Reading a list of additives on a food label can be bewildering. Not only is the list typically lengthy, but the names are also unfamiliar and confusing. It can feel like you're reading hieroglyphics. Although food additives are generally thought of as harmful, not all added substances are dangerous. Understanding food additive advantages and disadvantages, as well as additive types, helps you make wise food choices.
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Legally speaking, food additive refers to any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food. A substance used for a specific purpose, such as a sweetener, is referred to as a "direct additive" and is typically listed on the food's ingredient label. Indirect food additives, on the other hand, are substances that find their way into foods in small amounts due to packaging, storage or other handling. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that food manufacturers prove a substance's safety before it is permitted to be used in contact with food.
Some additives improve or maintain the food's nutritive value. Vitamins A, C, D, E, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, pyridoxine, folic acid, calcium carbonate, zinc oxide and iron are often added to foods such as flour, bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pasta, margarine, milk, iodized salt and gelatin desserts. Instead of vitamin C, you may see ascorbic acid listed. Alpha-tocopherol is another name for vitamin E, and beta carotene is a source of vitamin A. In addition to providing nutrients, food additives can help reduce spoilage, improve the appearance of foods and increase the availability of a variety of foods throughout the year.
Some food additives can potentially cause harmful side effects. For example, butylated hydroxyanisole, commonly known as BHA, is a preservative used in foods including potato chips, crackers, beer, baked goods and cereal. It has been classified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a preservative "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Sulfites, which are added to baked goods, wine, condiments and snack foods, could cause hives, nausea, diarrhea and shortness of breath in some people.
Coloring, in the form of dyes, pigments or other substances, is technically considered a food additive. These substances are often used to enhance color that's lost due to storage or processing. Pigments derived from natural sources, such as vegetables, minerals or animals, are exempt from certification. Man-made colors require testing by both the manufacturer and the FDA to ensure they meet specific guidelines for purity.
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Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavor or enhance its taste, appearance, or other qualities. Some additives have been used for centuries; for example, preserving food by pickling (with vinegar), salting, as with bacon, preserving sweets or using sulfur dioxide as with wines. With the advent of processed foods in the second half of the twentieth century, many more additives have been introduced, of both natural and artificial origin.
To regulate these additives, and inform consumers, each additive is assigned a unique number, termed as "E numbers", which is used in Europe for all approved additives. This numbering scheme has now been adopted and extended by the Codex Alimentarius Commission to internationally identify all additives, regardless of whether they are approved for use.
E numbers are all prefixed by "E", but countries outside Europe use only the number, whether the additive is approved in Europe or not. For example, acetic acid is written as E260 on products sold in Europe, but is simply known as additive 260 in some countries. Additive 103, alkanet, is not approved for use in Europe so does not have an E number, although it is approved for use in Australia and New Zealand. Since 1987, Australia has had an approved system of labelling for additives in packaged foods. Each food additive has to be named or numbered. The numbers are the same as in Europe, but without the prefix "E".
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists these items as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS); they are listed under both their Chemical Abstracts Service number and FDA regulation under the United States Code of Federal Regulations.
Food additives can be divided into several groups, although there is some overlap because some additives exert more than one effect. For example, salt is both a preservative as well as a flavor.
- Confer sour or acid taste. Common acidulents include vinegar, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, fumaric acid, and lactic acid.
- Acidity regulators
- Acidity regulators are used for controlling the pH of foods for stability or to affect activity of enzymes.
- Anticaking agents
- Anticaking agents keep powders such as milk powder from caking or sticking.
- Antifoaming and foaming agents
- Antifoaming agents reduce or prevent foaming in foods. Foaming agents do the reverse.
- Antioxidants such as vitamin C are preservatives by inhibiting the degradation of food by oxygen.
- Bulking agents
- Bulking agents such as starch are additives that increase the bulk of a food without affecting its taste.
- Food coloring
- Colorings are added to food to replace colors lost during preparation or to make food look more attractive.
- Fortifying agents
- Vitamins, minerals, and dietary supplements to increase the nutritional value
- Color retention agents
- In contrast to colorings, color retention agents are used to preserve a food's existing color.
