Food Additives

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Information on Food Additives

The major function of food additives is to preserve food from the destructive effects of their own enzymes, as well as bacteria, fungi and the environment.  Enzymes in foods cause them to discolor or to become overripe too quickly; bacteria and fungi cause food to spoil and become dangerous to eat; heat, humidity, or oxygen can cause foods to become dry, soggy, or rancid.  In short, additives are put in foods to keep them safe and edible.

 

Additives are ingredients added to foods in which they are not naturally present.  Thus, vitamin A is a natural ingredient in butter, but is an additive when put in margarine.  Additives are chemicals, but so are all food constituents.  Although some people feel that eating chemicals is dangerous, they would starve to death if they eliminated chemicals from their diets.

 

All additives that have entered our food supply have undergone rigorous testing for their safety.  Permission to use a few additive comes only after it has been shown to be safe for consumption by pregnant women, infants, children and adults.  Additives which were in common use earlier and which had passed certain safety standards are now being reevaluated under more stringent conditions of use.  These additives, known as GRAS or "generally recognized as safe", include commonly used ingredients such as salt and nutmeg.

 

Additives are also involved in the technical processes of industrial food preparation.  Leavening agents (yeasts, baking powder) cause baked goods to rise; glazing agents make food surfaces shiny; anti-foaming agents allow containers to be filled completely with liquids; foaming agents put bubbles on drinks such as instant chocolate mix; emulsifiers keep oil or fat-containing ingredients mixed with the water base and give baked goods a light texture; firming agents maintain the firmness of fruits and vegetables during canning; humectants prevent foods like marshmallows or shredded coconut from absorbing water; thickeners give foods a smooth, thick texture and prevent ice crystal formation in frozen foods such as ice cream; sequestrants bind metals to prevent discoloration and to inhibit reactions which cause them to turn rancid; artificial flavors and colors enhance or impart flavor and color to foods (margarine is colored yellow to resemble butter, for example); added nutrients increase the vitamin, mineral, and protein content of foods; and imitation ingredients replace the natural ones to reduce the calorie or cholesterol content of foods or to decrease the cost.

 

In order to remain in food, these additives must be proven harmless to fetal development, non-carcinogenic, non-toxic to any organ system and uninvolved in behavioral abnormalities.  Some GRAS substances have had the decision regarding their safety deferred until further research is carried out.  The use of such additives, "BHT" and "BHA", are examples restricted to their present function in food processing.  No new uses are allowed until a final decision is made.  Some consumer groups have interpreted the postponement of the decision regarding safety of an additive as proof that the additive is dangerous.  This is not true.  It simply means that insufficient information is available with which to make a decision.  However, no additive or food can ever be consumed without any risk.  Most foods, even water, are toxic if they are ingested in sufficiently large amounts.  Moreover, there may be people with intolerances to certain food additives, just as there are those who cannot tolerate certain foods like chocolate or strawberries or eggs.  Moderation in the consumption of foods and additives is the safest way to eat.

 

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