Understanding Food Additives

Food Additives
Feb 28, 2009
Food Additives

Food additives are found in many different foods, and they have many different purposes.  But what exactly are they used for and how safe are they?  Find out more.

What are Food Additives used for?

Food additives are used for several different things.  These include:

  • To improve the taste or look of a food.
  • To increase the amount of time that a food will keep.
  • To improve the stability of a food.
  • To preserve food.

What do Food Additives Do?

There are several different types of food additives.  They are listed according to their function or their class names, and some of the most common functions are:

  • Acids/acidity regulators/alkalis – the purpose of these is to maintain a constant acid level in food.  This is important for the taste of the food and also to influence other substances in the food (for example, they can stop microorganisms from growing).
  • Anti caking agents – these stop the individual parts of a food from sticking together and improve its flow.  An example would be in salt, so that it doesn’t clump together.
  • Antioxidants – stop the oxidative deterioration of foods.  Fats and oils can turn rancid when exposed to oxygen and antioxidants stop this from happening.
  • Bulking agents – increase the volume of food without adding to its energy content.  These are commonly used in low-joule foods.
  • Colourings – increase the amount of colour in foods. They are used to improve the attractiveness of a food.
  • Emulsifiers – stop oil and water from separating into different layers.  In margarine, for example, they prevent a layer of oil from forming on the top.
  • Firming agents/stabilisers – ensure that substances are uniformly dispersed in solid and semi-solid foods.
  • Flavour enhancers – improve the taste and/or smell of a food.
  • Foaming agents – change the texture of a food through gel formation.
  • Glazing agents – these coat food to improve the look of it.
  • Humectants – reduce moisture loss in foods.
  • Preservatives - slow down or prevent the deterioration of food, stopping it from going bad.
  • Raising agents – liberate gases, improving the volume of a food.  They are common in baked goods.
  • Sweeteners – replace natural sugars in foods in a way that doesn’t increase the available energy of the food.
  • Thickeners – increase the viscosity of a food, so that it is thicker.  They help to improve the consistency of things such as sauces etc.

How Are Food Additives Identified?

Food additives are identified by their class name as well as an individual name or number.  The numbers used to identify food additives are based on a system used internationally.  Food additives must be identified on food labels so that you are able to make an informed choice about the foods that you buy.

Food Additives and Intolerances

Some people have a reaction to certain food additives.  This can be in the form of an intolerance or even an allergy.  There are currently 400 approved food additives in Australia and 50 of them have been associated with adverse reactions in some people.  Some additives are more likely to cause a reaction than others, and these are usually the ones that used to make a food more attractive, such as colourings.  Reactions can include things such as diarrhea, hyperactivity, insomnia, irritability, asthma, rhinitis, sinusitis, hives, itching, rashes, and swelling.  However, these reactions can be caused by other things so it is important to be diagnosed as having a food intolerance.

Food Additives that May Cause Intolerances

Some additives that are known to cause problems include:

  • Flavour enhancers – monosodium glutamate (MSG) 621
  • Food colourings – tartrazine 102, yellow 2G107, sunset yellow FCF110, cochineal 120
  • Preservatives – benzoates 210, 211, 212, 213; nitrates 249, 250, 251, 252; sulphites 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225, and 228

However, you do not have to avoid these food additives altogether as they only present a problem to a small percentage of the population.  If you do think that they are causing you problems, a dietitian, nutritionist, or similarly qualified professional can use methods such as elimination diets to identify additives that you should avoid.

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