biscuits?

These treats are mostly Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) – food manufactured in factories with ingredients that you can’t find in your kitchen. Many are loaded with sneaky additives to add colour, texture, taste and to make you crave more junk. They are linked to major health problems like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and ADHD. Dr. Chris van Tulleken, an expert on the topic, spoke at our school recently and warned that UPFs have invaded our diets.

Additives are hard to spot often hiding behind complicated names and E-numbers. Apps like Yuka and OpenFoodFacts which analyse products based on ingredients are helpful for detecting. I investigated over 3001 treats on Yuka – the popular2 ones in the UK, some premium options, and some making health or sustainability claims.

Here are my findings:

  1. Nasty additives are hiding in 4 of the 5 most popular chocolates – Maltesers apparently contain hazardous additives that should be avoided.3 Dairy Milk, Flake and Buttons are also considered risky. Alarmingly, 26 of the top 50 chocolates contain risky additives. 5 of the top 20 biscuits, including Jammie Dodgers and Ginger Nuts are considered risky. Thankfully, many flavours from popular crisp brands (Walkers, Kettle, Tyrells), are risk-free.
  2. Paying more does not guarantee safety – Many premium chocolates like Godiva, Hotel Chocolat and Prestat show hazardous additives in some selection boxes. However, some sustainable brands (Tony’s, Divine) didn’t have nasties. Dark chocolate bars mostly scored well.
  3. Beware of “healthy” claims – Standard Mars and Snickers bars have no risky additives but their protein counterparts have hazardous additives. Even some protein bars that I scanned in a health food store (Grenade, Fulfil, PhD) were risky.

So, what should we do? Completely ditching packaged snacks is an option, but life would be boring without the occasional treat! We need to be savvy and make informed choices. While our favourites may be hiding hazards, we can find alternatives! Most flavours of Doritos tortilla chips score poorly but I found Doritos Dippers that gets the green light.

My advice: scan the barcode using an app like Yuka or OpenFoodFacts (ask an adult). Some say that the apps are too strict but at least they give you an idea.

Better still – flip the packet and read the list of ingredients – “flavour enhancers”, “emulsifiers”, “stabilisers” or anything that you can’t pronounce or recognise should be a hazard warning!

As for me, I’ll switch to dark chocolate. Who knows? Maybe I’ll grow to like it!

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    Notes on Source of Data and Methodology.

    1. I scanned packets using the Yuka app in shops between the 7th and 15th of April 2024. For a few snacks which I could not find in stores but were part of popular lists, I looked up the score on the Yuka app.
    2. Popular chocolates and sweets were based on the results of a YouGov poll about confectionaries conducted in Q1, 2024. Most popular biscuits, crisps and snack bars were combined from different sources.
    3. Yuka scores products based on nutritional value and additives. Additives are classified based on riskiness – Hazardous, Moderate Risk, Limited Risk or Risk-Free.