“No additives or preservatives” sounds like a promising claim on a food label. But you’ll be hard pressed to find products in the supermarket that don’t contain at least one food additive. Even organic products use them, and unless you bake your own bread, avoid all processed snacks, and drink nothing but water, you won’t be able to avoid them.
Food additives are natural and artificial substances added to food in order to improve and preserve its flavor and appearance.
Some additives, such as salt used to cure meats, have been around for millennia. In the 20th century, advances in chemical and food engineering brought endless innovations in additives, resulting in the products currently lining supermarket shelves all around the globe.
Below the fold is a rough categorization of additive types. Some additives belong to more than one category. For example, sugar is both a preservative and a sweetener. All additives are safe for consumption, according to the FDA. Consumer groups, though, are concerned about the effects of some artificial additives on human health.
Acids – added to make flavors “sharper”, and also act as preservatives and antioxidants. Common food acids include vinegar and citric acid (vitamin C).
Anticaking agents – keep powders such as milk powder from caking or sticking. A very popular one is sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).
Bulking agents – additives that increase the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value. As examples, you’ll often find modified food starch or modified corn starch and on labels.
Food coloring – added to food to replace colors lost during preparation, or to make food look more attractive. May be natural or artificial, the latter are much cheaper to use. Unfortunately, artificial food colorings, such as Yellow 5 have been linked to behavioral problems in children. Some food colorings approved for use in the US have been banned in Europe and Japan.
Emulsifiers – allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise, ice cream, and homogenized milk. On labels look for sodium phosphates, lecithin, and diglycerides, to name a few.
Stabilizers / gelling agents – give foods a firmer texture, and help to stabilize emulsions. Pectin and agar are examples used in making jellies and jams.
Thickeners – similar to emulsifiers/stabilizers – increase a mixture’s viscosity without modifying its other properties. May be derived from starches or from proteins. Xantham gum is commonly used as a thickener.
Flavors – natural and artificial – while natural sounds healthier, this may not always be the case (see poison mushrooms). Flavors are added to foods to enhance their aroma and entice you to buy them and then eat them.
Humectants – prevent foods from drying up. Glycerine is an example.
Preservatives – prevent food from spoiling due to to mold, bacteria and other microorganisms. Three natural preservatives are salt, sugar, and vinegar. But there are many more artificial preservatives in use today, such as nitrates and nitrites found in meats. Home baked bread goes stale after 36 hours, and starts to develop mold within 4 days, but a loaf from the supermarket will keep for more than a week due to propionates which prevent mold.
Sweeteners – bet you figured this one out on your own. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS, yes some call it the mother of all evil) are considered natural, whereas splenda and sucralose are artificial and contain close to zero calories, making them a possible solution for weight watchers and diabetics.
What to do at the supermarket:
Take a look at the ingredient lists on items you buy on a regular basis. Try to identify some of the funnily spelled items and check if these additives are acceptable for you.
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