There are benefits and problems associated with food additives, and there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding them. Food additives are used for many reasons, some of which I will discuss below. I used my food pantry to focus on some of the food additives included in this discussion to help serve as examples.
1. Add Flavor
Food additives are used to add new flavors to food, which may involve artificial and natural flavor additives that do not come from the ingredients in the food. Some flavoring agents include amyl acetate, methyl salicytate, salt, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). These can enhance the flavor or aroma of foods and are incorporated into most processed foods.
But, while they help add flavor, they also cause us to consume higher than needed sodium. Processed foods typically contain more sodium than what we normally require in our daily diet. This can be detrimental to our health in the long run, since it contributes to increase in blood pressure, particularly if we do not consume adequate levels of potassium to balance the sodium. And, it can be detrimental to someone suffering from hypertension who needs to reduce the amount of sodium they consume.
2. Improve Texture
Food additives improve the texture of the food, whether to make it thicker or to improve the way it feels in the mouth. Some examples include pectin, guar gum, and carrageenan. Carrageenan is a type of algae or seaweed that is used as a food additive to act as a binder, thickening agent, and stabilizer (WebMD, 2015). When not included as a part of a food, carrageenan can be used medicinally to treat cough, bronchitis, tuberculosis, constipation, peptic ulcers, intestinal problems, and to aid in weight loss (WebMD, 2015). In foods, it improves texture and solubility (Bhattacharyya, O-Sullivan, Katyal, Unterman, & Tobacman , 2012). It is often found in dairy products as thickening agents. In my pantry, I found it in yogurt, ice cream, and almond milk.
However, when included as a food additive, which is commonly done in dairy foods, it has been found to increase inflammation and insulin resistance. A nutritionist I worked with a few years ago mentioned that it was a carcinogenic. When conducting a search for carrageenan on Google Scholar and PubMed, I located two studies that indicated carrageenan had potentially harmful effects, but did not identify it as a carcinogen. One study looked at the effects of carrageenan on tumor necrosis factor- alpha, which is involved in the inflammatory response in the body (Bhattacharyya, Dudeja, & Tobacman, 2010). Tests were conducted in vitro on human and mice cells, and determined that carrageenan stimulated an inflammatory responses. The other study was conducted by the same group of scientists, and involved testing carrageenan on mice by administering 10mg of carrageenan mixed in drinking water over an 18-day period (Bhattacharyya et al., 2012). The mice receiving carrageenan had higher levels of glucose, insulin, and other related markers. This lead the researchers to conclude that regular consumption of carrageenan could be contributing to the prevalence of glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, both of which play a role in diabetes.
3. Increase Shelf Life
One of the biggest reasons for food additives is increased shelf life of food, thus many preservatives are included in foods. One example is antimicrobial agents such as calcium propionate and sodium propionate. They prevent mold from growing on bread. There are also antioxidants that are added to the food to help increase their shelf life. These provide nutritional value and also prevent oxidation reactions to occur in the food. One example of this is ascorbic acid or vitamin C. It helps preserve the food, maintain its color, and it provides nutritional value, since ascorbic acid is essential to our health.
Although they spare us from eating moldy bread, they are additional chemical agents that are added to food that may add to the toxic overload that our bodies already go through.
4. Add Nutritional Value
Enriching food with nutrients is another reason that additives are used. Ascorbic acid or vitamin C is often added to beverages to increase the amount of vitamin C in the beverage. Other nutrients include vitamin D added to milk, iodine added to salt, and iron added to cereals. These add to the nutritional value of the food.
I do not typically buy canned food, with the exception of tomato paste, and I found ascorbic acid as one of the ingredients. According to the CSPI (2014), ascorbic acid is added to canned and other foods to act as an antioxidant, nutrient, and color stabilizer. It is most often found in cereals and fruit drinks to increase the vitamin content of the foods. It is added to cured meats, as it helps maintain the red color of the meat. It is also added to other foods to help them from losing color and flavor, given that ascorbic acid reacts with oxygen (CSPI, 2014).
I could not find any detriments to food additives that are nutrients. In fact, vitamin C has many beneficial effects on the body. It functions as an antioxidant, and much like its effect on food, it takes up free oxygen from cellular metabolic processes, preventing the formation of free radicals (Schlenker & Roth, 2011). It is also essential to building and maintaining body tissues, such as bone, cartilage, collagen, and connective tissue. It supports many metabolic processes in the body, assists in wound healing, helps fight fever and infection, assists in growth and development of infants and children, protects the body from stress, and prevents chronic diseases, such as scurvy, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes (Schlenker & Roth, 2011).
Another food additive that I found in the dairy items in my pantry was inulin. Inulin is “a naturally occurring soluble fiber” that functions as a fiber and fat substitute in many foods including margarine, baked goods, dairy foods, frozen desserts, and salad dressing (Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), 2014). It has a low glycemic index and does not increase blood sugar levels, making it beneficial for those with diabetes (CSPI, 2014). In addition, it is a prebiotic that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria in the large intestine. A combination in vitro and in vivo study indicated that inulin is an effective digestive fiber (Corzo et al., 2015). It stimulates the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacteria, and is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) as a supplement and food additive (Corzo et al., 2015).
As is evident, there are both benefit and problems associated with food additives, and it is important to read food labels to identify which additives may cause us more harm, given our health condition.
Bhattacharrya, S., Dudeja, P. K., & Tobacman, J. K. (2010). Tumor necrosis factor alpha- induced inflammation is increased but apoptosis is inhibited by common food additive carrageenan. The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 285(50), 39511-39522. doi://10.1074/jbc.M110.159681
Bhattacharyya, S., O-Sullivan, I., Katyal, S., Unterman, T., & Tobacman, J. K. (2012). Exposure to common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signaling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice. Diabetologia, 55, 194-203. doi://10.1007/s00125-011-2333-x
Center for Science in the Public Interest. (2014). Artificial colors/food dyes. Chemical Cuisine, Learn about Food Additives. Retrieved on November 14, 2016 from http://cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm#dyes
Corzo, N., Alonso, J. L., Azpiroz, F., Calvo, M. A., Cirici, M., Leis, R., Lombó, F., Mateos-Aparicio, I., Plou, F. J., Ruas-Madiedo, P., Rúperez, P., Redondo-Cuenca, A., Sanz, M. L., & Clemente, A. (2015). Prebiotics: concept, properties and beneficial effects. Nutrición Hospitalaria, 31(1), 99-118. Retrieved from http://www.aulamedica.es/nh/pdf/8715.pdf
Mahan, L. K., Escott-Stump, S., & Raymond, J. L. (2012). Krause’s Food and The Nutrition Care Process (13th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.
Schlenker, E. D. & Roth, S. L. (2011). Williams’ Essentials of Nutrition and Diet Therapy- Revised Reprint (10th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
WebMD. (2015). Carrageenan. Find a Vitamin or Supplement; WebMD. Retrieved on November 14, 2016 from http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-710-carrageenan.aspx?activeingredientid=710&activeingredientname=carrageenan