Note to Reader
It doesn’t take much effort to locate articles and information about the dangers of food additives. Unfortunately, many people are downright mistaken about the relative safety of these products. More importantly, they don’t seem to grasp the importance that additives play in meeting the food demands of modern society.
Here is a fact-based look at common food additives, why they are important, and how they are regulated.
Where Do Food Additives come from?
One of the biggest sources of food additives is the ocean. The ocean is literally full of life that is healthy for human life. When people think of “eating the ocean”, seafood is likely comes to mind.
Interestingly, many healthy food additives are now being derived from the other natural, non-fish elements of the ocean. Seaweed is the most common source of additives derived from the ocean. Carrageenan, a common food additive, is actually derived from seaweed!
Common Food Additives
There are literally thousands of additives that food manufacturers use in their products. But, some of them are more common than others.
When it comes to food preservation, nitrates are widely used. They frequently show up in popular meat-based products like cured lunch meats, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs and are used to prevent the development of harmful bacteria—botulism, in particular.
While some people mistakenly believe this food additive is unhealthy (because of its use in processed meat products), it’s actually quite safe for human consumption, and in fact, our bodies naturally produce nitrates in much larger quantities than what’s found in most processed food.
This is a seaweed-based food additive, is found in a variety of different products, including yogurt, cheese, almond milk, and salad dressing. While it’s primarily used as a thickening agent to promote creaminess, it’s also a useful stabilizer for keeping foods fresh for longer than they normally would be.
To create this food additive, manufacturers harvest large amounts of red seaweed, boil it, filter it, and finally, crush it into a fine powder ready for use. This refinement process (and the seaweed itself) is not just safe—it’s also economically beneficial for the regions that produce it. Developing nations like Indonesia and the Philippines are major manufacturers, and it’s estimated that these businesses bring in over $250 million dollars a year.
It is a common artificial sweetener that has the distinction of also being the oldest. It’s been in use since 1879 and has been extensively studied for safety in humans. Although it was linked to bladder cancer in rodents during the 1970s, no such link was found in humans, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reaffirmed that it is safe for consumption.
Saccharin is a particularly important additive for people with diabetes. In addition to being calorie free, this sweetener doesn’t appear to affect blood glucose levels as intensely as normal sugar or other artificial sweeteners.
Benefits of Food Additives
The use of food additives can generally be broken down into two categories: additives that increase shelf life and additives that enhance taste and texture.
The first category includes additives that promote freshness and prevent the growth of microorganisms. For example, antioxidants help food products maintain their color and good taste for longer than normal, thereby promoting freshness. Preservatives, on the other hand, keep harmful bacteria (like the botulism mentioned earlier) from growing and spreading.
Taste and texture additives can vary considerably in their purpose. Artificial sweeteners fall into this category, as do additives that act as thickening agents or emulsifiers.
Food Additive Safety Regulations
The safety of all food additives is strictly researched and monitored by the FDA. However, navigating these regulations can be a little tricky. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the process works.
Before food manufacturers can include new additives or use current additives in a new way, they must reach out to the FDA for evaluation. This evaluation process consists of three important considerations:
- What’s in the additive?
- How much will be typically consumed?
- What are the short- and long-term health effects?
If manufacturers can meet the criteria required by the FDA, the additive is generally approved for use. However, the organization may impose specific regulations on the acceptable quantity used in products and what types of food the additive can be used in.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that food additives are highly regulated, so the chances of experiencing negative side effects from them is low. However, that shouldn’t stop you from researching the issue for yourself and staying informed about new developments in the field. The first step in staying healthy is definitely knowledge.