Food Safety, Preparation and Storage Tips
Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, the University of Arizona

Food Additives - Are They Safe?


INTRODUCTION

Adding substances to food for preservation, flavor, or appearance is a centuries old practice. Before refrigeration, salts were used to preserve meats and fish, and sugar was added to preserved fruits. In ancient cultures sulfites were used to preserve wine and spices and colorings were used to enhance flavors of foods. Today, there are thousands of food additives found in foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of over 3,000 ingredients in its food additive database. Many7 of these are found in our own kitchens, like salt, sugar, and baking soda. Still, some consumers have concerns about food additives and their safety.


WHAT IS A “FOOD ADDITIVE”?

A food additive is any substance added to food that changes its characteristics. There are two types of food additives, direct and indirect. Direct food additives are those added to a food for a specific purpose in that food, such as sugar or salt. Most direct food additives are listed on ingredient food labels. On the other hand, indirect food additives are those that become part of the food in trace amounts due to package storing or other handling.


WHY ARE ADDITIVES PUT IN FOODS?

  • To Maintain of Improve Safety.
    Preservatives can slow spoilage caused by mold, air, bacteria, fungi, or yeast. They can also prevent cut fresh fruits, such as apples, from turning brown when exposed to air.

  • To Improve of Maintain Nutrient Value.
    Vitamins, minerals, and fiber are added to many foods to help make up for those lacking in a person’s diet, or lost in processing or o enhance nutritional quality of a food. Such fortification has helped to decrease malnutrition worldwide.

  • To Improve Taste, Texture and Appearance.
    Spice, natural and artificial flavors, and sweeteners are added to enhance taste, while food colors can add to appearance. Also, emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners give foods texture and consistency. Lastly, leavening agents allow baking goods to raise and other additives help control acidity and alkalinity of foods.

HOW ARE FOOD ADDITIVES “APPROVED” FOR USE IN FOODS?

Today, food and color additives are more strictly studied, regulated and monitored more than any other time in history. The FDA sets safety standards, determining whether a substance is safe for its intended use. Rigorous testing is done to determine the amount of safe levels of different food additives. Additionally, food manufacturers must prove to the FDA their product is safe before it is put on the market.


CAN FOOD ADDITIVES CAUSE ILLNESSES?

On rare occasions some individuals can experience adverse reactions to food additives. A small percentage of asthmatics can react to sulfites, substances used to prevent certain foods from browning. Also, a very small number of individuals, one or two of every ten thousand, are sensitive to FD&C Yellow # 5, used as a food coloring, causing itching and hives.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG), commonly found in Chinese foods, can also cause adverse reactions in small groups of people. The symptoms, usually mild, include body tingling or warmth, and chest pain. These symptoms are usually mild and often last less than an hour.

Lastly, people with a rare genetic disease known as phenylketouria (PKU) should avoid foods sweetened with aspartame (Equal). Aspartame is made from two amino acids, one being phenylalanine. Individuals with PKU cannot metabolize this amino acid, and if consumed can cause serious side effects including tissue damage.

The best advice to any individual that has adverse reactions to any food additives is to read labels carefully and avoid these products whenever possible. If an adverse reaction does occur, be sure to contact your physician immediately.


HOW CAN I MINIMIZE MY EXPOSURE TO “ACCIDENTAL" CONTAMINANTS?

To minimize the amount of accidental contaminants on your food you can:

  • Rinse and scrub fresh hits and vegetables

  • Tear off outer leaves of leafy vegetables

  • Remove the skin and fat from meat, fish and poultry

  • Discard the fat that is rendered in cooking meat, fish and poultry because many food contaminants dissolve in fat.

ARE "NATURAL" ADDITIVES SAFER THAN "ARTIFICIAL" ONES?

No. Nothing about a natural additive makes - it safer than an artificial or man-made additive. An individual food additive consists of chemical elements combined in a particular way. Whether it is grown in a garden or manufactured in a laboratory, the chemical structure and composition is the same.


REFERENCES

  • Larson-Duyff, Roberta, MS, RD, CFCS. The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, 2nd Ed. Wiley and Sons Inc. Publishing, 2002

  • International Food Information Council (IFIC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food Ingredient and Colors. November 2004.
    http://www.cfsan.fda.eov/-dms/foodic.html

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety. December 20021 January 2003.
    http://www.cfsan.fda.nov/-dms/ovaofas.html

Curtis, C., Meer, R., and S. Misner. 2006. The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Department of Nutritional Sciences
Document located at http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/health/foodsafety/az1082.html
Return to Food Safety Tips listing
Return to College of Agriculture publications list