Additives, with names like magnesium oxide and thiamine mononitrate, may sound unfamiliar to some consumers, but they are key ingredients to keep the tastes, nutrition and colors people expect in processed foods and beverages. When Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal at Chicago-based food science and research firm Corvus Blue, teaches her class at Johns Hopkins University about food additives, she uses a “Jeopardy” game scenario. She poses statements to students such as: “This keeps bread mold-free and salad dressings from separating; this makes cured meats safe to eat; this gives margarine its characteristic yellow color; this allows fruit juices to be available year-round.”
“The correct answer to each [statement] is the same: ‘What are food additives,’” says Dr. Shelke.
Without colors and preservatives, the strawberry ice cream we expect to be a pleasant pink color would instead contain soggy brown fruit, because strawberries quickly turn brown and degrade after being harvested and put into processed foods. Food additives can be sourced from plants or created synthetically.
Additives, which are identified on the ingredient label of a food product, are intentionally added to a food supply after undergoing a peer-reviewed process by FDA or an independent panel of experts. They are put into foods or drinks for a specific purpose. For example, xanthan gum adds texture to salad dressings, chocolate milk, bakery fillings, puddings, and other foods.
FDA’s Food Additive Status List website contains a detailed list, alphabetically, of the thousands of available additives. The agency has 32 categories of additives under its Code of Federal Regulations 21. It also has seven certified color additives that are considered safe to consume.
Other commonly used additives include aspartame, an artificial sweetener; sodium nitrite, a preservative that prevents bacterial growth in meat and adds a reddish-pink color; and carrageenan, a red seaweed derivative that acts as a thickener and preservative in products including almond milk, vegan cheese, ice cream and coffee creamers. “Without food additives we would not have the range of prepared and packaged foods that you have today because the product has consistency and the flavor is enhanced,” Dr. Shelke says. “All the emulsifiers, stabilizers and anti-caking agents help the palatability and wholesomeness, and vitamins and minerals help the nutritional value.”
Quality and Safety
Additives are evaluated primarily in two different ways in the United States, says Roger Clemens, PhD, a food expert at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy in Los Angeles. One is by FDA. The second, conducted independently of FDA, takes a self-affirmation approach where specific criteria are screened by a panel of experts to assure the additive’s safety for its intended use in a particular food.
Dr. Clemens has served on such panels, which he says include physicians, a pediatrician, a nutritionist, a toxicologist, and a representative from the food processing industry. The panels are coordinated and recruited by the company that wants the product reviewed, but Dr. Clemens said they use participants without conflicts of interest.
He says the panels identify the chemistry of the additive, its composition, toxicology, microbiology, and whether the product could degrade over time or at different room or transport temperatures. They also look at how it will be put into the food, for example, via a thermal process, and what happens to the food undergoing that process, such as whether it remains stable and is dispersed homogeneously in the food or drink. The panel also looks at pesticides if the additive comes from a fruit or vegetable.
Further, the panel assess how the additive could affect people of different ages, from pediatrics to geriatrics and ages in between. They look at whether the additive might affect the immune, gastrointestinal, or endocrine systems of the person who consumes it.