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People tend to think of any food additive as a complex chemical compound, but that notion is quite incorrect. A food additive is a substance or combination of substances, other than fundamental foodstuffs, present in food as a result of any aspect of production, processing, storage or packaging. Today, salt, sugar, and corn syrup are by far the most widely used additives; baking soda, vanilla, and yeast are commonly used in processed foods also.

The useful functions of food additives are often taken for granted, but their purpose is as varied as the foods in which they are used. Additives prevent salad dressings from separating, salt from becoming lumpy, and packaged goods from spoiling on the grocery shelf. They keep cured meat products safe to eat and give margarine its yellow color. Additives also improve the nutritional value of certain foods and can make them more appealing by improving their taste, texture, consistency, or color. Some additives could be eliminated if we were willing to grow our own food, harvest and grind it, spend many hours cooking and canning, or accept increased risks of food spoilage.

Additives are used in foods for five primary reasons

1. To provide leavening or control alkalinity/acidity.

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. To enhance flavor or impart desired color.

. To maintain product consistency.

4. To maintain palatability and wholesomeness.

5. To improve or maintain nutritional value.

Food additives have their medical benefits also. The disappearance of diseases such as rickets, goiter, beriberi, and pellagra in the United States over the last fifty years is due to the mere addition of vitamins and minerals to products such as cereal, milk, flour, and bread.

The earliest uses of food additives were to preserve and enhance the appearance of the foods we consume; additives to food have been used for thousands of years. In prehistoric times, salt was most likely used to preserve meat and fish. Our ancestors also found that large amounts of sugar helped preserve fruit, and cucumbers could be preserved in a vinegar solution. The ancient Egyptians used sulfites to stop bacterial growth and fermentation in wine. They also used extracts from beetles for food coloring. But, as our world industrialized, nations had to depend on the newly emerging food industry to produce and distribute their food. Dishonesty regarding what was added to foods led to the development of Food Safety Laws. While the first efforts to pass laws to govern food were difficult to enforce, it set the framework for current policy.

By law, the label on the product must identify the food product in a language the consumer can understand. It must indicate the manufacturer, the packer, or distributor, and declare the quantity of contents either in net weight or volume, and the ingredients must be declared on the label in order of predominance. Many substances added to food may seem odd when seen listed on the ingredient label, but these chemicals that sound so intimidating are actually quite familiar. Food additives exploitation is strictly controlled by laws that assure consumers those foods are safe to eat and accurately labeled.

Over the years, improvements have been made in increasing the efficiency and ensuring the safety of all additives. Nowadays food and color additives are more strictly regulated that at any other time in history. Regulations limit the amount of food and color additives used in foods, thus manufacturers are to use only the amount of an additive necessary to achieve the desired effect.

People who are concerned about additives or who must avoid certain substances in their diets are advised to consult product labels to learn the names of many direct additives used in products. Another group of additives is classified as indirect. These substances may be present in food in very small amounts as a result of some phase of production, processing, storage, and packaging. For instance, packaging materials may become indirect additives when minute amount of substances making up the packaging material diffuse into the food.

The term food additive is defined as “any substance that results or may reasonably be expected to result - directly or indirectly - in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food”. If a substance is added to a food for a specific purpose in that food, it is referred to as a direct additive. For example, aspartame, which is used in diet sodas, yogurt, chewing gum, and other foods, is considered a direct additive. Without such chemical additives, many of the convenience foods we use would not be available.

Pharmaceutical companies once began manufacturing USP nutrients - synthetic replications of the individual compounds identified as vitamins and minerals. For example, manufacturers isolate and extract a glucose molecule from corn and chemically tweak it so that it imitates the ascorbic acid molecule found in foods that contain vitamin C. They then label it as vitamin C and sell it. The only problem is that it is not vitamin C; so consuming this synthetic nutrient does not result in the same benefits as consuming a food rich in vitamin C. Intuitively, we know that whole; natural foods are a far superior source of nutrition than synthetic chemicals.

Now with consumers concerned about fats in foods and dietary restrictions, food scientists are working to develop new additives to substitute for fat and sugar. Processed foods manufacturers are likely to increase their reliance on additives that cut back on calories, fat, sugar, and salt. We consumers need the assurance that new food ingredients will be safe and truly beneficial to our bodies.

Being an informed consumer will take the speculation out of choosing the right foods to maintain a wholesome and balanced diet. Avoiding abuses of food and substances is very critical to one’s long-term health, and being concerned about our food supply is very important to one’s well being.

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