Date: March 1989 (Revised April 1995)
Source: NDSU Extension Service Nutrition Specialists
Food additives have been used for thousands of years. In prehistoric times, salt was probably used to preserve meat and fish. Our ancestors also found that large amounts of sugar helped preserve fruit and that cucumbers could be preserved in a vinegar solution. Today, salt, sugar and corn syrup are by far the most widely used additives.
The purpose of additives are as varied as the foods in which they are used. Additives prevent salad dressing from separating, salt from becoming lumpy, and packaged goods from spoiling on the grocery shelf. They keep cured meat products safe to eat and give margarine its yellow color. The addition of vitamins and minerals to milk, flour, cereal, and bread was a key factor in the disappearance of diseases such as goiter, rickets, and beriberi in the United States over the last 50 years.
Additives are generally classified as either direct or indirect.
Direct additives are those substances added directly to foods for a specific purpose, and, by law, they must be named on labels. Meat and poultry inspection regulations specify how these additives can be used.
Antioxidants, such as BHA, are approved for use in retarding rancidity in dry sausage, rendered animal or vegetable fat, fresh pork sausage, and dried meats. Ascorbic acid and citric acid are antioxidants during storage. Citric acid also helps protect flavor and increases the effectiveness of other antioxidants.
Preservatives and curing agents such as table salt, sugar, benzoic acid and sodium nitrite help prevent food spoilage. The limited use of nitrite is permitted to cure products like bologna, frankfurters, bacon and salami and prevent the growth of organisms that cause botulism.
Binders and extenders--including cereals, nonfat dry milk, and soy protein productsare permitted in such items as sausages and meat patties to bind together ingredients and extend processed products. Potassium sorbate is permitted in margarine and in the solution used to coat sausage casings to retard mold growth. Proteolytic enzymes, such as bromelin and papain (puh-PAY-in) are permitted for the purpose of tenderizing beef cuts.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved these additives for safety, their use is not required in most cases. In fact, a number of food manufacturers limit the use of additives or avoid them altogether. Persons who are concerned about additives, or who must avoid certain substances in their diets, should consult product labels to learn the names of any direct additives used in the product.
Another group of additives is classified as indirect. These substances may be present in food in very small amounts as a result of some phase of production, processing, storage, and packaging. For instance, packaging materials may become indirect additives when small amounts of the packaging material diffuse into the food.
If you have further questions, please contact your county office of the NDSU Extension Service.
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