Common Food Additives: What They Are and What They Do

Contributor
Common Food Additives: What They Are and What They Do
Common Food Additives: What They Are and What They Do

Thinkstock

While words like azodicarbonamide may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongues, outrage over the fact that it’s a substance found in Subway sandwiches as well as in rubber soles and yoga mats is.

This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.

You hear the word “additive” and you immediately picture white labels on the side of every food product you’ve ever picked up listing a string of indecipherable five-syllable words. The truth is, though, that "additives" are nothing new. We’ve been supplementing our food with natural ones for millennia. Anthropologists believe the ancient Mesopotamians pickled foods more than four thousand years ago. Vinegar, sugar, and salt, these are all additives — and you’re no more scared of them than you are of your salad, ice cream cone, or rest-stop beef jerky (okay, you probably are scared of that). As for the more modern, more complicated ones, until recently we haven't paid them much attention, either. We know they’re there. We've heard that they may or may not be good for us. And yet they’re so difficult to decipher in our busy lives that we tend to shrug our shoulders and take another bite of that fast-food burger whose meat filler has been exposed to ammonium hydroxide.

Today, we're becoming a little more cognizant of these invisible, polysyllabic substances. While words like azodicarbonamide may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongues, outrage over the fact that it’s a substance found both in our Subway sandwiches as well as in rubber soles and yoga mats is. Similarly, it didn’t go over so well last year when it was revealed that Gatorade contained brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a controversial flame-retardant chemical. What about all the other things that lurk in what we eat, though? Some of them may be just fine, but wouldn't you like to know for sure?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a database of more than 3,000 ingredients (“Everything Added to Food in the United States”), which can be separated into about 20 categories:

Acidity Regulators Control foods’ acidity and alkalinity.

Acids Sharpen flavors, preserve, and prevent oxidation. Examples include: citric acid, fumaric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and vinegar.

Anti-Caking Agents Prevent powders from caking and sticking.

Antifoaming Agents Reduce or prevent foaming.

Anti-oxidants Act as preservatives by inhibiting the effects of oxygen on food. Examples include vitamin C.

Bulking Agents Increase the bulk of food without affecting their taste.

Color Retention Agents Preserve a food's existing color.

Emulsifiers Keep water and oil emulsified. Think mayonnaise.

Flavors Give food a taste or smell. They can come from natural ingredients or be artificially created.

Flavor Enhancers Enhance a food's existing flavors. May be extracted from natural sources or created artificially.

Flour Treatment Agents Added to flour to improve its color or its use in baking."We know they’re there. We've heard that they may or may not be good for us. And yet they’re so difficult to decipher in our busy lives that we tend to shrug our shoulders and take another bite of that fast-food burger whose meat filler has been exposed to ammonium hydroxide."

Food Coloring Added to replace colors lost during preparation.

Glazing Agents Provide a shiny appearance or protective coating.

Humectants Prevent foods from drying out.

Preservatives Prevent or inhibit food spoilage from bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms.

Stabilizers Add texture and help stabilize emulsions.

Sweeteners Add flavoring. Non-sugar sweeteners are added to keep calories low.

Thickeners Increase a food’s viscosity without modifying its other properties.

Tracer Gas Guarantees shelf life by preventing foods from being exposed to atmosphere.

Additives are approved by the FDA, which has the primary legal responsibility for determining safe. For additives to pass muster, manufacturers or sponsors must petition the FDA for approval. But its website notes, "Because of inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance. Therefore, FDA must determine - based on the best science available - if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when an additive is used as proposed."

And while most additives are FDA-approved, independent researchers have found strong links in many to cancer and other side effects. Reasonable use of additives is one thing. We know some of them are probably necessary. But drinking flame retardant doesn’t seem so reasonable and significant studies have demonstrated that it’s worth questioning the people behind the companies who make our food to be sure that they’re doing everything they can to look out for the consumer — which ultimately includes themselves. After all, they haven’t necessarily had a great track record.

Take for instance the 2007 study which concludes that artificial coloring and preservatives can make kids more hyperactive. That was enough to move the European Food Standards Agency to urge companies to remove them from their food products. There have been reports suggesting that the food coloring Yellow No. 5 might aggravate people's asthma symptoms. And many studies have shown that aspartame, an artificial, non-saccharide sweetener used as a sugar substitute in some foods and beverages, might be responsible for all kinds of different cancers.

What are some of the scariest things that some reports have speculated food additives can do to us?

Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame-K) While results aren’t conclusive, some animal studies have linked this calorie-free artificial sweetener to thyroid issues and breast and lung tumors.

Blue 1 and Blue 2 Both colorings are used in candy and beverages. Studies have shown they may cause cancer in animals.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) BHT is an anti-oxidant that prevents food from going rancid and is found commonly in chewing gum, dry breakfast cereals, and potato flakes. Though considered to be safe, it is linked to adverse interactions when consumed alongside hormonal birth-control methods or steroid hormones.

 

Related Links
How America Got Allergic to Everything Childhood Obesity: The Facts Behind the 'Epidemic'How the American Diet Has Evolved Over the Past Century Why Can't the Experts Agree on Which Diets Work?The 20 Worst Things You Can Eat and Why