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What are Food Additives? Print E-mail
Written by Glenn Rosenberg   
Sunday, 04 October 2009

Alternate Names : Artificial Colors, Preservatives, Additives, Artificial Flavors

Additives are substances that are added to foods. They may be added purpose, such as when vitamins are added to some foods to replace those lost when the food is processed. On the other hand, some drugs given to animals and chemicals used on crops are examples of additives that get into food by accident. Metals from cooking utensils can also leach into food.

Additives are used in foods for 5 main reasons:

To control food texture. Emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners can give food an even texture. They help keep ingredients and flavors blended in the product. Some examples of these are lecithin, mono and diglycerides, guar gum and carrageenan. An example of a food they are found in is peanut butter. Emulsifiers help keep the peanuts and oil from separating.

To improve nutritional value. When nutrients are added to foods to replace those that were lost during processing, the foods are said to be enriched. Vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber, are often added to enrich foods in this way. For example, many of the B vitamins are lost as whole-wheat flour is being refined into white flour, so they are added back in.

When nutrients are added that were never in the food, the foods are said to be fortified. For example, vitamins A and D are added to milk to fortify it. This process of adding nutrients to foods has helped reduce malnutrition.

To maintain freshness and safety. Some additives are called preservatives. These are used to prevent spoiling in foods that may be exposed to air, mold, and bacteria. For example, antioxidants, such as vitamin E, are added to fats and oils to prevent them from becoming rancid. They also are used in baked goods, cereals, processed foods, and salad dressing to prevent spoiling and discoloration. Other examples are BHA and BHT. The US Food and Drug Administration, known as the FDA, has classed some food additives as "generally recognized as safe." This is also known as GRAS . BHA and BHT are classed GRAS. Other preservatives include:
- citric acid
- sulfites
- calcium propionate
- sodium nitrate

A small percentage of the population is allergic to sulfites. The FDA requires that labels clearly show when packaged and processed foods contain more than 10 parts/million of sulfites.

To help foods rise and to control the acid-base balance of food. Leavening agents cause baked goods, such as bread, to rise. Other additives, such as yeast and sodium bicarbonate, help control the acidity and alkalinity of foods, which affect the flavor, taste, and color.

To improve flavor and color. Natural and artificial colors and flavors enhance the appearance and taste of certain foods. Common examples include
- ginger
- fructose
- aspartame
- FD&C Red No. 40
- monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG
- annatto

MSG is a well-known flavor enhancer. In the past, people have questioned the safety of MSG. The FDA has considered MSG as GRAS. Some people are allergic to the flavor enhancer. These people should always read ingredient lists and be careful of ordering food in restaurants, especially Asian ones.

There are 33 colors approved for use in foods. Only seven of them are man-made. The push is towards using more natural coloring agents. The only color that has been known to cause allergic reactions, in a very small amount of people, is Yellow No. 5.

The FDA regulated the use of food additives. Before the FDA approves the use of a particular food additive, studies must be conducted that prove the substances are safe in large doses when fed to animals. Even then, these substances can only be used at levels 100 times lower than those that have been shown to cause harmful effects in animals.

Many additives are on the FDA GRAS list. These substances have been widely used for a long time without known problems. A few examples of the 700 items on the GRAS list include salt, sugar, guar gum, and vinegar.

Food additives are quite safe for most people, but some people may be allergic or sensitive to certain additives. Because of this, food manufacturers are required to list additives on food labels. People who know they are allergic or sensitive to certain things should always read the food labels and avoid any foods that may not be healthy for them.


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