Food additives are chemicals added to foods to keep them fresh or to enhance their color, flavor, or texture. They may include food colors (such as tartazine or cochineal), flavor enhancers (such as MSG), or a range of preservatives.
Most food additives are listed on product labels along with other ingredients in order of weight (flavors are an exception and do not need to be identified).
Sometimes, additives are fully expressed by name. Other times, it is indicated by a code number: for example, cochineal may be listed as a food coloring. Sodium sulfite may be displayed as a preservative.
Safety tests for food additives
Many food standards organizations are responsible for certifying that food additives are allowed in foods. All food additives used before being approved undergo a safety assessment that includes rigorous testing.
Toxicology tests are performed on animals to determine the amount of additive that is expected to be safe for human consumption. This amount is usually 100 times less than the maximum daily dose at which “no visible effect” is observed by the additive consumed during the lifetime of the test animal.
If there is any doubt about the safety of an additive, no endorsement is given. If new scientific information becomes available that shows that a food additive is no longer safe, the license to use it will be revoked.
Most food additives are tested separately rather than in combination with other additives. The long-term effects of taking a combination of different additives are currently unknown and unproven.
Effects of food additives
Some people are sensitive to certain food additives and may have reactions such as hives or diarrhea. This does not mean that all foods containing additives should be treated with skepticism by default.
All foods are made of chemicals, and food additives are not always “safer” than natural chemicals.
Many food additives used in the food industry are also naturally present in the foods that people eat every day. For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is found naturally in Parmesan cheese, sardines, and tomatoes in significantly higher amounts than MSG present as an additive. People with food allergies and intolerances are also often sensitive to chemicals that are naturally present in certain foods such as nuts or shellfish.
Many people see food additives as a major food threat. However, in terms of health risk, food additives rank at the bottom of the chart after food-borne microorganisms (such as salmonella), poor hygiene and eating habits, environmental pollutants, and natural toxins.
All kinds of food additives
Different types of food additives and their uses are:
Anti-caking agents – Increases flavor strength.
Antioxidants – prevent foods from oxidizing or spoiling.
Food acids – maintain proper acidity levels. ( Phosphoric acid )
Colours – Enhances or adds color to food.
Humectants – keeps food moist.
Flavours – Adds or enhances flavor. (Vanilla)
Flavour enhancers – prevents lumps and clumping of materials.
Foaming agents – maintain uniform aeration of gases in foods.
Mineral salts – improve texture and taste.
Thickeners and vegetable gums – increase texture and consistency.
Flour treatment – improves baking quality.
Glazing agent – improves appearance and can protect food.
Gelling agents – change the texture of foods by forming a gel. (maltodextrin)
Propellants – helps to push food out of the container easily.
Raising agents – increase the volume of food through the use of gases.
Bulking agents – increase the volume of food without major changes in available energy. (sodium carboxymethyl cellulose)
Food additives and processed foods
There is a common misconception that processed foods automatically contain food additives. Foods such as long-life milk, canned foods and frozen foods are all processed, but none of them require additional chemicals.
If you are unsure whether a product contains additives, check the food label. However, some listed ingredients may contain food additives not listed on the label.
Some food additives can cause reactions
For most people, supplements are not a problem in the short term. However, 50 of the 400 additives approved in some countries and in some people have been associated with side effects. Some food additives cause reactions in sensitive people more than others.
Often these are additives used to give a food its marketable quality, such as dyes, which usually cause allergic reactions. Some of these hypersensitive reactions are:
Digestive disorders – diarrhea and colic pains
Nervous disorders – hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability
Respiratory problems – asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis
Skin problems – hives, itching, rashes and swelling
It is important to note that many of the symptoms caused by food allergies can be caused by other disorders. Medical diagnosis is important. If you try to diagnose the problem yourself, you may restrict your diet unnecessarily and overlook a disease.
Some food additives that may cause problems for some people include:
Flavor enhancers – monosodium glutamate
Food colourings – tartrazine and cochin
Preservatives – benzoates, nitrates and sulfites
Artificial sweetener – aspartame
Diagnosis of allergy to food additives
If you think you may have a food allergy, it’s important to seek professional help because some of the symptoms you may experience could be caused by other disorders.
Using a food diary and keeping a detailed record of any adverse reactions to foods can help you. If an allergy is identified, the usual procedure is to remove all suspect foods from the diet and then reintroduce them one at a time to see which additive (or additives) causes the reaction.
This should only be done under medical supervision, as some reactions – such as asthma – can be serious.