- Emulsifiers allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise, ice cream, and homogenized milk.
- Flavors are additives that give food a particular taste or smell, and may be derived from natural ingredients or created artificially.
- Flavor enhancers
- Flavor enhancers enhance a food's existing flavors. A popular example is monosodium glutamate. Some flavor enhancers have their own flavors that are independent of the food.
- Flour treatment agents
- Flour treatment agents are added to flour to improve its color or its use in baking.
- Glazing agents
- Glazing agents provide a shiny appearance or protective coating to foods.
- Humectants prevent foods from drying out.
- Tracer gas
- Tracer gas allow for package integrity testing to prevent foods from being exposed to atmosphere, thus guaranteeing shelf life.
- Preservatives prevent or inhibit spoilage of food due to fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms.
- Stabilizers, thickeners and gelling agents, like agar or pectin (used in jam for example) give foods a firmer texture. While they are not true emulsifiers, they help to stabilize emulsions.
- Sweeteners are added to foods for flavoring. Sweeteners other than sugar are added to keep the food energy (calories) low, or because they have beneficial effects regarding diabetes mellitus, tooth decay, or diarrhea.
- Thickening agents are substances which, when added to the mixture, increase its viscosity without substantially modifying its other properties.
Safety and regulation
With the increasing use of processed foods since the 19th century, food additives are more widely used. Many countries regulate their use. For example, boric acid was widely used as a food preservative from the 1870s to the 1920s, but was banned after World War I due to its toxicity, as demonstrated in animal and human studies. During World War II, the urgent need for cheap, available food preservatives led to it being used again, but it was finally banned in the 1950s. Such cases led to a general mistrust of food additives, and an application of the precautionary principle led to the conclusion that only additives that are known to be safe should be used in foods. In the United States, this led to the adoption of the Delaney clause, an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, stating that no carcinogenic substances may be used as food additives. However, after the banning of cyclamates in the United States and Britain in 1969, saccharin, the only remaining legal artificial sweetener at the time, was found to cause cancer in rats. Widespread public outcry in the United States, partly communicated to Congress by postage-paid postcards supplied in the packaging of sweetened soft drinks, led to the retention of saccharin, despite its violation of the Delaney clause. However, in 2000, saccharin was found to be carcinogenic in rats due only to their unique urine chemistry.
Periodically, concerns have been expressed about a linkage between additives and hyperactivity, however "no clear evidence of ADHD was provided".
In 2007, Food Standards Australia New Zealand published an official shoppers' guidance with which the concerns of food additives and their labeling are mediated. In the EU it can take 10 years or more to obtain approval for a new food additive. This includes five years of safety testing, followed by two years for evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority and another three years before the additive receives an EU-wide approval for use in every country in the European Union. Apart from testing and analyzing food products during the whole production process to ensure safety and compliance with regulatory standards, Trading Standards officers (in the UK) protect the public from any illegal use or potentially dangerous mis-use of food additives by performing random testing of food products.
There has been significant controversy associated with the risks and benefits of food additives. Natural additives may be similarly harmful or be the cause of allergic reactions in certain individuals. For example, safrole was used to flavor root beer until it was shown to be carcinogenic. Due to the application of the Delaney clause, it may not be added to foods, even though it occurs naturally in sassafras and sweet basil.
A subset of food additives, micronutrients added in food fortification processes preserve nutrient value by providing vitamins and minerals to foods such as flour, cereal, margarine and milk which normally would not retain such high levels. Preservatives also reduce spoilage from sources such as air, bacteria, fungi, and yeast.
Standardization of its derived products
ISO has published a series of standards regarding the topic and these standards are covered by ICS 67.220.
Many food additives absorb radiation in the ultraviolet or visible regions of the spectrum. This absorbance can be used to determine the concentration of an additive in a sample using external calibration. However, additives may occur together and the absorbance by one could interfere with the absorbance of another. A prior separation stage is necessary and the additives are first separated by high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and then determined on-line using a UV and/or visible light detector.
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