Those Darned Chemicals, Part III: What are Food Additives, and Why Worry About Them?

Since I am doing this series (and I am glad to see that people are enthusiastic about it) on the topic of what synthetic chemicals are allowed in processed foods given the USDA Certified Organic seal of approval, I think I should probably talk a little bit about food additives in general and what they are doing in our food in the first place. Then, I’ll discuss health issues surrounding the idea of food additives and why some people should be concerned about some additives, while other ones are likely to be completely harmless.

After that, we will return to our regularly scheduled annotated listing of the permissible food additives in the special seal-of-approval foods.

Strictly speaking, food additives are any substances which are added to food items to change its flavor, increase its shelf life, to improve its texture, or to improve its appearance. Humans have been using food additives for thousands of years, particularly for thier preservative function: salt, sugar, vinegar and spices have all played thier part in preserving food in the form of pickles, cured meats, jams and jellies, cross-culturally, for centuries. Technically speaking, smoke is a process, not a food additive, but for the purpose of my current project where the presence of carbon dioxide and ethylene gas in organic foods are being debated by consumer groups, I would consider woodsmoke, a traditional way to help dry and preserve meat, to be a food additive.

Preservatives act in many different ways to extend the shelf life of a given food item. Some of them create a hostile environment to bacteria, molds and fungi, thus making it harder for them to successfully live and grow on or in a food so that they cannot cause it to spoil. Bacteria, molds and fungi are living organisms which require water, food, a balanced pH, and a comfortable temperature in which to live, grow and reproduce–change or remove one or more of these requirements, and you disrupt the ability of some or all of these organisms to thrive on your food and make it unsafe to consume. (Some harmful bacteria require oxygen to live, while others thrive in oxygen-free environments, which is why I did not add air to the list of necessities for bacterial life, though in many cases, removing oxygen from an environment will protect food from some bacteria.)

Table salt, a household staple which most people consider to be a mere ingredient in food, is actually one of the first and still most commonly used food additives, both in the home and in food processing plants. It was also probably the very first preservative used by early man. As a preservative, it inhibits the growth of bacteria and other harmful organisms by drying out the food product, making it an inhospitable environment. It also makes food taste good, and when used in sufficient concentrate, changes the texture and appearance of the food item.

Salt is a naturally occurring chemical, and can be mined from the earth in the form of rock salt, or be obtained by evaporating sea water. It is a necessary part of our diet; our own blood and mucus membranes are saline.

Some preservatives are anti-oxidants; they retard the effects of oxygen on plant and animal tissues and slow down the process of oxidized decomposition. Anti-oxidants added to food include ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, another necessary nutrient.

Changing the texture of food is accomplished by food additives that act as leaveners, anti-caking agents, anti-foaming agents, thickeners, emulsifiers, bulking agents and humectants.

Leaveners have been in use in the kitchen since early man first came into contact with wild yeast by leaving dough out before cooking it on a griddle and discovered that the bubbly dough cooked up lighter and with a delightful flavor and texture. Leaveners include yeast, which is a living organism, which was the first and only leavener in use for centuries, and various chemical leaveners which work by way of an explosive exothermic reaction when an acid and a base come into contact with liquid and/or heat. Chemical leaveners first came into use in the nineteenth century and changed the way in which baking was accomplished both in the home, and by professional bakers, and many new bread, cookie, cake, and cracker recipes were the result. (Prior to the discovery of chemical leaveners, the way in which one got a cake to rise was through the use of well-beaten egg whites, a process that required lots of muscle and stamina in the days before electric mixers.)

Anti-caking agents are added to powdered food products to keep them from clumping; anti-foaming agents are similarly self-explanatory–they keep liquid food products from foaming. Thickeners are usually based on some sort of starch which absorbs some of the liquid in a food and makes the rest of the liquid thicker. (Thickeners have been and are used in home and restaurant cookery in the form of flour, cornstarch, arrowroot powder, tapioca starch, beurre manie and roux; in jams and jellies, pectin, which occurs naturally in fruit, acts to thicken the sugar and fruit juice solution.)

Emulsifiers are used to keep oil particles suspended in water; if you have ever made mayonnaise at home, you have employed egg yolks as an emulsifier. Bulking agents are non-nutritive additives that increase the bulk of a product without changing its caloric or nutritive value. Humectants straddle the fence between acting as preservatives or as texture-altering additives; they are hydrophilic and hydroscopic ingredients that keep foods moist. In baking, sugar is considered to be hydroscopic, and baked goods with a considerable amount of sugar stay moist longer than those which do not–in such cases, sugar can be seen as acting as a humectant.

When we get to the categories of additives which are used to change the flavor and appearance of foods, we step into the controversial realm of artificial flavors and colors. However, before we deal with the artificially derived flavors and colors, we should examine the additives that have been used for centuries to do the same things. Salt, sugar and vinegar have been used in many cultures not only to preserve foods, but also to alter their flavors. Spices and herbs have been similarly used. Natural plant extracts have also been in use in many cultures for thousands of years to change the color of foods to make them more festive or visually appealing. Turmeric, paprika beet juice, spinach juice and caramelized sugar are just a few examples of plant-based coloring agents that have been used to dye foods in the past and present.

