Food Additives

For a printer-friendly version of the Additive Functions chart, click on the icon to download.
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For a printer-friendly version of the Consumer's Guide to Food Additives chart, click on the icon to download.
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Overall, food additives make more foods available in greater quantities to more people. In spite of the questions that lurk over the issue of food additives, as a whole, food additives are not “bad.” In fact, they offer several benefits.

Food additives can only be used for specific purposes, such as for a useful function. Manufacturers cannot use additives:

How Additives are Regulated
Food additives are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed by Congress in 1938 prohibiting the marketing of foods containing toxic substances. Since that time, amendments have been passed to clarify specific issues. For example, the 1958 Food Additive Amendment (the Delaney clause) stated that no additive could be used in any amount if it had been shown to cause cancer in animal or other studies. This amendment exempted 670 substances that were classified as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS), based on scientific studies and other data. However, GRAS substances are not always trouble-free.

Before a new food or color additive can be used, a manufacturer must petition the FDA for approval. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to prove that the additive does what it is intended to do and that it is not harmful to humans at the expected level of consumption. Then, the FDA determines if the additive is safe to use.

When a new additive is approved for use, the FDA issues regulations that may include:

In addition to the approval requirement from the FDA, the USDA must also authorize additives that are proposed for use in meat and poultry products.

Any new research regarding an additive’s safety is compiled on an ongoing basis. An investigation occurs when a reported adverse reaction associated with a food represents a real public health hazard.

The Safety Issue
There are many gray areas concerning food additives, but most additives are safe and play an important role in our diets. Consumers need to be aware of common additives and substitutes and the role they play in food.

A major report prepared in 1989 by the Committee on Diet and Health of the National Research Council stated that there is no data to support the opinions that Americans suffer nutritionally from the presence of non-nutritive substances in their diets. Yet, many consumers are concerned and alarmed by the intimidating words that appear on food labels without realizing what the additives really are.

An additive such as “l-lysine mono-hydrochloride” is a naturally occurring substance; it is simply a form of the amino acid lysine, one of the building blocks of protein that most grains are low in. The Quaker Oats Company adds this scary sounding ingredient to Life™ cereal to give it higher protein quality.

In the same way, the Kraft Company uses a natural occurring substance called “apocarotenal” to add color to its Velveeta™ cheese spread product. Apocarotenal is a plant pigment in the carotene family; some of it is converted by the body into vitamin A.

There is one other aspect of safety regarding food additives that deserves attention. There is a small percentage of the population that may have an allergic reaction to a specific food additive. Such an allergy must be verified by a certified medical specialist. If there is indeed an allergic reaction, that individual must avoid that food additive by reading food labels and/or requesting additional information from the manufacturer. Examples follow.

Fat Substitutes
One of the newest food additives to reach the market are fat substitutes that make up fat-free and no-fat products, such as ice cream. Fat substitutes include synthetic varieties and substitutes made from naturally occurring substances. These “fake fats” are still in the process of being tested and investigated. They have the potential to provide some real benefits to help people cut down on fat and cholesterol. However, it is not advisable to assume that people can eat as much of a fat-free food as they want. It is still important to eat a variety of wholesome foods.

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