Food Additives 101
Are Food Additives Really Safe?
Many of today's foods are enhanced by food additives, and some even boost their nutritional content. But others are more questionable and can affect your health.
By Debra-Lynn B Hook
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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If you're like most Americans, you read the ingredients list on food packages. But what exactly is alpha-tocopherol? Ascorbic acid? Sodium nitrite? And how do these and 3,000 other approved food additives affect you and your health?
Food Additives: What Are They?
A "food additive" is any substance added during the production, processing, or storage of food. A manufactured product or a product derived from nature, it can be salt used to preserve or sugar used to sweeten. Additives can be vitamins or minerals used to enrich, a fat replacement used to enhance texture, or a color or dye to enhance appearance.
Regardless of whether an additive contributes nutritionally or just cosmetically, it cannot be used in a food product until it has been deemed safe for the general public by the U.S. Department of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and sometimes other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Food Additives: FDA Regulations
While new additives must pass rigorous testing before approved, the 1958 Food Additives Amendment that set the stage for FDA approval of food additives stipulates that:
- Certain food additives in use before 1958 and “believed to be safe” will not undergo further review. These include sodium nitrite and potassium nitrite, which are used to preserve lunch meats (and some are nonetheless questioned by consumer watchdog groups).
- Several hundred other food additives, including salt, sugar, spices, and baking soda — all used in cooking for centuries — are “generally recognized as safe (GRAS).”
- Before any other additive can be used in a product, the FDA will investigate the makeup of the additive, the amount the consumer will most likely ingest in a product, and possible short- and long-term health effects.
Food Additives: Guaranteed Safety?
Does this mean every additive in every food is absolutely safe for every one of us?
“Like all of science, food science evolves,” says Kathryn M. Kolasa, PhD, RD, professor and section head of nutrition education and sciences at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. “As science progresses, we do find things to be bad. Then you re-look at your laws, regulations, and labeling.”
Sulfites, for example, were once widely used to prevent discoloration and spoilage in fresh foods; produce managers at grocery stores commonly sprayed produce with sulfites, while restaurant managers sprayed sulfite solution on foods at salad bars. When the FDA began fielding reports of severe allergic reactions among severe asthmatics, and even some deaths after ingestion of sulfites, new regulations were put in place. The FDA banned the use of sulfites on fresh produce, while most restaurants and grocery stores voluntarily quit using sulfites on their salad bars and produce. Better labeling is also now required on products that have come in contact with sulfites.
Other additives may adversely affect only a minute percentage of the population and only if consumed in large amounts, which is why they might be approved by the FDA.
When all is said and done, additives are believed to be safe for most people most of the time. Some, like ascorbic acid, can even enhance our health. This additive, used to provide color in meat and nutrition in beverages, is nothing more than vitamin C, which might reduce the severity of colds. Alpha-tocopherol, used to prevent oils from going rancid, is vitamin E, which may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Food Additives: What to Watch Out for
Still, there are certain additives that some people should avoid altogether and others that we should all only consume in moderation.
Most everybody should watch their intake of salt and sugar, for example; a diet high in salt causes high blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease, while too much sugar causes tooth decay, obesity, and in some cases, heart disease. Some nutrition experts believe we should also avoid sodium nitrite, saccharin, caffeine, olestra, acesulfame K, and all artificial coloring. While these have been approved by the FDA, testing on some of these additives has been called into question by outside researchers, particularly those at one consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If it affects you — if, for example, you get a headache when you consume a food with the sweetener aspartame — don’t have the product," says Kolasa.
In a perfect world, we would all eat only fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish, delivered straight from garden, or ocean, to table. In reality, food additives help bring cheap, healthy food into our homes. They keep food fresh and even add nutrients to our diet. While we can be assured most of the time that what we are putting in our mouths is safe, each of us is different, which means we each need to be our own best advocate.
“If it’s a food you eat all the time, take time to read the label and decide whether it fits in your life,” says Kolasa.
Video: Food Additives Effects on Kids
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