Easter is on its way and more than the Easter Bunny might be hopping in for a visit. It’s a time for family, friends, and food. You’ve got your Sunday clothes on, perhaps a nice spiral-cut ham, and all the necessary Easter treats – Reese’s® peanut butter cups just taste better shaped as an egg, don’t they?
Mmm mmm. I can just smell the potassium lactate, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrites, and xanthan gum from here. These are probably some of your favorite ham ingredients, right? Or what about those adorable, classic, multi-colored Peeps® brand marshmallow chicks? Did anyone say Potassium sorbate? Sign me up!
What is all of this gibberish and why isn’t there a peep about it? All of the ingredients that I have listed are common additives and preservatives – not just in these foods, but also in many others. (There is a reason those tasty little chicks, when stored properly, are still delectable after 2-6 months rather than expired deflated promises of marshmallowy goodness.)
Your thought process may be somewhere along the lines of, “If I can’t pronounce it, I’m not eating it,” but hold on. Perhaps you know all there is to know about additives and preservatives. Or maybe you know very little about them, but find yourself wary of the unknown. And to the latter I say: A lack of knowledge or information doesn’t necessarily warrant condemnation.
Let’s explore the rabbit hole of additives and preservatives.
The legal definition of a food additive per the FDA is:
“Any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result – directly or indirectly – in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.”
This is really just a complex way of stating that in one way or another, something has been added to a food. Direct food additives are substances that are added to foods intentionally, with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose may be to impart, improve, or maintain taste, texture, nutritional value, safety, freshness, or appearance. An indirect additive, on the other hand, is one that is not specifically added to food but has the potential to end up in a food in trace amounts due to handling, packaging, and storing. As the latter is not specifically added as part of a recipe, it is regulated tightly by the FDA and food manufacturers must prove that all materials that come into contact with a food are safe.
Let’s talk about safety for a moment, as this is often a primary concern with regard to additives. It should be noted that all food additives are regulated by international organizations and are tightly regulated by federal authorities to ensure accurate labeling and safe consumption.
In relation to safety, additives are also used as a means to improve nutrition. Iodine for instance, which is a food additive by definition, is commonly added to salt to produce “iodized salt.” In fact, iodine is so common as an additive in salt that 70% of households worldwide use iodized salt and it is one of the most common ways to avoid iodine deficiency. A lack of sufficient iodine is a dangerous recipe for the thyroid gland, directly affecting thyroid hormone production, and may also cause serious fetal harm in pregnant women.
You may not consider vitamins and minerals additives, but they are – and important ones at that.
Many foods are fortified and enriched with additives with consumer health in mind. For instance, vitamin D is added to milk and B vitamins are commonly added to rice to improve intake of these nutrients. Vitamin D assists in the absorption of calcium in milk, so the addition of vitamin D to milk packs an additional punch. Another vitamin, vitamin C, is commonly added to foods not only for its nutritional profile but also for its antioxidant capacity. Antioxidants are not only popular additives, but also necessary additives as they prevent rancidity and may inhibit bacterial growth.
“But what about preservatives, and additives with complex names?” you might be thinking.
Preservatives are a type of additive used for food safety reasons to prevent bacterial growth in food products. Not all preservatives have complex names either. For instance, some of the oldest preservatives are salt and vinegar. Food, as a perishable good, has always required some method of preservation for long-term use. The ultimate goal of adding a preservative to a food is to prevent mold, bacterial growth, and food spoilage. This is why we enforce food safety measures through expiration dates on most packaged food goods now. Although, expiration dates that are weeks, months, or even years away may cause today’s consumers to raise an eyebrow or two.
So how would one stop, or rather delay, food damage and spoilage in an age of mass food production? The answer: More innovative food preservatives. Most of the aforementioned substances in the introduction of this article are food preservatives. As previously implied, many antioxidants are also preservatives. Some of the most common antioxidant preservatives are vitamin C, vitamin E, BHA, BHT, TBHQ and propyl gallate. Did your anxiety levels pique as the list progressed? Most likely. But why is one supposedly worse than the other and why would a manufacturer choose one over another? To put it simply, manufacturers may be ambivalent to which preservatives they use, even if the preservatives are synthetic, because ultimately each of the mentioned preservatives has been approved by the FDA. So manufacturers are going to use whichever preservatives best maintain their specific products’ superiority, safety, and shelf-life in the most cost-effective way.
Some manufacturers, however, are responding to consumer pressure and becoming more choosy about their processes with regard to additives. For instance, General Mills is removing all BHT from their cereals in response to consumer disapproval. BHT, an FDA-approved additive, is an indirect additive that is routinely added to the plastic or waxy liner of the cereal box in order to maintain product freshness. Currently, the FDA does not support that there is sufficient scientific evidence of the harmful effects of BHT. However, some studies have linked BHT to cancer and tumors in animal tests. Additionally, the chemical was banned in Europe as a result of its controversy and ability to be easily substituted with more natural preservatives. With news like this and a clear need for ongoing research, it’s likely that some consumers will consider this and many other preservatives to be an unnecessary risk.
Controversy aside, additives play many other important roles in food. Additives may be used to thicken, emulsify, stabilize, or leaven products. The Twinkie® for example, has a reputation for an outstanding shelf-life. And while it does rely on one preservative, this golden delight mainly relies on other additives for its specific properties. The Twinkie® is a complex mix of stabilizers and emulsifiers. Cellulose gum acts as a sufficient fat replacer, which in turn decreases rancidity and increases the product’s shelf-life – it also adds a smooth texture to the filling. Additional properties of additives are particularly important with regard to maintaining the look and consistency of many food goods. Soy lecithin and xanthan gum, for example, are common emulsifiers that help to blend and thicken dressings. Oil and vinegar have a knack for separating, and a good emulsifier can help to disperse the ingredients and maintain the intended flavor profile. Citric acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and peroxides are widely used in a variety of products for aesthetic reasons, such as preventing discoloration. Carrageenan adds that delicious creamy texture to ice cream that consumers expect. So, when discussing additives, it is difficult to lump them into one large category.
What is the take home message from all of this? We live in a technologically advanced age with continued innovations and a variety of options within our food system. As many of us have moved away from growing, processing, and canning our own food, the general momentum of food production has increased and so has the system demand and scale. As a result, our food options have trended toward convenience. In order for food to remain safe, aesthetically pleasing, convenient, un-wasted, and affordable year-round, manufacturers rely on additives.
The real question is: will you?
Iodine Fact Sheet for Consumers – National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives, and Colors – US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Additives and Preservatives
General Mills to Remove Antioxidant BHT from its Cereals – Chemical and Engineering News Vol 93 Issue 8
How Twinkies Work – HowStuffWorks Science – Edible Innovations