Food additives are chemicals or substances added to your food to enhance its aroma, flavor, appearance, texture and extend its shelf life. It is safe to say that if there were no food additives, more than half the food items available worldwide would cease to exist.
There is an increasing amount of attention being drawn towards the effects of additives on consumers' daily lives. Its potential health risk and effects on the development and behavior of young children is still an ongoing topic of discussion.
A food additive can be added to the food directly, indirectly, or as a catalyst:
Directly: When chemicals are mixed into the food for a specific taste, appearance, texture, etc. For example, artificial sweeteners like aspartame are used to amplify the sweetness of sodas and sugar-free goods.
Indirectly: Minute traces of chemicals used in the product's packaging also become a part of food during transportation, storage, or manufacturing. Hence, it is important to ensure that the packaging and handling are done safely.
Catalyst: Certain chemicals or enzymes are prepared for the goods but removed or inactive in the final product. These act as catalysts or building blocks during manufacturing and are extracted from plants, animals, or micro-organisms such as bacteria.
Food additives that can be extracted from plants, animals, minerals are a concern for the consumers since they are the ones who are directly affected by them.
The broad categories for characterizing food additives are
Natural: These types of additives are found naturally in food sources around us. A good example of a natural food additive is red beets that act as a perfect red dye.
Artificial: These types of additives are not found naturally. These chemicals are produced in a lab like Sodium Nitrite, which is used in meat products to prevent bacterial growth and give it a reddish-pink color.
Reasons for Adding Additives
There are a lot of reasons for mixing additives in food products. They act as thickeners, emulsifiers, and stabilizers to improve the overall quality of the product. They bind the ingredients together and give the snack a uniform texture, taste, and appearance.
Some additives are also included in the composition of a food product to add nutritional value. For example, synthetic Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is commonly added to food since they are more stable than their organic counterparts.
Another reason manufacturers opt for food additives is because they are pocket-friendly and easily available.
Different Types of Food Additives
Anti-caking Agents: Stop ingredients from becoming lumpy. (341 tricalcium phosphate)
Antioxidants: Prevent foods from oxidizing or going rancid. (butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA))
Artificial Sweeteners: Increase the sweetness. (Aspartame)
Emulsifiers: Stop fats from clotting together. (Lecithin)
Food Acids: Maintain the right acid level.
Colors: Enhance or add color (Erythrosine)
Flavors: Adds flavor (Pyrazines)
Thickeners and Vegetable Gums: Enhance texture and consistency. (Xanthan gum)
Raising Agents: Increase the volume of food through the use of gases. (Sodium bicarbonate)
Gelling Agents: Alter the texture of foods through gel formation (hydroxypropylmethylcellulose)
Certain agents are added to food products to enhance their flavor, like, sweeten it or add flavors to an otherwise bland product.
Natural food flavoring is generally considered healthier and safer; however, this may sometimes not be the case. The only contribution of food flavoring is amplifying the taste of the product; they do not add any nutritional value to it and sometimes can be harmful. A prime example would be natural almond flavoring, a source of poisonous hydrogen cyanide, whereas its synthetic counterpart has no such component.
To enhance the color and appearance of any food product, a dye, pigment, or color is added to it. The reason pigment is added to food, drinks, and even medicines are to make them more appealing and sometimes to match the consumer's expectations as to how it should taste.
How are Food Additives Evaluated?
Organizations responsible for evaluating the food additives and deeming which additives are safe to use are World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an independent, international expert scientific group, is responsible for the risk assessment of food additives.
Food additives, be it natural or synthetic, that undergo the JECFA safety assessment and do not have significant elements deemed harmful for consumption can be used. After this assessment, national authorities can authorize the use of such additives which have passed either the JECFA test or any national test.
Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)
ADI is an approximate amount of an additive in drinking water or food that does not cause any adverse health effects, even if consumed daily over a lifetime.
Food Additives v/s Processed Foods
Assuming processed foods contain food additives is a very common misconception. Food products like canned goods, long-life milk, or other shelved food products are all processed, but none of them has extra chemicals mixed in.
It is very frequent for a food manufacturing company to mix in additives to make the food marketable, such as color or aroma, which commonly cause allergic reactions. Some hypersensitive reactions are as follows:
Digestive Disorders: Diarrhea and colicky pains
Nervous Disorders: Hyperactivity, insomnia, and irritability
Respiratory Problems: Asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis
Skin Problems: Hives, itching, rashes, and swelling.
Long-term Health Risks
Even though there are strict protocols regarding assessing food additives, it can still be a health risk for consumers.
These additives can affect in the following ways:
Weight Gain: Synthetic sweeteners or nonnutritive sweeteners claim to have zero calories but still add sweetness to the products they are mixed in. though they have zero calories, they can still be the reason for weight gain as the chemicals used can alter the gut microbiome, which then results in a change in metabolism and hormonal imbalance.
Cancer: Food items with nitrites and nitrates majorly found in meat products increase the risk of colorectal cancer; in 2015, WHO classified meat products as carcinogenic (having the potential to cause cancer) to humans. Hence, the consumption of certain types of additives can higher the risk of cancer.
Gut Health: Whether food additives affect gut health or not is still a debatable topic. The production and consumption of food products consisting of additives, along with an increase in gut health-related problems, have fueled this conversation. A study on mice suggests that goods with artificial sweeteners resulted in lower gut bacterial diversity and lead to digestive issues. However, no research or evidence exists that ties this same effect on humans.
Consumers wonder if the consumption of artificial food additives, such as food coloring, results in hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.
Synthetic food additives are used to manufacture food products to enhance the smell, texture, appearance, etc., especially for products marketed towards children. Artificial additives are more popular even though natural substitutes exist because organic additives are not as vibrant and cheap.
Many groups believe that synthetic food additives cause neurodevelopmental disorders in children; however, very little research is present to back this theory.
BPA, or bisphenol A, is proved to disrupt the endocrine, which may later lead to development issues in growing infants and babies. Hence, it is strictly banned in baby-related products such as baby bottles, toys that the child might suck on, sippy bottles, or even the packaging of infant formulas. Products as such are labeled as "BPA-free."
Common Food Additives that Cause Problems
A few artificial food additives that cause health issues to humans are:
Flavour Enhancers: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) 621
Food Colourings: Tartrazine 102; yellow 2G107; sunset yellow FCF110; cochineal 120
Preservatives: Benzoates 210, 211, 212, 213; nitrates 249, 250, 251, 252; sulphites 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225 and 228
Artificial Sweetener: Aspartame 951
Is limitation necessary?
It is almost next to impossible to completely avoid or prevent the intake of food additives since it is present in most food products. However, the intake of such additives in limitations does not pose major harm to a healthy life.
Hence, most of these additives are not hazardous, and toxic additives are banned or limited by the authorities.
Since it is not feasible to eliminate such food additives, we can therefore strive to maintain a diet that includes processed foods to the minimum, thereby automatically lowering the intake.
Ways for Reducing Intake
Some tips for reducing the intake of food additives are as follows:
Drink Water: Staying hydrated and drinking water is a simple way to decrease the intake of inorganic sweeteners present in many beverages
Stay Updated on New Terms and Names: More than one name for a particular additive can be.
Avoid Extreme Diets: It is not advisable to completely cut off additives since they are not sustainable. In place of this, making minute changes to the diet can reduce the intake in a more manageable way.
Read the Label: it is legally required for manufacturing companies to list all food additives used in the product, be it natural or artificial.
Authored By: Ankita Agarwal
About Author: Ankita Agarwal is a Health & Wellness Coach from Siliguri, India.