Food manufacturers use additives to help prevent spoilage or contamination and to make food look and taste better. Before an additive can be used, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must approve it for safety and effectiveness. Once the FDA okays an additive, a regulation is written that states what foods may contain the additive and in what amount. No approval is permanent, and all additives are reviewed periodically.
The FDA uses a label called "Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)." Substances are granted the GRAS label if the FDA has approved them as safe food additives prior to marketing or "the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use if the substance." Though some substances may be potentially toxic, they are not necessarily hazardous to your health in normal, every day amounts. Most additives are permitted in foods only at concentrations well below any risk level. Food manufacturers are required to use the minimum amount of an additive necessary to get the desired effect. They are not permitted to use additives to disguise faulty or inferior products or to deceive the consumer in any way.
Food labels are now required to list all additives by name. Here's what they're used for and what to look for:
Flavor enhancer: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a salt widely used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese and other Asian cuisine. Some people experience facial flushing, chest pain and throbbing headaches when they encounter it in food. This reaction, which has come to be known as Chinese restaurant syndrome, is thought to affect up to 2% of Americans.
Purely cosmetic: artificial colors are among the most intensely scrutinized of all food additives, and there are only seven on the FDA's list of approved color additives for general use in food. They are:
- FD&C Blue No. 1 (bright blue) used in beverages, dairy products, jellies, candies, icings, syrups and extracts
- FD&C Blue No. 2 (royal blue) used in baked goods, cereals, snack foods, ice cream and candies
- FD&C Green No. 3 used in beverages, puddings, ice cream, sherbet, candies, baked goods and dairy products
- FD&C Red No. 3 (bright red) used in cherries in fruit cocktail and in canned fruits for salads, candies, baked goods and snack foods
- Red No. 40 (orange-red) used in gelatins, puddings, diary products, candies, beverages and condiments
- Yellow No. 5 (lemon-yellow) used in custards, beverages, ice cream, candies, preserves and cereals
- Yellow No. 6. (orange) used in cereals, baked goods, snack foods, ice cream, beverages, dessert powders and candies.
Some people oppose their use because, unlike other additives that have preservative or antioxidant functions, artificial colors do nothing more than make food look better. Many food manufacturers now use natural plant pigments such as beta-carotene and other carotenoids that add yellow, red and orange colors to foods such as cheese and margarine.
Preservatives: Antimicrobial agents such as salts, sugars, nitrites and nitrates are added to preserve foods or extend their shelf life.
Stability: Antioxidants, including BHA, BHT and vitamins C and E, are added to foods to prevent color, flavor and nutritional changes that are caused by exposure to oxygen.
Salad bar sulfites: Sulfites, antioxidants that were once commonly used to keep fruits and vegetables looking fresh in salad bars, have been banned from use on raw foods because some people experienced dangerous and even deadly reactions. Foods, wines and drugs that do contain sulfites are required to carry labels.
The use of nitrite and nitrate salts in food has long been controversial. Food manufacturers use these additives in some of their products, especially cured and processed foods — such as hot dogs — to protect against bacterial growth and to preserve color and flavor. In the human body, nitrites are converted into compounds known as nitrosamines. When nitrites were fed to laboratory animals in amounts higher than what is allowed in food, nitrosamine formation caused tumors. But nitrosamine formation has never been shown to cause cancer in humans. Interestingly, nitrates (which are easily converted in the body to nitrites) occur naturally in many foods, particularly vegetables, and are also found in water. Nitrosamines are present in tobacco and tobacco smoke.