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Various rea sons exist for adding chemicals of different types to food, including the preservation of perishable items, flavor and color enhancement, and the inhibition of growth of undesirable bacteria or mold. The practice of adding chemicals to food has a long and mostly successful history; without such practices as salting and pickling, the inhabitation of many lands such as Britain, where the winter climate prevents food gathering for many months, would have been impossible. The majority of these processes relied upon natural substances and methods that are perfectly harmless and beneficial. However, particularly in the premodern age, chemical reactions were largely unpredictable, and harmful effects, poisoning, and illness were possible. As the number of food products have multiplied in the modern world and become subject to intensive agriculture and processing, the possible health implications of additives have also multiplied. It has become a complex and lengthy process to ensure government approval of additives, while also requiring regular monitoring of existing additives.
Tests, Labels, and Additives
Testing on both laboratory animals and nonliving tissue is routinely required before such approvals are awarded. Scientists must consider not just what is a safe level of intake of the additive in a single helping, but also what may be ingested by heavy consumption over a substantial period of time. An acceptable level of noneffect (NOEL, or no-effect level) can be divided by 100 to determine a suitable daily dose. Some types of food dye have, as a result, been found to cause cancers under some conditions and have subsequently been withdrawn. Similarly, some chemical additives have been linked to conditions such as attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity in children. As standards of health care have improved, many illnesses that previously led to serious, negative health impacts have been eradicated or controlled, so the impact of what would have been considered less-important effects have become evident. At the same time, apparently new forms of allergies are becoming manifest or more obvious and, consequently, food producers are more careful in labeling and packaging their products to ensure that they comply with national and international regulations, and protect themselves from litigation.
In some cases, states have taken the decision to add chemicals to basic foodstuffs in order to promote positive health outcomes. Such cases have included the addition of vitamins, iodine to combat goiter, and fluoride to improve dental health.
However, many food additives often have little to do with health or nutrition, even though they have enabled low-fat or supposedly “healthy” products in many categories. Additional reasons include the use of coloring to disguise the unattractive results of processing. Such processes change people’s expectations of food from its natural state, even though there may be perfectly valid and even health-promoting reasons for changing the food. Even when evidence of negative health effects associated with additives is unclear-as is the case with monosodium glutamate, widely used as a flavor enhancer-consumer pressure is increasing to ensure that retailers disclose the use of such additives and provide additive-free alternatives when requested. Many exotic flavorings and colorings are now sourced in tropical lands such as the Philippines, where they have come to represent important export industries and provide another reason to document and maintain the existence of often little-known flora and fauna.
- Larry A. Branen, et al., eds., Food Additives (CRC, 2001);
- Richard Lewis, Food Additives Handbook (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989);
- Bill Statham, What’s in Your Food? (Perseus Publishing, 2007).