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Artificial additives are synthetic substances that are added to food. Synthetic substances are not found in the natural environment, so they must be manufactured. They are commonly used to preserve food or enhance its flavor. Artificial additives are often contrasted with natural additives, which typically are made from chemicals that are found naturally. The use of artificial additives is widespread in industrialized countries, but there are growing movements that advocate all-natural or organic foods.
Food preservatives commonly are used to mitigate the damage that will likely occur to food from physical, chemical, or biological processes. Physical damages can occur from exposure to light or heat, and chemical oxidation can occur when food remains too long in the presence of oxygen. Most food spoilage, however, is caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria, yeast, and mold. Sodium benzoate is an artificial food preservative that is effective at killing such microorganisms; its use is especially prevalent in very acidic foods such as salad dressing.
A common artificial additive used to improve flavor is sugar substitute. These substances typically are much sweeter than sugar per unit mass. Consequently, manufacturers can use much less sweetener to achieve a similar taste. Artificial sweeteners are also generally cheaper to produce than sugar, so food companies regularly save money by using this kind of artificial additive. Many diet products contain a small amount of artificial sweetener, and hence less food energy than sugar, while retaining a sweet flavor.
Artificial colors are additives used to change the appearance of food. Seemingly natural foods, such as fruit and fish, sometimes contain artificial food coloring agents to mask natural variations in color. Naturally occurring colors may also be reinforced or enhanced with artificial dyes. People frequently associate food colors with certain flavors, so food coloring may also be used to affect perceived flavor. The use of natural food dyes is on the rise, however, due to safety concerns with artificial additives.
The controversy with artificial additives dates back to the early years of the twentieth century. Certain artificial additives have been linked in research studies to cancer, digestive issues, and behavioral effects. A famous example is the artificial sweetener saccharin. Saccharin was investigated by the United States Food and Drug Administration beginning in 1907 when the additive was suspected to be dangerous to public health. Laboratory rats fed high doses of saccharin were shown to develop instances of bladder cancer. Saccharin is widely used today, however, because this danger was shown to apply only to rats and not to humans.