Artificially derived flavors and colors, however, have become sources of worry to many consumers, and often with good reason. Among the lists of banned food additives, the largest category is the artificial colors that have been found to be detrimental to health, with synthetic (and some natural) flavorings following closely in number. Many of these additives were found to be carcinogens, or just plain toxic, and have thus been removed from the list of government-approved food additives in the US. (However, they may still be legal to use in other parts of the world. When eating processed food in other countries, be cautious.)

A lot of really great information on what food additives are, and what they are used for and information on how safe they really are (or are not) with sound medical/scientific/nutritional advice on which ones to avoid and which ones to not worry about can be found at the website of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This organization works hard lobbying Congress, educating the public and working with the FDA and the USDA on issues of food safety; instead of using scare tactics, they provide consumers with factual information that they can use to make good nutritional choices for themselves and their families. When the CSPI sends out an action alert, it is filled with as many facts as possible, allowing the consumer to judge whether or not the issue is one to be concerned over, which is more than I can say for recent conduct of the Organic Consumers Association.

And now, back to Those Darned Chemicals!

Annotated List of Allowable Food Additives:

Iron, in the form of ferrous sulfate, is an ionic compound which is made by the oxidization of pyrite (a naturally occuring mineral) or by treating iron with sulfuric acid. Iron is a necessary nutrient which used to enrich various products as regulated by the federal government (flour and breakfast cereals are among the products mandated to be enriched) as well as products that are recommended for iron enrichment by medical or nutrition professionals.

Bleached lecithin is derived from egg yolks or soybeans, either by a mechanical or chemical process. (Only bleached lecithin is considered synthetic by the NOSB–unbleached lecithin is considered non-synthetic; they are, however, both allowed in USDA Organic Certified foods.) Lecithin is found in all cell walls, and is used as an emulsifier and can be completely metabolized by humans, and is considered to be completely non-toxic. It is widely used in foods and pharmaceuticals that require an emusifying agent or a lubricant.

Magnesium chloride is only allowed by NOSB as a food additive if it has been derived from sea water; in order to do this, the sodium chloride (table salt) is removed from the solution, and then the water is evaporated. The white powder that is left behind is magnesium chloride, which is called nigari in Japanese. In Japan, it has been used for centuries as a coagulant in the making of tofu from soy milk; the tofu processed in this way has a very smooth and fine texture amd is called silken tofu.

Mono- and diglycerides are esters (an organic compound where an organic group is replaced by a hydrogen atom in an oxygen acid–I know, this probably just turned into mumbo-jumbo) of glycerol and fatty acids. Depending on how many fatty acids esterize with the glycerol, one can have monoglycerides, diglycerides or triglycerides, which are found in animal fats and plant oils. (Including in humans.) Triglycerides, when ingested, are broken down enzymes into mono- and diglycerides and free fatty acids, which can then be used as energy by the body. In food processing, mono- and di-glycerides are commonly used as emusifliers and humectants–they are what keeps many commercial peanut butters from separating. However, NOSB specifically states that they can only be used in USDA Certified Organic foods in the process of drum-drying of foods.

Nutrient minerals, are chemical elements such as chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium and zinc, are considered by medical and nutritional professionals to be necessary nutrients for sustaining human life. They are naturally found in the earth and in various plant and animal food sources, and can be derived from these sources or synthesized in various ways. They are allowed by the NOSB in USDA Certified Organic foods as required by federal regulation for enrichment or as recommended by nutritional or medical experts. (Iodized salt is a good example of a food product enriched in order to enhance health; enriched wheat flour is another example.)

Nutrient vitamins, such as vitamin A, the B-complex vitamins, vitamins C, D, E and K, are all organic (meaning, they contain carbon) molecules that are required in very small amounts for humans (and other animals) to thrive. Some are naturally occurring in foods, while others, such as vitamin D, are synthesized in the human body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Since their discovery in the early twentieth century, vitamins have been used to enrich foods; accordingly the NOSB allows their use to enrich USDA Organic Foods if required by federal regulation or if it is recommended by nutritional or medical professionals.

That is all for today; I don’t want to make too many huge posts with large amounts of reading to digest at a time. Tune in again tomorrow for the fourth episode of Those Darned Chemicals when you will hear Morganna say, “My Mom is a geek, “and Zak will reply, “And this surprises you how?”

And then Barbara will say, “You all can order pizza for dinner, dammit. This geek ain’t cookin’ unless she gets some more respect around here!”

1 Comment

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  1. I have enjoyed this site and see that you have interest in the same things I do.

    I’m presently researching eye AMD and nutrition.

    I believe we have allowed our food supply to become polluted by the caretakers thereof. If you have tripped across “Bilberries [American “blueberries] and the two proteins of the eye most needed for center vision, please email me back.


    Comment by Steve Demko — March 30, 2006 #

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