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Food Additives

Food additives are hardly new: they have been with us for thousands of years, probably starting with the discovery that salted meat lasted longer. And they are not likely to go away, since Americans depend on an ever-wider variety of convenience foods that require additives. Some of these substances offer indisputable health benefits, but most additives are used solely to make foods more attractive and palatable to consumers. Surveys show that few things worry consumers more than additives, particularly "chemicals" or "artificial ingredients" in foods. The question is whether these fears are well founded.

Our food supply is more closely scrutinized and additives more strictly regulated than ever before. In the "good old days" a century ago, eating was really risky, since foods weren't well preserved or carefully handled. Adulteration of foods was common - for instance, toxic metals were used in food coloring, and copper sulfate in bread. No one claims that such acutely toxic compounds are being added to our foods today. Instead, consumers worry about long-term safety. Their fears have been heightened in recent years by the banning of the artificial sweetener cyclamate and substances approved by the FDA that were subsequently shown to cause cancer in animals. In addition, food scientists are well as consumers are concerned about the health implications of "indirect" additives - that is, substances that find their way into foods during packaging and storage.

The most commonly used additives are sugar, salt, and corn syrup, which together with baking soda, pepper, and a dozen other substances, make up about 98 percent (by weight) of all additives in the United States. Notice that these are all "natural." Yet natural substances can be health hazards - just look at sassafras bark extract (known as safrole and formerly used to flavor root beer) or aflatoxin (found in a mold that grows on peanuts), both known as carcinogens. On the other hand, there's no reason to worry about the majority of artificial ingredients. Laboratory-made vitamins and some flavors, for instance, are exact replicas of natural substances, and since they have identical chemical structures, the body can't tell them apart. Other chemicals have no natural counterparts, and while this isn't necessarily bad, they arouse the most fear in consumers.
Reading the fine print in food labeling

Most foods are not standardized, so they must list their ingredients. Even so, an ingredients list can be deceptive when it comes to sugar and sodium, and less than clear about flavoring and colorings.

Food labels tell little about the two problem nutrients that may be most important to you - fat and cholesterol. A nutrition label must list how many grams of fat there are in a serving, but seldom anything beyond that, and very few foods indicate what percentage of their calories come from fat. A breakdown of the fats into unsaturated and saturated fatty acids is optional. Cholesterol content is also optional, unless a claim is made about it.

The smart choices
Eat fresh or minimally processed foods as much as possible, since they usually have few additives. Avoid junk foods (such as cookies, candy, and soda), which are not only chock-full of artificial colors and other additives, but are also of little nutritional value - high in calories, sugar, fats and/or sodium. This is especially good advice for children, who are the main consumers of junk foods and are at increased risk if there are any health problems with additives.

Read food labels.
But remember additives aren't always listed: more than three hundred standardized foods don't have to list their ingredients. Ice cream, for example, can contain some twenty-five specified additives without having to list any of them.
Eat a variety of foods.
This will limit your exposure to any one additive, should it turn out to have long-term risks.
Who is protecting you?
Food additives are extensively studied and regulated, primarily by the FDA. Legislation in 1958 and 1960 required manufacturers to prove the safety of any new additive; before that, the burden was on the government to prove the health danger of a substance.
Margin of safety.
If manufacturer-sponsored tests prove an additive is safe, the FDA sets guidelines for its use. Generally, food manufacturers can use only one-hundredth of the least amount of an additive shown to be toxic in lab animals.
The Delaney clause.
This is the most restrictive provision of the 1958 law, stating that a substance shown to cause cancer in animals or man may not be added to food in any amount. Food manufacturers argue against this rule on the grounds that in some cases the cancer risk is minuscule, or that nay risk is outweighed by the benefits the additive may provide - as with nitrites and saccharin, weak carcinogens that are still on the market.
Testing for safety.
Even under the best circumstances, absolute safety of an additive can never by proven. Any substance may be harmful when consumed in excess. Animal studies, which are our primary mode of testing, have limitations. They may not be effective in assessing the degree of cancer risk from long-term use because of the animals' short life spans. Moreover, it is hard to make precise comparisons between animals and humans. Other questions concern possible interactions of the hundreds of additives we consume.
Did you know?

Stabilizers, thickeners, and texturizers such as gums, carrageenan, gelatin, flour, pectin, cellulose, and starch are additivies added to improve consistency and provide desired texture. Many are natural carbohydrates that absorb water in foods. These additives affect "mouth feel" of foods - i.e., prevent ice crystals from forming in ice cream.

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