As defined in Wikipedia, “Food additives are a substance added to food to preserve flavor or enhance its taste and appearance. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that a food additive is “anything added to a food.”
Some additives have been used for centuries; for example, preserving food by pickling (with vinegar), salt, as with bacon, preserving sweets or using sulfur dioxide as in some wines.
With the advent of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, many more additives, both natural and artificial, have been introduced. The first important point to make about food additives is that not all of them are bad. They are, in fact, used for more than enhancing color and flavor; they also slow or prevent the growth of bacteria which might cause the food to be harmful when eaten.
Currently about 1000 food additives are being used. This number has increased in the 20th and 21st centuries with advances in chemical and food engineering. Foods containing additives line our grocery and market shelves, whether wholesale or retail. They are hard to avoid in purchased items. Your aircraft snack drawer is filled with them. The catering that comes to you more than likely has numerous additives, especially if the food source is purchasing anything prepared or semi prepared. Even the so-called natural and organic products we buy will contain additives. They are regulated for safety and accurate labeling by most governments, the FDA and by Good manufacturing Practices (GMP) during processing and preparation.
So why are these additives used in processed foods? Once reason might be to make a food item that is not such a good quality, look better to the consumer. It enables the manufacturer to charge you more for a product because it will last longer, but, in many cases these additives can partially destroy the nutrient value of food. Here are five reasons why additives might be added to food:
- To maintain product consistency – these substances improve and preserve food texture
- To improve or maintain nutritional value – some foods add vitamins and minerals
- To enhance flavor and color – these include spices and synthetic flavoring
- To maintain palatability – preservatives will keep food safe and extend shelf life
- To provide leavening – these substances will help cakes and breads rise properly during baking
It is also important to note that many of those strange words we encounter are actually everyday ingredients in different “word packaging. For example, when you see the word ascorbic acid, you know you are consuming vitamin C. By the same token, vitamin E is also called alphatocopherol and vitamin A is also known as beta carotene. The words we are accustomed to aren’t as scary to hear as the “technical or chemical” equivalent.
Overall, there are two types of food additives – natural and synthetic. The FDA says” that natural food additives are those found in ingredients in nature, such as soybean, corn and beets. On the other hand, synthetic additives are those that are man-made. Synthetic additives may sound scary and unnatural, but they have economic benefits and can be made more consistent and pure than their natural counterparts”. According to the FDA, “Whether an additive is natural or artificial has no bearing on its safety.”
Food additives can be categorized into several groups:
1. Acids : Food acids are added to make flavors “sharper”, and also act as preservatives and antioxidants. Common food acids include vinegar, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, fumaric acid, lactic acid, and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). Acidity regulators are used to change or otherwise control the acidity and alkalinity of foods.
2. Anti-caking agents keep powders such as milk powder from caking or sticking. One common agent is sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) which is also used in baking to enable an item to proof or rise. Antifoaming agents reduce or prevent foaming in foods. Antioxidants such as Vitamin C act as preservatives by inhibiting the effects of oxygen on food, and can be beneficial to health.
3. Bulking agents such as starch are additives that increase the bulk of a food without affecting its taste. You might notice on the label the words, modified food starch or modified corn starch.
4. Food colorings are added to food to replace colors lost during preparation, or to make food look more attractive. They may be either natural or artificial. The color blue may be added to something desired to be a pure bright white. Or red is added to strawberries to make them more appealing. You may recall I listed food dyes as a common item causing a food allergic reaction contained in food. Yellow 5 is one of these. Food coloring is a hot issue, and countries around the world have different opinions on which items are safe and can be allowed. Color retention agents are used to preserve a food’s existing color.
5. Emulsifiers allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise or ice cream, some salad dressings and homogenized milk. Words that you will find on the label are sodium phosphate, lecithin, and triglycerides.
