For centuries, people have enhanced their foods with various flavorings, preservatives, and dyes. But some ingredients on today’s food labels can be downright scary. Few foods reach today’s supermarkets free of additives – substances that do not occur naturally in a food but are added for various reasons. These include preservatives to prevent spoilage; emulsifiers to prevent water and fat from separating; thickeners; vitamins and minerals (either to replace nutrients lost in processing or to increase nutritional value); sweeteners (both natural and artificial), salt, flavorings to improve taste; and dyes to make everything from candies to soft drinks more visually appealing.
In all, North American food processors may use any of about 2,800 additives. Although many people question the safety of these additives, the fact is that their use is governed by stringent regulations. Authorities require extensive studies before an additive is allowed on the market. In spite of this, rare reactions to certain additives are possible. The appropriate use of additives, though, allows us to enjoy history’s safest and most abundant assortment of foods.
Some 10,000 substances make their way into food during growing, processing, and packaging; some of these accidental additives can pose more of a health threat than preservatives and other direct additives. Some foods, for example, contain traces of pesticides sprayed on crops or applied to the soil. Environmental pollutants in foods, such as PCBs, mercury, and lead, are harmful when ingested in large quantities.
Sometimes allergic reactions that are blamed on foods or intentional additives are actually triggered by an unintended one. For example, a person who has never had a food allergy may inexplicably develop a rash after drinking milk. The resulting small amounts of penicillin in the milk would not be harmful for most people, only to those who are allergic to the drug.