People have been using food additives for thousands of years. Today about 2,800 substances are used as food additives. Salt, sugar, and corn syrup are by far the most widely used additives in food in this country.
"Food additive" is defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as any substance used to provide a technical effect in foods. The use of food additives has become more prominent in recent years, due to the increased production of prepared, processed, and convenience foods. Additives are used for flavor and appeal, food preparation and processing, freshness, and safety. At the same time, consumers and scientists have raised questions about the necessity and safety of these substances.
A list of common food ingredients, why they are used, and examples of the names found on product labels is on the web site Food Ingredients & Colors, published by the Food and Drug Administration and the International Food Information Council. Some additives are used for more than one purpose.
Major Uses of Food Additives
Because food additives are closely regulated by the FDA, they cannot be used to cover up or deceive the consumer. The food additive intended for use in a product must have a purpose. Here are the major uses of food additives.
One of the main functions of additives is to preserve food. Without the addition of these additives, products would spoil at a more accelerated rate than would be expected by the consumer.
In order to achieve "freshness," additives are added to ensure that bread does not arrive at the grocery store moldy or that milk does not have sour or off-flavors.
Preservatives used to control microbial growth include organic acids and their salts, sulfites, nitrites, parabens, and others.
Enriching foods with nutrients is another function of food additives. Nutrients are added in amounts that do not exceed those found in the food before processing. Cereal products are a prime example of an enriched food to restore the original amount of nutrients prior to processing. Bread is another example in which the B-complex vitamins of thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3) are added to ensure proper proportions of these nutrients are present in the final product.
The color of food may be natural or artificial. Natural plant pigments - such as carotene, chlorophyll, and lycopene - help impart hues of orange, green and red, respectively. Without adding vegetable dye, Cheddar cheese would not have its orange color. Animal pigments, including myoglobin and heme, exist and serve to incorporate color in products such as meat.
There are many sources of naturally occurring colors, but many are not cost-effective. The use of artificial colors may be more economical. Synthetic colors generally excel in coloring power, color uniformity and color stability.
Improvement in Flavor
Flavoring agents are both natural and synthetic compounds to add flavor to food products. Examples of natural flavors include plant extracts, essential oils, herbs, spices and others.
A variety of synthetic flavor additives are also available. Examples of synthetic flavors include methyl salicylate and benzaldehyde which give wintergreen and cherry flavoring, respectively.
Modifying recipes can be a challenging project. Replacing ingredients to reduce fat and calories, for example, can drastically change the texture, mouth-feel and other sensory properties.
The food manufacturer utilizes countless approved ingredients and chemicals to help modify texture. A simple compound, such as sucrose or table sugar, can be used in varying concentrations to achieve a variety of results. Sugar can affect a product based on its concentration. A dilute sugar solution adds body and mouthfeel to soft drinks, while a higher concentration will crystallize and add brittleness to hard candies.
Some food additives make food processing easier. Chemical defoamers, for example, may be used to minimize foaming in foods high in fat content. This problem can sometimes be controlled by making processing changes or by using mechanical defoaming equipment.