Food Additives and Consumer Safety
Food additives are often used to enhance the taste or boost the nutritional content of foods. But people need to be aware of what goes into their food as some may be harmful to health.
If you read food labels, you may be familiar with alpha-tocopherol, sodium nitrite and ascorbic acid. But do you know what these food additives do to your food and to your health? What about the almost 3,000 approved additives?
Food Additives Defined
A food additive is defined as a substance that is added to food during its production, processing or storage. It may be manufactured or derived from nature, such as salt and sugar. It may be a vitamin or mineral for fortifying foods. It can also be a color or dye for enhancing food appearance or a fat-replacer for enhancing food texture.
A food additive must be approved as safe for use in food products by the U.S. Department of Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture before it can be used for nutritional or cosmetic purposes.
FDA Regulations on Food Additives
New additives are tested and approved by the U.S. FDA. But the general guidelines set forth in the 1958 Food Additives Amendment are followed by the FDA in approving food additives. Below are the stipulations included in the amendment:
Existing food additives prior to 1958 and are “believed to be safe” are tagged for further review by the FDA. This is the case for the luncheon meat food additives, potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite, which are being criticized by consumer watchdog groups.
The food additives sugar, salt, baking soda, spices and several hundred more, which are utilized in cooking for a long, long time are tagged as “GRAS” or generally recognized as safe.
New additives can only be used in any product after the FDA has investigated its composition, the recommended quantity used in products and its potential short- and long-term effects on the health of consumers.
Food Additive Safety
With the strict regulation of food additives, how sure are consumers in the safety of these products?
Food science is continually evolving. With time, new things are discovered and some may turn out to be bad. In such cases, products are re-evaluated including the laws and regulations in food labeling.
Sulfites used to be widely used in fresh food products for preventing discoloration and spoilage. This additive is sprayed on fresh produce sold in grocery stores and on salad veggies in restaurants. Because the FDA received many complaints of allergic reactions by asthmatics and reports of deaths due to sulfite ingestion, the regulation on sulfites changed. Using sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer allowed. Also, products that come in contact with sulfites need labels that provide this information.
There are some additives, which are approved by the FDA, knowing that only a small percentage of the population is adversely affected by it and only after consuming it in large quantities.
After mentioning the facts about sulfites, it is still worth saying that most additives are safe. For example, the ascorbic acid that is ued in meat and beverages is actually the vitamin C that’s good for the health and helps reduce colds. Then, there’s alpha-tocopherol, which is used to prevent the rancidity of oils, is actually vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Food Additives to Avoid
This section now provides some information on which additives to avoid and which ones to consume in moderate amounts.
Salt and sugar are safe for common use, but the amount for consumption need to be moderated. A high salt diet can result in high blood pressure and heart disease. Eating too much sugar can cause tooth decay and obesity. Many nutrition experts also say that it is better to avoid food products that have sodium nitrite, caffeine, saccharin, olestra, acesulfame K and artificial coloring. Even though the mentioned additives are approved by the FDA, the Center for Science in the Public Interest questions the result of the testing done on these additives.
While we can eat fresh food direct from the source to the table, which is the best for our health, it’s not always possible. What happens in the real world is that food additives allow us to enjoy healthy and cheap foods at home. In general, we can be at peace that what we eat are safe for us. But we need to watch ourselves as each person is different and may react differently to foods. Don’t forget to read food labels to be safe at all times.
Photo credits: “Rainbow of food natural food colors” by Skoot13 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons