An Overview of Food Additives

The Importance of Being Informed about Your Food Choices

A food additive can be defined as a substance added to food during the commercial processing to achieve a technological function. Additives have been used for thousands of years as natural food preservatives but in those days the additives were natural products such as spices, salt, sugar, vinegar, salt petre and smoke.

Many additives are beneficial, necessary and safe. Others are added for cosmetic purposes or to even to fool the consumer. Some additives are used as a means of disguising foods to make them more appealing to the senses ie to make them look better, taste nicer or appear more substantial. Some people may be allergic to certain substances while others are intolerant or sensitive in varying degrees. It is estimated that only 1% of adults are truly allergic to certain additives (up to 5% of children) but food intolerance is much more common and on the increase.

Some chronic and lingering (albeit rather minor symptoms) may be eliminated by avoiding the offending substances. Such symptoms as headaches, skin disorders, sleep disorders and gastric complaints may all be lessened or avoided by cutting out those additives responsible for the symptoms. Food additives may not have immediate or drastic effects but it is the long-term, subtle effects that can be potentially harmful. Dose for weight, children will generally consume a higher dose of chemicals than adults.

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Additives can be classed according to their function.

  • Anti-caking agents prevent 'clumping' of food particles in powdered or granulated products. Dried milk, sugar products, flours and some table salts may have anti-caking additives added to help the product flow smoothly. Others absorb excess moisture or coat particles to make them water repellent.
  • When used in food, anti-foaming agents prevent excessive frothing or effervescence in preparation or serving. Producers of foods such as chicken nuggets may incorporate silicone-type additives in their products.
  • Oxidation leads to food going rancid. Colours may also change. The addition of antioxidants prevents these changes. Some additives may not be listed on the product label because of marketing laws. Biscuits, bread, spreads, cooking sauces, ice cream cones, baby food, finned fish, a variety of frozen products, potato products and convenience meals may all contain antioxidants which aren't listed on the label.
  • Bleaching agents make flour look whiter. Freshly milled flour is yellowish. Flour may also be treated with improving agents which help give higher loaf volumes and finer texture. Some additives also stimulate yeast activity.
  • Bulking agents 'bulk up' the volume of food but don't affect the energy quotient. They are found in low-joule foods
  • Colourings add, restore or brighten colour in foods. While some colourings are safe, others are known or suspected carcinogens. Some of the food colourings have long been recognised as causing behavioural disorders and hyperactivity.
  • Emulsifiers prevent oil and water from separating in eg TV dinners and mayonnaise. Water and oil will not normally mix and emulsifiers prevent the oil and water from separating.
  • Firming agents and stabilisers maintain the uniform distribution of substances in food, strengthening the structure of the food and preventing collapse during processing. Such products as jams, evaporated and condensed milk, ice cream and fruit jelly may have these agents added.
  • Flavour enhancers enhance the odour or taste of a food. A number of these additives have been implicated in a variety of disorders. The two most recent findings are that flavour enhancers have a part to play in obesity and depression, especially in children. Other health impacts include nausea, restlessness, migraines, sleeping problems, rashes and learning problems. In Australia, additive numbers 620-635 are associated with the same health problems as occur with MSG.

Monosodium glutamate has long been recognised as a concern with some people having an immediate and severe reaction to the ingestion of any foods containing MSG. However hydrolysed vegetable protein is linked to the same adverse effects but is a less concentrated form of MSG.

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  • Acidity regulators help maintain a constant acid level. They may change or maintain the pH level. Common acidity regulators are citric, lactic and acetic acids. Typical products are ice cream, wine, processed cheeses, evaporated and condensed milk and gelatine products.
  • Glazing agents provide a protective coating and give a shiny appearance to food items such as chocolate. Most are based on waxes.
  • Humectants help prevent food from drying out. Sorbitol is a common humectant derived from sugar but having less calories. It is used in dietetic and sugarless foods. Doses over 50g may have a laxative effect. Polydextrose is used not only to replace sugar but also as a fat or starch substitute. It is found in sweet foods and also such products as salad dressings.
  • Mineral salts may be added in increase plumpness. They also aid in keeping food firm, improving texture and/or water-holding capacity.
  • Preservatives inhibit the growth of micro-organisms and in this way retard or prevent spoilage. This group causes much angst among experts and the general public as to what is safe and/or necessary. Natural preservatives include sugar, salt, vinegar and alcohol. Freezing, pickling, preserving, salting and smoking are processes used to preserve food. Citric and ascorbic acids are used to prevent cut fruit and vegetables from continuing to metabolise after they are cut. These acids inhibit the enzyme phenolase and prevent browning of cut surfaces.
  • Propellants are used in aerosol cans to expel the contents. Products such as oil sprays and artificial whipped cream contain propellants which are usually either nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide.
  • Sweetening agents replace sugar but without adding significantly to the overall energy content.
  • Vegetable gums help improve the texture of foods and are often used as thickeners. All vegetable gums are derived from plant sources. Arrowroot, cornstarch, sago, tapioca are all examples of vegetable based thickeners.

Manufacturers are not above being less than open when advertising additives in food. Sugar can be introduced into a food label by any one of at least thirty different names. Barley malt, buttered syrup, caramel, corn syrup solids, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, sucrose, yellow sugar (26) are all sugar products.

Remember – not all additives have adverse effects. It is up to the general public to become more aware of what they are consuming and to educate themselves about labelling and the effects of additives on their health.