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Are food additives really safe?

by Admin-Phmp

Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photos: foodnerdinc.com and blog.technavio.com

When it comes to chemicals, people are very much concerned as they are hazardous to health. More so, if they are being ingested with the food people are eating. Such is the case of food additives.

Food additive is defined by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result – directly or indirectly – in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.”

In the past, the common food additives were salt, sugar, and vinegar. Today, there are still being used: salt to preserve meat and fish, sugar to preserve fruits and vinegar, or acids to pickle vegetables. 

“Fermentation processes are often used to preserve foods for later consumption,” says the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD), a line agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). “Fermentation by lactic acid bacteria leads to the production of foods such as burong pipino, kesong puti, burong talangka, longganisa, and bagoong alamang.”

Today, a wide range of chemicals may be added to food, including flavoring agents, colors, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and preservatives. Other chemicals may be used to aid in the transformation of raw materials into foods during processing and manufacture.

“Many food additives have been developed over time to meet the needs of food production, as making food on a large scale is very different from making them on a small scale at home,” the World Health Organization (WHO) explains. “Additives are needed to ensure processed food remains safe and in good condition throughout its journey from factories to industrial kitchens, during transportation to warehouses and shops, and finally to consumers.”

Let’s take a closer look as to why some ingredients are needed to be added to foods. For one, they maintain or improve safety and freshness. “Preservatives slow product spoilage caused by mold, air, bacteria, fungi or yeast,” FDA points out. “In addition, they help control contamination that can cause foodborne illness, including life-threatening botulism.”

One group of preservatives – antioxidants – prevents fats and oils and the foods containing them from becoming rancid or developing an off-flavor. They also cut fresh fruits such as apples from turning brown when exposed to air.

Another reason: they improve or maintain nutritional value. Vitamins, minerals, and fibers are added to many foods to make up for those lacking in a person’s diet or lost in processing or to enhance the nutritional quality of food. Such fortification and enrichment have helped reduce malnutrition in the Philippines and around the world.

Different forms of food additives

More importantly, they improve taste, texture, and appearance. Spices, natural and artificial flavors, and sweeteners are added to enhance the taste of food. Food colors maintain or improve appearance. Emulsifiers (prevent liquid products from separating), stabilizers, and thickeners (both provide an even texture) give foods the texture and consistency consumers expect. Leavening agents allow baked goods to rise during baking. Some additives help control the acidity and alkalinity of foods, while other ingredients help maintain the taste and appearance of foods with reduced fat content.

According to the United Nations health agency, food additives can be derived from plants, animals, minerals, or they can be synthetic. Right now, there are several thousand food additives used, all of which are designed to do a specific job in making food safer or more appealing.

The WHO divides these food additives into three categories: flavoring agents, enzyme preparations, and other additives.

“Flavoring agents – which are added to food to improve aroma or taste – make up the greatest number of additives used in foods,” the WHO says. “There are hundreds of varieties of flavorings used in a wide variety of foods, from confectionery and soft drinks to cereal, cake and yogurt. Natural flavoring agents include nut, fruit and spice blends, as well as those derived from vegetables and wine. In addition, there are flavorings that imitate natural flavors.”

Enzyme preparations, on the other hand, are a type of additive that may or may not end up in the final food product. “Enzymes are naturally-occurring proteins that boost biochemical reactions by breaking down larger molecules into smaller building blocks,” the WHO explains. “They can be obtained by extraction from plants or animal products or from micro-organisms such as bacteria and are used as alternatives to chemical-based technology.”

Enzymes are mainly used in baking (to improve the dough), for manufacturing fruit juices (to increase yields), in winemaking and brewing (to improve fermentation), as well as in cheese manufacturing (to improve curd formation).

Other additives are used for a variety of reasons, such as preservation, coloring, and sweetening. They are added when food is prepared, packaged, transported, or stored, and they eventually become a component of the food.

Coloring is added to food to replace colors lost during preparation or to make food look more attractive. Non-sugar sweeteners are often used as an alternative to sugar because they contribute fewer or no calories when added to food.

Food additives can be added directly or indirectly. Direct food additives are those that are added to a food for a specific purpose in that food. Indirect food additives – which are not used or placed in the food on purpose – become part of the food in trace amounts due to its packaging, storage, or other handling.

One big concern about these food additives is whether they are safe when consumed. 

“The process of approving the use of a food additive is quite rigorous,” the PCIEERD explains. “Additives are examined to establish a good technological reason for using the additive, and then to assess their safety. Safety evaluations may include laboratory trials on the additive to evaluate their effect on laboratory animals.”

Scientists can establish the maximum levels for incorporation of an additive in a food based on the result of the aforementioned studies.

In the Philippines, the Department of Health has published a list of food additives being used in the country; the list is updated every now and then. “By establishing permitted levels in specific foods, a consumers’ intake of additives will not exceed a defined acceptable daily intake (ADI),” the PCIEERD says.

The UN health agency defines ADI as an estimate of the amount of an additive in food or drinking water that can be safely consumed daily over a lifetime without adverse health effects.

Once the ADI has been known, the food additives are then fit for human consumption. 

“The toxicity of food additives is generally low,” assures Rose Elaine E. Placio-Guilaran, a science research specialist from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), another DOST line agency.

Guilaran said those words while discussing the uses and safety of food additives during the DOST-Caraga’s recent webinar for the Small Enterprise Technology Upgrading Program (SETUP).

SETUP is a nationwide DOST strategy encouraging and assisting micro, small, and medium enterprises to adopt technological innovations to improve their products, services, operations and increase their productivity and competitiveness.

The webinar was held to help Filipino entrepreneurs who are interested in producing their own food products. Doing so, they will be guided as to what kind of food additives to use and the safety levels. “You cannot merely use food additives without proper discretion,” she pointed out.

According to Guilaran, there is a CODEX Committee on Food Additives that sets the standard known as General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA) that can be accessed online.

She said Filipinos can refer to the GSFA for the maximum permissible levels (MPL) of certain food additives they are using since GSFA provides a list of food categories with the corresponding MPL. The GSFA further prescribes the safe amounts of additives to use, especially if applied to processed foods done for personal consumption or commercially sold in the market.

Guilaran reminded that the use of food additives should not exceed the ADI, and the level should be in accordance with the GSFA recommended level, as well as the good manufacturing practice. This means that the quantity of additive added to food shall be limited to the lowest level possible necessary to accomplish its desired effect.

“A small proportion of the population may be intolerant to some food additives and may have acute effects,” Guilaran said.

This must the reason why the Philippine government requires the labeling of pre-packaged food products to include all the list of ingredients used, including food additives, to guide consumers of what is in the products they buy.

In a study conducted by FNRI in relation to exposure to certain food additives, it was found that the mean exposure to cyclamates were higher among children through consumption of bakery wares and beverages. Cyclamates is a low-calorie sweetener often found in products like soft drinks and chewing gums.

The same study also found that exposure to residual nitrites, often added to cured meat products like ham and sausages, were also higher in children ages one to nine years old from consumption of sausages and canned meat products.

“When formulating a food product, the food manufacturers are recommended to consider the general principles for the use of food additives: Exercise due care in choosing food additives; add only the right type and right amount of food additive, and the trade should also take note of the regulatory requirements on the use and labeling of food additives,” Guilaran advised.

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