10 Common Reasons Additives are put in Food

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In our modern world our food is processed, packaged and placed on the shelves and in the refrigerated cases of our supermarkets in pretty front facing rows. As consumers we often forget that tucked into the foods we are buying is a substantial amount of additives. It is disturbing to note that the average North American eats approximately 150 lbs. of food additives a year. A food additive is a substance put into food that affects or enhances its characteristics and can include sugars, vitamins, minerals, chemicals, preservatives and dyes. There are very few foods that do not contain some sort of additive and these pristine products can be priced out of most budgets. Here are 10 common reasons additives are put into our food.

1.  Increase Nutrition

Some food additives are designed to increase the nutrition levels in the end products. This is called enrichment when the process adds back nutrients lost in production (such as milling grains) and fortification when a nutrient is added that does not naturally occur in the food. Fortification is done to introduce needed vitamins and minerals which can help prevent diseases. This practice is commonly done to table salt (iodine), breads (vitamin B and iron) and orange juices, milk or eggs (calcium, omega-3, omega-6 and vitamin D). This probably seems beneficial at first especially in the case of additives like iodine which is designed to help combat thyroid disease but you have to wonder if these additions are entirely healthy. It is a fact that processing food removes vitamins and minerals which cannot be put back in with a few simple enrichments. The natural nutrients in food are designed to exist with other parts of the food, for example minerals with amino acids, and synthetic nutrients do not have the same easy composition. Our bodies do not process synthetic nutrients the same way so these well intentioned food additions are lost to elimination.

2. Extend Shelf Life

Photographer: Boaz Yiftach
One of the most common reasons to add a chemical or additive to food is to increase its shelf life. Most foods are prone to spoilage and are vulnerable to air, mould, bacteria, moisture and temperature. Before modern refrigeration and mass production of food many cultures struggled to find methods of preserving its stores to feed people through the winter. For example the Romans used honey to preserve fruit and many cultures salted their meat. More modern additives designed to preserve foods include ascorbic acid (vitamin C), anti-oxidants (vitamin C and E) and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E).Some foods we eat today are engineered to last for years when in the past they were perishable. This improved shelf life means that products are more readily available to consumers for a longer period of time and can be shipped to consumers that wouldn’t ordinarily be the target demographic. This is great for the manufacturers but can raise flags for the consumer. Preservatives are monitored stringently by most government bodies and those additives deemed a health risk are removed quite quickly.

3. To Add Color

One of the worst types of food additives takes advantage of the fact that people often purchase items for appearance. These additives tweak the outside of our foods for effect with food colourings to make food prettier or replace natural hues lost in production and color retention agents designed to help food retain its original color. Not all dyes used in food are chemical in nature; there are many natural coloring agents used as well such as caramel, chlorophyll, beet juice and saffron. People often don’t realize that there are dyes in their orange rinds for fresh color and apples that look like pictures of themselves with no blemishes, bug marks or discoloration are waxed and sprayed. Even our protein products are given a chemical make over. Chicken meat is colored with yellowish dyes to create a healthy grain fed hue for packaging purposes and beef is dyed red so the natural discoloration associated with oxidization is not visible. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting food to look gorgeous but some additives for color can cause health concerns in people, especially children.

4. To Add Flavor

Natural foods are absolutely delicious; they have a texture and taste that is subtle and right. However, manufacturers pump those attributes up with sugars, salts and artificial flavors that mimic the natural ones and intensify the consumer experience. These additives may be derived from natural sources such as herbs, fruit or spices as well as created artificially. Most commercially produced snack foods, frozen dinners, sauces and soups have flavour enhancers designed to make them more savoury. The most controversial flavour enhancer is MSG or mono-sodium glutamate which has been associated with increased risk of headaches and asthma symptoms. Sometimes chemical enhancers are used when the natural flavouring like strawberry is too expensive for mass production. Due to the commonplace addition of flavorings people sometimes no longer even recognize the true taste of the foods they consider their favorites.

