Gone are the days when the consumers produced their own food. With changing lifestyles
the demands of the consumers have also changed. Safe, convenient, readily available,
varied, good to taste, nutritious and reasonably priced foods are the need of the hour. The
growth in food technology and food science has made all of this possible.
Food additives are used to meet several requirements – prevent spoiling, enhance look,
taste and even boost the nutritional value. Food additives include a vast variety of
substances which are separated according to their function and can be defined as any
substance or mixture of substances other than the basic food components which are
present in food as a result of any phase of production, processing, packaging or storage.
Common Food Additives include:
Preservatives – They stop germs and moulds from spoiling food or making it unsafe; an
example is sodium benzoate in sauces, fruit juices.
Antioxidants – These stop fats and oils from going rancid; for instance, ascorbic acid
(vitamin C) in butter, BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) /BHT (Butylated
Hydroxytoluene) in oils.
Emulsifiers and stabilizers impart smooth texture, uniformity and body to foods. an
example is calcium alginate in ice cream.
Colours – Colour additives, whether natural or synthetic do not improve the nutritional
qualities, but make food more colourful and appealing.
Flavour Enhancers – They bring out flavours in food. A well-known one is monosodium
Anti-caking agents such as calcium silicate, ammonium citrate, magnesium stearate and
silicon dioxide prevent caking and lumping in table salt, baking powder, powdered sugar
and other powdered products.
Nitrates and related form nitrites – have been used for centuries along with salt to
preserve meat and also act as a preservatives in many foods to prevent microbial growth
especially clostridium botulinum. Sodium and potassium nitrates and nitrites are used to
preserve meats such as bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs and give a bright pink colour to
Consumers have been led to believe that food additives are harmful and unnecessary and
many believe that they can cause serious problems to our health. While, concerns around
them are valid and justified, the good news is that most food additives go through
rigorous testing for their possible toxic effects, before they are permitted into the food
chain. The FDA (Food & Drug Authority, U.S.) regulates their uses in several ways and
the vast majority of additives and preservatives appear to be safe. In fact, often many
foods would not be safe without them and the risk of consuming unsafe food
contaminated with moulds and fungi and microbes can lead to serious illness.
In the past, artificial colourings had been linked with hyperactivity in children. But, a
1980 report of the Nutrition Foundation concluded that there is no evidence that artificial
food colourings produce hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children. They did
acknowledge, however, that dietary restrictions may have a placebo effect in that adults
may perceive a change in the child’s behaviour when diet changes are made.
In 1958, all food additives used in United States and considered safe at that time were put
on a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list. Manufacturers were allowed to continue to
use these food additives, without special clearance, when needed in food products. As is
still the case, FDA bears responsibility for proving they are not safe and can remove
unsafe products from the list.
Under FDA regulations, the Delaney’s Clause prohibits use of an additive (including
colours) if it has been shown to induce cancer at any level in animals or man.
The FDA regulates the type of food an additive can be used in, the maximum quantity
that can be used and the information that must appear on the label. The maximum
quantity is set at 0.01 of the level at which there was no adverse effect in test animals;
thus there is at least a 100 fold margin of safety.
However, a few susceptible people react adversely to additives such as tartrazine, benzoic
acid, mono sodium glutamate (MSG) and sulfites. Additive related sensitivities are
believed to be occurring in one in 1800 people worldwide. In many such cases,
individuals with some form of allergy e.g. asthma, hay fever, urticaria etc. can be affected
by these substances. These however are not true allergies but usually a type of chemical
reaction. Reaction depends on the type of preservative or additive ingested. These may
include vomiting, rashes, hives, a tight chest, headaches, worsening of eczema, and many
other symptoms. Combinations of symptoms may give your doctor a strong clue as to the
substance causing the reaction. The reaction may occur immediately as with sulphur
dioxide and sodium benzoate or be delayed for 6 to 24 hours.
(The article has been written by Dr. Ishi Khosla, a renowned nutritionist)