Over the years food production and preparation has gone a long way, in part thanks to additives and better food handling and storage techniques. Food additives themselves are chemicals or other substances added to food to preserve the flavour or enhance taste and appearance of food. However, you might be surprised to learn that these aren’t a new addition to food. Some additives have been used for centuries, like pickling and salting.
That being said, with the introduction of processed foods, a range of other natural and artificial additives have been used. Regulations ensure that these additives do not sacrifice healthiness for profits or cheaper processing. Of course, regulations and laws vary from country to country, and over the years the law has had to catch up with many different additives such as monosodium glutamate, which has a spotty track record. It is for this reason that many countries have pushed for labelling of products to show what exactly is in their products.
Other additives such as boric acid were banned early in the 20th century due to toxicity but found their way in food processing up until the 1950s. Since then however, regulations have increased a lot more, with testing and food science combining to ensure that additives are safe for human consumption and their database is constantly being updated. An example of this is the banning of substance such a safrole for being carcinogenic, despite being a natural additive – until its ban, it was commonly used as a flavour enhancer for root beer.
There is a large list of different food additives, all of which have different roles and affects both on the food we eat and us. For example acidulents add the acidic flavour to food, antioxidants act as a preservative and prevents food degradation, food colouring is an oft-used additive meant to make food more appetizing as are flavour enhancers. There also other types of additives such as micronutrients which are meant to increase the nutrient value of foods.
The increased use of additives has led a lot of people to try and revert to more natural foods in order to reduce the amount of chemicals they are ingesting – leading in turn to the increasing popularity of organic foods. So far there hasn’t been negative health effects proven to be caused by additives. However, there have been tentative links drawn to hyperactivity and other forms of ADHD, none of which have been proven.