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Food additives are ingredients added to foods that may help improve their texture, taste, appearance or shelf life. Especially in packaged foods, you may find yourself immersed in chemical names while reading packages, since many of the ingredients may be nearly unpronounceable and unrecognizable as “food.” With growing consciousness that some food additives may be detrimental to health, it helps to know a bit about the types of food additives you’re likely to see on labels.
There have always been some sort of food additives, usually meant to either preserve the life of foods or to add to their flavor, and sometimes used to mask the taste of decaying food. Early food additives include salt, spices, vinegar and sugar. These could preserve foods, make them taste better, and when the spice trade was established in Europe, allowed for people to liberally spice foods that were going bad. Since food preservation has always been a concern, early humans quickly evolved ways of keeping food safe for consumption. These include not only finding safe ways to store food, but also finding additives that would work to help keep food edible for longer.
Today’s world of food additives is much more complex, but it still expresses the basic ideas. You’re likely to find food additions split into several classes. These are: sweeteners, preservatives, colorants, and additional flavors. Some fulfill more than one category.
This is the case with additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is found in a huge variety of foods. It helps to improve the taste of food (for some), adds extra sodium, and may bring out natural flavors. The trouble with MSG is that it makes some people ill. Some have sensitivity to the food, and others may want to avoid it because it adds very high sodium content to foods. It’s a good idea to read labels for the presence of glutamates.
Sweeteners are common additives, with sugar being the most common, and its companions like high fructose corn syrup. These can work to not only sweeten food and add to its flavor, but additionally to preserve food. Sugar is a known preservative. Sometimes sweeteners are not preservatives. Ingredients like aspartame, saccharine, and sorbitol impart sweetness without extra calories. They actually tend to have a shorter shelf life and can develop bitterness over time.
Preservatives are probably one of the main additives. These can include things like salt and vinegar, but are more likely to range from products like nitrates, various types of sodium and even antioxidants. Special K® for instance has vitamin E added as a preservative.
Other types of food additives may thicken food, like agar or pectin, color food, like various food colorings, or bind food together (emulsify) like soy lecithin. Sometimes food has additions of humectants to keep food moist, including ingredients like sorbitol or xylol. If you are concerned about food additives for health reasons, it’s a good idea to investigate additives through sites like the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to see which additives may pose health risks.