5. To Emulsify, Stabilize and Thicken

This group of food additives is used to improve the mouth feel of products while maintaining consistency for the consumer. Without emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilizers many of our favourite foods would be almost unrecognizable in appearance and texture. Emulsifiers help keep water and oils together in an “emulsion”. Some common emulsifiers include gelatin, mono-and diglycerides, lecithin and polysorbate 60 or 80. Products that benefit from these additives are peanut butter, ice cream, homogenized milk, yogurt, cheese, mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine, and artificial whipped cream and coffee lighteners. Stabilizers act almost like emulsifiers and give food a firmer texture without changing the taste. Most people are familiar with stabilizers such as pectin and agar which are used in the production of jams and jellies. Thickeners and bulking agents are very important to many food products. These additives keep the oils, acids, sugars, water and solid components in a product blended well while absorbing excess water. Vegetable products are often used as thickeners such as arrowroot, collagen, cornstarch, guar gum, roux, tapioca, xanthan gum and alginin.

6. To Solve Specific Food Problems

There are several food additives that are designed to address specific problems associated with certain foods. This group includes anticaking agents, antifoaming agents, humectants and propellants. These additives are designed to enhance consumer enjoyment of the food by producing or preventing effects. Anticaking agents are added to ensure powdered or granular products such as salt, dried milk, sugar, baking powder or flour flow freely and do not clump up. These products are vulnerable to moisture and the anticaking agent (often calcium silicate) will absorb this excess moisture while coating the food particles. Antifoaming agents are meant to prevent or simply reduce foaming created in the production process of food or foaming in the product itself. For example, this additive is used in jams and jellies to avoid a foamy surface in the finished jar and many sodas use antifoaming products to prevent excessive effervescence. Humectants keep foods moist and prevent dried foods from drying out too much and becoming inedible. Propellants are considered to be food additives because they are introduced to a food product to change the products characteristics. Propellants are the pressurized gases that propel food from a container. Some common ones are nitrogen, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Some common foods with added propellants include cheese, whipped cream and oils such as PAM.

7. To Control Acidity

Acids are added to food products for many reasons ranging from taste to preservation. Many food acids such a citric acid and vinegar can make a food taste profiles sharper and enhance the eating experience. For example lemon pastries and sauces would not be as tart without the addition of food acids. Foods also need their acidity or alkalinity controlled to extend shelf life. Food additives such as fumaric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid and the above mentioned citric acid can regulate acidity and help maintain overall quality of the product. Acids such as citric acid are also antioxidants (limiting the effect of oxygen on the food) and beneficial to the health.

8. Marketing Decision

Additives are often put in our food products simply to take advantage of a consumer trend or health craze. This type of marketing decision is made to help sell a product to a particular demographic. For example, there is a vast array of items designed to help consumers lose weight or control diabetic diets. These products use artificial sweeteners even when a judicious use of natural sugars would not be harmful or excessive. People make the assumption that 0 calories using Sweet’N Low (saccharin) is healthier than 25 calories from cane sugar. Another example of additives used for marketing purposes is foods thought to be healthy such as acai, pomegranate juice and bran (fibre) have been thrown into everything from cookies to yogurt to pasta sauce.

9. Saving Money in Production

Food companies need to be very aware of their production bottom line and the food cost associated with manufacturing their products. Food additives are part of controlling these costs. For example, many companies will utilize less expensive synthetic colors or flavours rather than a natural one to cut expenses. High fructose corn syrup is a common substitute for beet or cane sugar in many products. This corn syrup is high in calories, very low in nutritional benefits and consuming products regularly that contain it can lead to conditions such as type 2 Diabetes and coronary artery disease.

10. Accidental Food Additives

Substances sometimes end up in our foods that were not put there for as particular reason but simply because of its production or packaging. One of the most well-known accidental additives is antibiotics or hormones given to the animals we eat while they are still alive. These substances remain in the meat after the slaughter and consumers ingest them which can impact health. Another example of an additive which you will not find on the label of the food is dioxins which are in some packaging and can pollute the end product. Dioxins also accumulate in the fats of animals, in milk, fish that are farmed, and poultry products due to the chemicals presence in the feed. If a potential additive is a well-known danger, such as peanuts, the company manufacturing the food must indicate on the label that peanuts (wheat, nut products, etc.) may be present. Machines that process peanut products cannot be used for non nut products because traces remain and can be fatal to consumers.