(Reprinted from the International Food Information Council Foundation, 1992)
Additives are used in foods for five main reasons:
Emulsifiers give products a consistent texture and prevent them from separating. Stabilizers and thickeners give smooth uniform texture. Anticaking agents help substances such as salt to flow freely.
Vitamins and minerals are added to many common foods such as milk, flour, cereal and margarine to make up for those likely to be lacking in a person's diet or lost in processing. Such fortification and enrichment has helped reduce malnutrition among the U.S. population. All products containing added nutrients must be appropriately labeled.
Preservatives retard product spoilage caused by mold, air, bacteria, fungi or yeast. Bacterial contamination can cause foodborne illness, including life-threatening botulism. Antioxidants are preservatives that prevent fats and oils in baked goods and other foods from becoming rancid or developing an off-flavor. They also prevent cut fresh fruits such as apples from turning brown when exposed to air.
Leavening agents that release acids when heated can react with baking soda to help cakes, biscuits and other goods to rise during baking. Other additives help modify the acidity and alkalinity of foods for proper flavor, taste and color.
Many spices and natural and synthetic flavors enhance the taste of foods. Colors, likewise, enhance the appearance of certain foods to meet consumer expectations.
Many substances added to food may seem foreign when listed on the ingredient label, but are actually quite familiar. For example, ascorbic acid is another name for vitamin C; alpha-tocopherol is another name for vitamin E; and beta-carotene is a source of vitamin A.
Prepared Summer 1997 by Bernadene Magnuson, Ph.D.
University of Idaho, Dept. of Food Science and Toxicology - EXTOXNET FAQ Team.