Food Additives

It’s estimated that more than 3,000 different food additives are currently used in the United States. 

Food additives are in almost every processed food. Without them, a load of bread would go stale within a day or two. Even though they are regulated by the FDA, they have been a source of controversy for the past 50 years. Food additives use have increased which allows producers to offer consumers a greater variety of food at lower costs.

Many of these food additives in the food industry come from natural sources. Beet juice, salt, and citric acid are all common naturally derived food additives. Supply or cost is what usually decides to use natural additives. For example, vanillin which is the main flavoring substance in vanilla beans, is synthesized at a cost lower than the cost of extracting it from the natural beans.

Flavoring agents can be obtained from natural or synthetic sources. Essential oils, extracts, and spices supply most of the naturally derived flavorings. Flavor enhancers are also widely used. These have little flavor of their own but accentuate the natural flavors of foods. The most common flavor enhancers used are maltol and MSG. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. It’s found in many processed foods.

Food colorings which are derived from both natural and synthetic sources, are used a lot in processed foods. Natural colorings such as beet juice, beta-carotene and caramel are no used for food colorings and don’t need to be tested for safety. Beet juice gives off a red color, beta-carotene gives a yellow color and caramel adds a brown color.

Vitamin E is usually added to fat-based products to keep them from going rancid and vitamin C is commonly added to foods like frozen fruit, dry milk, apple juice, soft drinks, candy and meat products that contain sodium nitrates. Iodine, calcium, vitamin D and folate are examples of purely nutritive additives. Their function is to promote health and prevent disease. Iodine is added to table salt to help decrease the incidence of goiter, which is a condition that causes the thyroid gland to enlarge. Folate is added to many bread and ready-to-eat cereals to decrease the incidence of neural tube defects during fetal development.

Certain chemicals are added to foods to improve their texture. Texturizers such as calcium chloride are added to canned tomatoes and potatoes so they don’t fall apart. Stabilizers are added to products to give them body and help maintain a desired texture or color. Emulsifiers help keep fats evenly dispersed within foods. Thickening agents are used to absorb water and keep complex mixtures of oils, water, acids and solids in foods balanced. Natural thickeners include pectin, alginate, and carrageenan. Humectants maintain the correct moisture levels, keeping foods like marshmallows soft and stretchy. Common humectants are glycerin, sorbitol, and propylene glycol. Waxes used on produce also help maintain moisture content.

Federal legislation was passed in 1958 to regulate food additives. Before a new food additive can be marketed or used in a food, the producer of the additive must submit data on its reasonable safety to the FDA. The FDA then makes the determination of the additive’s safety based on the data. In 1985 the FDA established the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System. Under this, the FDA investigates complaints from consumers, physicians, or food companies. Many complaints are about sulfite preservatives causing headaches, asthmatic reactions and sometimes anaphylatic shock. Because of these complaints, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on raw fruit and vegetables with the exception of potatoes while continuing to monitor sulfite use on other foods.

Source: Thompson, Janice, Melinda Manore, and Linda A. Vaughan. The Science of Nutrition. San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2011. Print.


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