Food Additives, What They Are and Why They Are Used

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There are thousands of different substances that are being added to foods. Their purpose usually falls into one of four different categories. They keep, replenish or enhance nutrients, retain a product’s freshness or overall quality, help in processing or preparing the food or make the food appear more attractive.

After testing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines how additives can be used in foods. About 25% of these additives have been used for so long and without any harmful side effects that they are considered harmless by the FDA. Most of the additives used in the United States are common items that are easily recognizable on the packages. These include pepper, salt, sugar, colorings and dyes, baking soda and citric acid.

Those additives that replenish or enhance nutrients attempt to replace vitamins or minerals that are lost in processing. Thus, the idea that raw fruits and vegetables are better than cooked foods is true. Cooking can and does deplete nutrients. Food processors want to enrich their products with additional items that may never have been there to begin with in order to use strong selling words like “fortified” or “enriched.” A good example is common salt, which is fortified with iodine or flour which is enriched with vitamins.

Other chemical-sounding nutrients that are added to foods include beta carotene (converted to vitamin A in the body), niacinamide (vitamin B3), riboflavin (vitamin B2) and tocopherols (vitamin E). Unless you have an allergic reaction to these vitamins, having them added to the foods that you eat is no more harmful than taking supplements. That is why it is important to watch what you are eating, so you know whether or not extra vitamins and minerals are really necessary. You can do harm by ingesting too much of a good thing.

We can appreciate that bread contains additives that keep it fresh longer than homemade, but we might be paying a price because of these preservatives. Is it natural for edible substances to last for years? Additives that keep a product fresh mean that they keep away bacteria, yeast, mold and fungi. Names of these preservatives include butyl-, heptyl- or methylparaben (parabens are used more in cosmetics, lotions and deodorants as antibacterials), calcium, sodium or potassium propionate (used mostly to prevent mold in baked products), sodium benzoate (found in foods high in acid, like salad dressings, vinegar, fruit juices and jams, carbonated drinks and condiments) or sodium nitrate (used to fight botulism).

Additives used in processing or food preparation include emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilizers. These provide consistent texture (diglycerides, various gums, modified food starch, polysorbates, propylene glycol, sorbitan monostearate and cellulose). Leavening additives control food volume (calcium phosphate) and pH agents control acidity (acetic, lactic, phosphoric or tartaric acid and ammonium alginate). Some additives retain moisture (glycerine) and some anti-caking agents keep powdered substances from clumping together (iron-ammonium citrate, mannitol, silicon dioxide). This is the price we pay to keep our food looking its very best.

The fourth use of additives make you crave the food by enhancing their flavor or color. They include the flavor enhancers, sweeteners and dyes. Annatto is perhaps one of the more common color enhancers used for years in cheeses and butter to turn them yellow. Other color additives include the obvious dyes plus iron oxide, tagetes (from a marigold) and titanium dioxide.

Sweeteners include dextrose, fructose and mannitol. High fructose corn syrup is a controversial sweetener that appears in so many foods that it may be easier to list those that don’t contain it. Sugar additives are a whole other topic, but suffice it to say that any additive with a suffix of -tose is most likely a sugar or sugar derivative. Food processors know that adding sweetness to a food will encourage people to eat more of it. Judging by the obesity rate, their success will, ironically enough, shorten the lives of their most loyal customers.

Flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), are also controversial. Complaints from many people, who suffer from allergic reactions to this additive, have brought about some changes in labeling. MSG can no longer be grouped in “spices and flavorings.” So now food processors use the term “natural flavor,” which may include MSG minus the attached sodium salt, since glutamates appear naturally in many foods. If you have an allergic reaction to any food additive, your work in interpreting labels continues to be a challenge.

Hopefully this sheds some light on the various additives and their roles in the processing of your food. Knowledge is power and no matter how paranoid you may be, you still have a choice by reading labels and being more discriminating in your selections. You also have the choice of eating fresh produce and starting a garden. The good news is that in spite of our obesity and our coach potato lifestyle, we still manage to live longer than previous generations.