There’s what in my food?

My stomach is grumbling and I just want to grab something at the convenience store to get me through the rest of the afternoon. I pass up the candy aisle and settle for some of my favorite snack cakes. Before I get to the counter to pay for my sweet treat, I flip over the package and read the ingredients.

I feel like I’m reading the ingredients to a science experiment. Xanthan Gum? Potassium Sorbate? Ammonium Bicarbonate? What in the world have I been eating all of these years?

It turns out that these NASA-sounding terms are food additives.

What is a food additive?

“A food additive is anything that is not naturally found in the food—either chemical or plant based,” said Certified Diabetes Educator, Raynelle Shelley. “The additives can be used in food processing to preserve the food and give them a longer shelf life.”

Potassium sorbate, for instance, is added to help prevent bacteria, yeast and mold from growing in baked goods.

Food additives also help to protect the natural color and flavor in foods or to enhance or alter the color of foods, like yellow number 5 used in cake and pudding mixes.

According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), food additives are also used to add vitamins and minerals and fiber to make up for those lacking in a person’s diet.

Have food additives become more common in recent years?

“I would say that yes, food additives have increased in recent years, because food now travels longer distances across the country or even from outside of the country,” Ms. Shelley said.

Food would not survive distances without some of the additives.

The FDA has a database of over 3,000 ingredients that are added to foods each year.

If so many foods contain additives, how do I know if they’re safe?

The FDA is legally responsible for determining if a new or existing food or color additive is safe for use. And there’s never been a time in history that food and color additives have been more strictly studied, regulated and monitored than right now.

However, Ms. Shelley said that some people may be more sensitive than others to certain additives and anything in excess can be harmful to the body.

“The liver can only take care of a certain volume of harmful substances at a time,” she said. “If a person over-taxes the organ faster than it can detoxify and clear a substance, than it can certainly be harmful.”

How can I limit the amount of additives in my diet?

“The best way to avoid food additives is to grow a garden and prepare meals from scratch,” Ms. Shelley said. “It is also best to purchase foods with the least amount of processing.”

Here are some other ways to limit food additives:

  • Read food labels – manufacturers are required to list all ingredients, including additives.
  • Eat a variety of foods – this will decrease the chance of overusing specific additives.
  • Eat everything in moderation.

For more information about food additives and how to eat safely and healthfully, visit fda.gov.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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There’s what in my food?