All Natural? An Idiot’s Guide to Food Additives
“All-natural.” “No MSG.” “No Preservatives.” Often highlighted in bold letters, these phrases scream out from every package in the grocery store. Yet the internet and media are full of dire warnings about the “hidden” health risks still contained within these cans and bags. Our modern culinary world is so permeated with additives that it can be difficult to recognize what’s what and whether you need to worry about it. In this idiot’s guide, we’ll go over the common food additives and what you need to know about them.
Ascorbic Acid: Found in all sorts of things, this preservative is considered safe (it’s actually an antioxidant and a source of Vitamin C). It also helps to supplement Vitamin C lost from processing of some products. Citric Acid is a very similar additive which lacks the Vitamin C, but has a sour flavor that can mask the bitterness of ascorbic acid, so the two are often used together.
Sodium Benzoate: This additive is often found in convenience foods and sodas, since it is fairly tasteless (mainly salty). It stops bacterial and fungal growth, which is why store-bought foods stale but don’t rot as readily as their homemade counterparts. The main danger of sodium benzoate is in its interaction with citric acid – it produces benzene, which is a carcinogen. Fortunately, the amount of sodium benzoate used in food preservation is too low to produce significant amounts of benzene.
BHA and BHT: These preservatives are used in foods that contain fats that could rancidify. Most commonly they’re found in cooking oils, snack foods, and dry cereals. BHA is rarely used in modern food chemistry due to being a probably carcinogen; BHT was invented to replace it and most evidence says it’s safe.
Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite: Found most often in meat products, nitrates and nitrites are favored because they inhibit growth of botulism-causing bacteria, as well as preventing the oxidation of iron, which can turn meat a funny color (grey or even green). Nitrates and nitrites are controversial additives; on one hand, they’ve been used for almost as long as we’ve been preserving meat (celery salt is pretty much the pre-industrial version), but recent evidence suggests that nitrites might convert to carcinogenic nitrosamines. No study has shown that this actually occurs, but many suggest limiting processed meat products (hot dogs, bacon, sausages) until further research is done. This writer personally feels like there’s a lot of correlation between quality of product and danger from nitrates being used; the cheaper the product, the more questionable/potentially hazardous the nitrates being used.
Sweeteners and Flavorants:
Aspartame, Sucralose, and Saccharin: Sold as Equal, Splenda, and Sweet n’Low respectively, these are artificial sweeteners. They are sweeter than sugar so can be used in smaller amounts, which is a good thing because they tend to have a bitter aftertaste. So much ink has been spilled over their safety that it’d be difficult to summarize all the research. Sucralose and saccharin haven’t had any major issues associated with them, but some evidence suggests aspartame may cause short-term mental changes. Another artificial sweetener, acesulfame, is often found with aspartame; it is used in small amounts but larger amounts have been shown to cause mental changes, and in rat studies changes in sweet preference in children of rats who were fed large amounts of it.
Stevia, Lo Han and Sugar Alcohols: Actually several different things, but these sugar substitutes are generally marketed as being more “natural” than artificial sweeteners. They have fewer calories than other carbohydrates but often behave more like real sugar (especially xylitol and erythritol) in cooking. Many sugar alcohols (erythritol excepted) can cause laxative effects since they pass through the body. Stevia and Lo Han are two plants from which sugar-like chemicals are derived—these chemicals trick the tastebuds into detecting sweetness. Both have a distinctly licorice-y aftertaste which often means they are mixed with other sugar alcohols or sweeteners. Most evidence suggests these sweeteners are benign.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Yeast/Soy Extract, Textured/Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (T/HVP): All these things are one and the same: glutamic acid (a non-essential amino acid) bonded to a single sodium molecule. Tasteless on its own, it is the source of an extra kick of umami when paired with savory foods. This additive is probably one of the most vilified in the Western world but you might be surprised at how much of the evidence against it is, quite frankly, bunk. This article from BuzzFeed describes the issue in length, but the short version is a combination of technophobia, xenophobia, and the media grabbing onto an issue without accurately reporting on it. Like anything, it’s best in moderation.
Thickeners, Emulsifiers, and Gums:
Carrageenan, Agar, and Guar, Locust Bean/Carob, and Xanthan Gums: In food chemistry terms, a gum is a carbohydrate whose viscosity can change immensely relative to weight. Modern chefs, food chemists, and individuals on specialized diets appreciate the ability of these substances to change the texture of foods. For vegans, plant-derived gums are key to replicating the magic of eggs; for gluten-free baking, gums are essential to replicating some of the properties of gluten. Beyond this, commercial liquids/semi-liquids, especially milk products and diet drinks, usually contain small amounts of these gums to hold their consistency or add thickness in a watered down product. Ice cream makers (both commercial and artisanal) are particularly fond of them, since they can be used in place of eggs to vastly increase the shelf life and give a rich, smooth texture. The FDA considers these to be safe, though their unique chemistry can cause digestive issues or laxative effects.
Mono and Di-Glycerides: These are specially-bonded fatty acids which are commonly used to emulsify – bind together – substances which do not readily combine, such as oil and water. Because of mono and di-glycerides, homemade ice creams often don’t have the consistency of their industrial counterparts; the home cook lacks the ability to keep the milk fats from separating from the water when they freeze. The bad news is that these fatty acids are usually derived from hydrogenated oils – in other words, they’re trans fats – though the USDA doesn’t require them to be listed as such. That being said, these are typically associated with high-fat foods like ice cream, candy, and vegetable shortening, so if you consume enough of those to add a significant amount of trans fat from these additives, you probably have more pressing health issues to worry about.
Soy Lecithin: Much like the glycerides, lecithin is used to encourage emulsification. It possesses a similar chemistry but has some unique other qualities. It’s particularly prized in baking as the secret to the clean separation you get from spraying a pan with cooking spray, and as a key to producing an airy, even texture. It also behaves uniquely when mixed with water, which modernist cooking uses to make foams. The major issue with lecithin, which is found naturally in eggs (and is what gums are often used to replace) among other foods, is its provenance since it typically is derived from GMO soybean oil. Otherwise, it’s just cheaper way of acquiring a very useful chemical.
The prevalence of additives in modern food can definitely be seen as both blessing and curse; as modern consumers, we rely on the convenience and consistency of chemically modified foods. Short of complete abstention, we can’t avoid consuming them and in most cases there’s little evidence to suggest we need to. All in all, the key seems to be moderation. Too much of a good thing is, after all, a concept we all should keep in mind.
Cover photo source.