Flavors are additives that give food a particular taste or smell, and may be derived from natural ingredients or created artificially. They are added to foods to enhance their aroma or entice you to buy or eat them. At a recent food show I visited with a representatives of company which manufactures artificial and natural flavor concentrates. They come in a squirt bottle for the chef to spray over the food to intensify the smell of the food. This actually might be a good thing for aircraft caterers since high altitudes with low humidity dry out the nasal passages, thus reducing the sense of smell. The sense of smell directly affects your sense of taste. Imagine, you want to taste “strawberry” and the berries are out of season; a spray of the scent over the berries and you will think you taste a more flavorful berry. Flavor enhancers enhance a food’s existing flavors. They may be extracted from natural sources or created artificially. MSG is an example found in many processed product and flavor compounds and extracts.
6. Humectants prevent foods from drying out. Glycerin, oils and butter are examples. In our kitchen, as dinner rolls come out of the oven, we dip them lightly in clarified butter when they come out of the oven. The butter seals the surface and keeps this bread from drying out. So now you have one of our kitchen’s secrets. Tracer gas allow for package integrity testing to prevent foods from being exposed to atmosphere, thus guaranteeing shelf life. This is one reason why some purchased items last better in the aircraft environment.
7. Preservatives prevent or inhibit spoilage of food due to fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms.
8. Stabilizers, thickeners and gelling agents, such as agar pectin (used in jam for example) give foods a firmer texture. Stabilizers help to keep a food item emulsified like a packet of salad dressing so the oil and vinegar do not separate. Unless you see the oil and acid separate before adding it to your salad, there has been a stabilizer used.
9. Sweeteners are added to foods for flavoring. Some sweeteners may be artificial and are used in a product to keep the calorie count lower than actual sugar. They may also be used to make a product beneficial for a diabetic passenger or flight crew member. On the other hand, the sweetener may be sugar cane, corn syrup or cane sugar.
10. Thickeners are substances which, when added to the mixture, increase its viscosity without substantially modifying its other properties. One thickener we use in our kitchen might be cornstarch and water added to a soup or sauce which as it thickens leaves the liquid as clear as the base was before thickening. We also use flour and water which will make your thickened sauce opaque. These are natural, but artificial thickeners are available as well.
One problem that researchers have discovered recently and are now able to directly relate to additives are migraine headaches. Do you get headaches and wonder why? Have you checked your tolerance to food additives? Although the foods listed below don’t sound “processed” they all contain an additive in their production. Here are some common migraine triggers that , if consumed, generally cause a reaction within 25-30 minutes. In addition to a migraine headache, you might feel:
- Flushing of face and neck
- Pressure and tightness in chest and face
- Tingling and numbness
- Burning pains
Common trigger foods are:
- Aged cheeses
- Smoked, cured and processed meats
- Peanuts and peanut products
- Legumes including soy
- Alcohol, especially red wine and beer ( it might not be the hangover after all)
- Caffeine found in coffee, tea, sodas
- Refined sugars
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) this is a flavor enhancer
- Artificial Sweetener
If you are concerned about food additive consumption, the best advice I can give you is to speak with your food source when placing your catering request. Ask if they prepare from Scratch or are buying processed foods and finishing them off for you. How much salt are they putting in the food they are preparing? (better yet, how much are you adding to flavor to your catered meals? You can add more and more, but, the altitude will keep the flavors flat because of air pressure and altitude, request fresh herbs instead to pull up the flavor profiles) Are the food sources’ potatoes fresh or packaged fresh? A packaged fresh potato can be partially prepared, possibly shredded, or diced and preservatives added so it will not discolor, and will last under refrigeration until the kitchen is ready to make something with this partially prepared product. Insist that your foods are fresh and handled from the first stage of preparation to completion by the kitchen…using raw foods, like fruits and vegetables. Meat, fish, and poultry should be fresh product, not injected with salt and other solutions. I recently saw a frozen tuna product at a food show here in Atlanta that was treated so that when it was thawed and seared, it would remain pink. Frozen tuna will turn a grey color when seared, but, this new treatment was meant to fool the consumer into thinking they have a fresh, never frozen tuna steak. Many frozen entrees will have salts and MSG added to enhance the flavor that is lost during freezing. Request your food source to prepare as many foods from scratch as possible, since prepared foods will tend to come with a longer list of food additives than fresh foods.