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Published May 03, 2013, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Food additives serve unique purposes

“I have been reading the long ingredient lists on food packages. I’d like to consume fewer food additives, so can you send me a list of all of them and what they do?” the person asked me.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“I have been reading the long ingredient lists on food packages. I’d like to consume fewer food additives, so can you send me a list of all of them and what they do?” the person asked me.

I wasn’t sure how to respond because our food supply includes hundreds of additives. Because my client didn’t use the Internet, I found a handout that explained the basics of food additives and provided it to her.

A list of all of the food additives probably would have been overwhelming for her and me.

Technically, any substance added to food is a “food additive” and is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Check out the ingredient statement on the nearest food package. Some additives have complicated names that seem to require a friendly chemist nearby to pronounce.

The term “food additives” sometimes carries a negative connotation. However, if you preserve your own food, the salt and vinegar you add when making pickles would be considered food additives. The sugar and pectin you add to fruit to make jelly or jam also would be termed food additives. When you add baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to your cookie dough, the chemical acts as a leavening agent. You guessed it: It’s a food additive.

We consumers expect safe, high-quality food that tastes good and stays fresh for a while at home. Food additives serve many different functions.

“Enrichment” nutrients are added to replace the vitamins lost during processing. “Fortification” nutrients are added to enhance the nutritional value of the food. If you read the ingredient statement on a package of enriched flour, you will see B vitamins, including niacin and riboflavin, and iron on the list. If you have milk in your refrigerator, most likely you will see “vitamin D-fortified” on the label. Vitamin D helps our body use the calcium in milk to build strong bones.

Other additives help retain the quality and freshness of foods. For example, bread will grow fuzzy mold fairly quickly, so many bread products contain preservatives so they last longer. Other preservatives, such as tocopherols (vitamin E), act as antioxidants to prevent fat-containing foods from becoming rancid.

Several food additives enhance the flavor of foods. For example, you might see “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” or “monosodium glutamate” added to soups or dinner mixes. Flavoring additives can be “all natural,” too. Spices, such as cinnamon, enhance the flavor of foods.

Most consumers prefer their food to look attractive. Natural and artificial colorants are used in a wide range of foods, including soft drinks, candy, baked goods and gelatin products. Would you buy a bottle of white maraschino cherries to top a sundae? Would your grape or orange soda taste right if it were clear?

Food gums, such as guar gum and xanthan, are added to frozen desserts to keep them smooth and creamy. Other foods contain emulsifiers that help keep particles of one food suspended in another food. Without an emulsifier, salad dressing ingredients, such as vinegar and oil, will separate into layers.

Are all these additives safe? Food additives have been regulated for more than 100 years, dating back to the Food and Drug Act in 1906. In 1938, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act allowed for the removal of poisonous or contaminated food from the food supply. In 1958, the Food Additives Amendment required the food industry to provide information about the safety of the ingredient before it could be used in the food supply.

The Delaney Clause of 1958 stated that no food additive that causes cancer can be used in food. Many food additives are on the “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) list because they have been used safely for a long time.

Sometimes food additives are removed from the food supply if new research shows safety issues. Other additives are returned to the food supply when researchers demonstrate their safety. Some additives are safe in small doses but may carry some risk in higher amounts.

However, don’t be afraid of food additives. They have a purpose in our food supply. Perhaps you might want to simplify your diet for a variety of reasons, so consider these tips:

• Read food labels, including the ingredient statement and the Nutrition Facts label. A shorter ingredient statement means fewer additions to the original food.

• Prepare food from scratch more often instead of using packaged mixes.

• Shop the perimeter of the store. Often, the perimeter includes fresh produce and fresh meat without long ingredient lists.

• Grow a garden and preserve its bounty. You will know exactly where the food was grown and how the food was prepared.

You can learn more about food additives by visiting the consumer information on the FDA website at http://tinyurl.com/safeadditives.

Learn more about food and nutrition at www.ndsu.edu/eatsmart.

Here’s a colorful dessert or snack that is fun to eat. The “live and active cultures” in yogurt have health benefits.

Fruit Kabobs With Yogurt Dip

1 cup watermelon chunks

1 cup pineapple chunks

1 cup seedless grapes (red or green)

1 cup strawberries (whole or halved)

2 kiwi (peeled and cut in quarters)

8 bamboo skewers

1 cup vanilla yogurt, nonfat

Rinse fruit thoroughly, then prepare as directed. Place fruit on skewers, alternating the types of fruit. Arrange fruit kabobs on a platter. Place yogurt in a small bowl and serve it on the side.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 60 calories, 0 g of fat, 14 g of carbohydrate, 2 g of protein, 1 g of fiber, 20 mg of sodium and 70 percent of the daily value for vitamin C.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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