How Additives Affect the Way Food Looks, Tastes, Benefits Health

Food additives may be natural or synthetic. For example, vitamin C is a natural preservative. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are synthetic preservatives.

Many people think natural additives are safer than synthetic ingredients, probably because “synthetic” seems synonymous with “chemical,” a sort of scary word. Besides, synthetic additives often have names no one can pronounce, much less translate, which makes them even more forbidding.

The following list covers some common food additives:

  • Nutrients: One example of a beneficial food additive is vitamin D, which is added to milk sold in the United States. Most bread and grain products are fortified with added B vitamins, plus iron and other essential minerals to replace what’s lost when whole grains are milled into white flour for white bread. Another example of a nutrient used as a food additive is the calcium found in some commercially prepared orange juices.

  • Colors: Coloring agents make food look better. An example of a natural coloring agent is beta carotene, the natural yellow pigment in many fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene is used to make margarine (which is naturally white) look like creamy yellow butter.

    An example of a synthetic coloring agent is FD&C Blue No. 1, a bright blue pigment made from coal tar and used in soft drinks, gelatin, hair dyes, and face powders, among other things. Because some are carcinogenic, many of these coloring agents have been banned from use in food but are still allowed in cosmetics.

    To avoid these dyes entirely, read the label and choose foods made with only natural colors.

  • Flavors and flavor enhancers: Artificial flavoring agents reproduce natural flavors. For example, a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice in the batter lends cheesecake a certain je ne sais quoi (French for “I don’t know what” — a little something special), but artificial lemon flavoring works just as well. You can sweeten your morning coffee with natural sugar or with the artificial sweetener saccharin.

    Flavor enhancers intensify a food’s natural flavor instead of adding a new one. The best-known flavor enhancer is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which may trigger headaches and other symptoms in people sensitive to it.

  • Other additives in food: Food chemists use a variety of natural and chemical additives to improve the texture of food, to keep it smooth, or to prevent mixtures from separating:

    • Emulsifiers, such as lecithin and polysorbate, keep liquid-plus-solids such as chocolate pudding from separating into, well, liquid and solids. They can also keep two unfriendly liquids, such as oil and water, from divorcing so that our salad dressing stays smooth.

    • Stabilizers, such as the alginates (alginic acid) derived from seaweed, make food such as ice cream feel smoother, richer, or creamier in your mouth.

    • Thickeners are natural gums and starches, such as apple pectin or cornstarch, which add body to foods.

    • Texturizers, such as calcium chloride, keep foods such as canned apples, tomatoes, or potatoes from turning mushy.

  • Preservatives: Cooking, chilling, canning, freezing, drying prevent spoilage either by slowing the growth of the organisms that live on food or by protecting the food from the effects of oxygen. Chemical preservatives do essentially the same thing.

Here is a representative list of some common preservative chemicals and the foods in which they’re found.

Preservatives in Food
Preservative Found in . . .
Ascorbic acid Sausages, luncheon meats
Benzoic acid Beverages (soft drinks), ice cream, baked goods
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) Potato chips and other foods
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) Potato chips and other foods
Calcium propionate Breads, processed cheese
Isoascorbate Luncheon meats and other foods
Sodium ascorbate Luncheon meats and other foods
Sodium benzoate Margarine, soft drinks

Ruth Winter, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (New York: Crown, 1996)

When you read the label on a food, drug, or cosmetic product containing artificial colors, you may see the letters F, D, and C — as in FD&C Yellow No. 5. The F stands for food. The D stands for drugs. The C stands for cosmetics. An additive whose name includes all three letters can be used in food, drugs, and cosmetics.

An additive without the F is restricted to use in drugs and cosmetics or is for external use only (translation: You don’t take them by mouth). For example, D&C Green No. 6 is a blue-green coloring agent used in hair oils and pomades. FD&C Blue No. 2 is a bright blue coloring agent used in hair rinses, as well as mint jellies, candies, and cereals.

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