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All Food Additives are Not Alike

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By Mikkie Mills

Most food that you purchase at the grocery store has substances added to enhance one of two things, shelf life or palatability. Common additives can keep foods stable for longer, and that can be a good thing, allowing it to be trucked to areas without local food production. It's a way to minimize the 'food deserts' that can occur in some communities, leading to poor nutrition.

The taste of food and the mouthfeel are also important to people. Some substances bring out the flavor in the food, some give it a creamier texture, and others add color that makes the food more appealing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors these additives to make sure they're safe for human consumption.

Articles are frequently published that claim amazing positive results from various food additives, such as turmeric, garlic, and coconut oil. Other articles claim that food coloring or any type of chemical agent will lead to poor health or even cancer. The truth is, some of these additives have been part of the human diet for centuries. And none of them can be identified as miracle supplements or health wreckers without rigorous testing. Here's the scoop on some of the most common food additives you'll find at the grocery store.

Thickening Agents

Thickening agents are often used to thicken sauces, pudding, and ice cream. One of the most common is cornstarch. It's used in soups, sauces, gravies and custards by home cooks as well as food manufacturers. The two main benefits of cornstarch are its bland taste and ability to work well under high temperatures. You'll also find it in some food products like powdered sugar because it prevents clumping. For people who are allergic to corn, there are substitutions such as tapioca starch and psyllium fiber.

Additives from other natural products are also used as thickeners. For example, carrageenan is extracted from edible seaweed. It's a popular additive for giving vegan foods a pleasant texture without using gelatin, an animal product. Pectin is a thickener derived from fruit, and xanthan gum is a byproduct of the fermentation of bacteria. Sounds gross, doesn't it? Yet it's in your toothpaste, pudding and ice cream!

Food Coloring

The use of food coloring in foods and beverages is a hot topic. This is one of those situations in which competing studies are battling it out for the final word on their safety. In general, however, the consensus seems to be that it's best to avoid artificial food coloring whenever possible. However, just as there are so many plant-based solutions for thickening food, there are also natural ways to color foods.

One of the worrisome aspects of food and drinks with food coloring in them is that consumption has increased 500 percent in the last fifty years. In the past, some food dyes have indeed been found to be toxic, and today there are only a few that are approved for use. Some studies have also indicated that children could be especially sensitive to food dyes. Some of the alternatives to using chemical dyes include:

  • Yellow: Saffron or turmeric
  • Orange: Carrots
  • Red: Beets
  • Green: Spinach
  • Blue: Red cabbage plus baking soda
  • Purple: Red cabbage

Food Additives to Avoid

There are some food additives that have proven detrimental effects, even if it's just that they're not on the list of healthy foods. Some breads are artificially browned using caramelized sugar, for example. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer that hasn't been proven harmful, but many people have allergic reactions to it, such as headaches and flushed skin. Trans fats used as food stabilizers have been implicated in high cholesterol. It's important to do your homework and avoid these types of food additives.

The Final Word on Food Additives

Just because something is derived from a natural source, it's not necessarily good for you. But there are many food additives that are benign and haven't been associated with any ill effects. Like any substance you can think of, eating too much of any of them wouldn't be a very smart move. Used in moderation, however, they can increase your enjoyment of the foods you eat. In this global economy, food is sent all over the world. Food additives that can keep it fresh and full of the original nutrients are a great help in getting the food where it needs to go.

About Mikkie Mills: “I’m a Chicago native who loves to share her expertise about personal development and growth. When I’m not writing, I’m chasing the little ones around or rock climbing at the local climbing gym.” More articles by Mikkie
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