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
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.