Food additives are substances added intentionally to foodstuffs to perform certain technological functions, for example to colour, to sweeten or to help preserve foods.
The broadest practical definition of a food additive is any substance that becomes part of a food product either directly or indirectly during some phase of processing, storage or packaging. Direct food additivesare those that have intentionally been included for a functional purpose by the food processor, whereas indirect additives are those migrating into food products in very small quantities as a result of
growing, processing or packaging.
The use of food additives is not a modern-day invention. The practice probably started when man first discovered that fire would cook and thereby preserve his meat. Later he realized that the addition of salt would preserve without cooking. In ancient times, cloves were placed in hams to inhibit the growth of bacteria; the Egyptians used food colors and seasonings, spices, flavors and condiments were considered so valuable as to serve as items of trade and, at times, objects of war. The worth of spices during the Middle Ages was measured in livestock and even, in some instances, in human lives. The search for spices was the driving force behind many explorations including those of Columbus who was seeking the spices of India when he discovered America.
But food additives were not an integral part of the Spartan life most Americans lived in the late 1700’s: a rural, farm-type existence with each family growing and eating its own foods. This lifestyle was one that exemplified immediacy – most of the work done on a farm revolved around food (planting, cultivating, harvesting, etc.) and when it came time to sit down for a meal, the food on the table came right from the field. One ate what was available, what was in season, and what was fresh at that moment. Not too many items found their way to “tomorrow’s table.” As the United States moved from the late 1800’s into the 20th century, sweeping changes took place throughout the country as Americans moved from a rural environment to a more industrialized society. Advances in farm mechanization and specialization, cross-country transportation systems, the advent of canning, and later the development of refrigeration, all had an impact on increasing this country’s food productivity to levels unheard of in previous times. At the same time, America was demanding more from her food supply, including increased availability and uniform quality.
As the 20th century progressed, the public’s demands for foods of high quality and convenience increased and could only be met by reasonably priced, packaged food. It is a result of the consumer demand that food additives have found their present place in our food supply. Technology has been able to meet demands that today we think of as imperative – variability, accessibility, freshness, palatability, uniformity – qualities that simply did not exist hundreds of years ago for even the richest, but are available for all today in the nearest supermarket. Industry continues to satisfy consumer demands as we advance technologically. With an everincreasing portion of our population employed in the working world, these qualities take on further importance, as we require high-quality, readily available foods.
Today, a typical American household spends about 90 percent of their food budget on processed foods, and are in doing so exposed to a plethora of artificial food additives, many of which can cause dire consequences to your health. A very similar situation is in other developed countries.
Where to look for food additives on a product label?
When buying groceries, these additives are listed (if it’s given by the law) on the food product’s packaging under “INGREDIENTS:” or “CONTAINS:” section, usually next to “Nutrition Information” but the code numbers or names of these additives can be printed on in a small font. If you read the label of your average food product you’ll find among the ingredients preservatives, flavour enhancers, thickening agents and food colourings. Some unexpected ingredients don’t even end up on the label: pesticides, antibiotics and hormones can be found even in apparently unprocessed foods. With animal products hormones are used to encourage growth or maximise milk production, and animals are often liberally dosed with antibiotics to protect their health. Pesticides and fertilisers meanwhile, are widely used to protect crops and boost production. But are these added ‘extras’ dangerous, and if so, what can you do about them?
Top 10 Food Additives to Avoid
Beyond reading the labels on products, if you want to choose the best items for your health, you also need to know harmful ingredients to avoid. Here are the ones Citizens for Health calls the most unnecessary and health-damaging:
High fructose corn syrup. HFCS has been implicated in a variety of diseases and health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain. But it’s still found in sodas and other beverages, jellies, cookies, pastries, and even some diet foods.
Aspartame. Aspartame is not a safe food additive and is considered to be an “excitotoxin,” which can excite brain cells to death. Studies have connected it to brain tumors and seizures in monkeys, and thousands of health complaints have been linked to aspartame, from migraines to memory loss and dizziness.
Hydrolyzed protein. This ingredient can be allergenic, depending on the type of protein.
Autolyzed yeast. Some say this is just as bad as MSG. In other words, you might want to research this more before consuming it!
Monosodium glutamate. Hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are all harmful “excitotoxins.” They are put into foods to fool the tongue into thinking the food tastes better, but are linked to reactions from skin rashes to asthma attacks, mood swings, and more. Look out for anything that’s “hydrolyzed” and any ingredient that contains the word “protein” (whey protein isolate, textured protein.) Here’s a full list of ingredients that contain MSG.
Potassium bromate. This ingredient has been known for decades to cause cancer in laboratory animals. It’s also banned in Europe, China, Canada, and Brazil. But you’ll still find it in breads and bakery products, possibly listed as bromated flour.
Brominated vegetable oil or BVO. BVO builds up fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in animals. It’s banned in Europe, India, and Japan. But can still be found in some Gatorade products, Mountain Dew, and other drinks containing citrus flavorings.
BHA and BHT. BHA and BHT are made from coal tar or petroleum. It is considered a possible carcinogen by the Word Health Organization. But it is still found in many breakfast cereals (including most Kellogg’s varieties), as well as snack foods, chewing gum, pies, cakes, and processed meats.
Trans fat. Trans fats increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol and has been linked with certain cancers. High trans fats also cause heart disease. Food products containing partially hydrogenated oil contain trans fats — even if a zero trans fats listing is found on the label. These include bakery items pizza, dough, pies, cakes and cookies, snack foods, and frozen meals.
Artificial colors. Artificial colors cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children, and some have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. They’re found in many cereals, cakes, candy, bakery products, drinks, vitamins, and pharmaceuticals.
The best way to avoid these ingredients is to buy organic processed foods or best of all to cook your own foods from scratch as much as possible. But always read your food labels and encourage others to do the same.
How to choose healthy foods?
Consider going organic – Organically produced fresh produce and meats are one way of avoiding exposure to chemicals as organically reared animals can only be fed 100% organic feed and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic farming methods of produce are designed to minimise contamination from pollutants in the growing environment. You should still wash organic produce carefully before eating.
What about processed organic foods? – It’s important to be aware that only processed foods labelled as 100% organic are guaranteed to be 100% organic. Foods labelled simply as ‘organic’ must be 95% organic but are allowed up to 5% of non-organic added ingredients, such as additives. However, organic foods are still a more sensible choice for avoiding additives, as they generally contain lower levels of additives than non-organic products.