Have you ever wondered about food additives and their purpose? When you go through the grocery store and read the ingredient labels on processed foods, you will come across many ingredients that you can’t pronounce and don’t recognize. Each of these chemical ingredients has a purpose and although it is better to eat whole, unprocessed food, it is always a good idea to know about food additives and their purpose if you are going to eat processed food.
Preservatives are probably one of the first things you think of when you think of food additives and their purpose. As their name suggests, preservatives are added to food to prevent it from going bad. Since processed food has a long shelf life, it needs preservatives, such as sorbic acid, benzoic acid, and sulfur dioxide, to keep it from spoiling due to bacteria and mold overgrowth.
2. Food Coloring
Do you remember drinking Tang when you were little? Tang gets its bright orange color with the help of artificial colors like yellow 5 and yellow 6. Obviously these colors don’t add any flavor, but they do make food more visually appealing. To make food look tastier, manufacturers will add both artificial and natural food coloring. If natural food coloring sounds better to you, just keep in mind it can come from unusual sources, such as beetles for red coloring.
3. Thickeners and Gelling Agents
Thickeners and gelling agents are used to give food structure and make the texture more appealing. Often, thickeners and gelling agents are added to processed foods to help them maintain their physical properties during their long shelf life. Remarkably, many thickeners and gelling agents are naturally derived from food, such as pectin which comes from fruit and agar which comes from seaweed. Other examples of thickeners and gelling agents include starch from potatoes or corn and various types of seeds.
4. Anti-Caking Agents
Anti-caking agents are added to processed foods that are mixed as powders to help with the production process. One example of an anti-caking agent is magnesium carbonate, which is used in table salt to prevent the salt from clumping during manufacturing. Other anti-caking agents include silicon dioxide and calcium silicate, which are used in things like cake mixes and hot chocolate mix.
Have you ever wondered why food manufacturers put things like citric acid, phosphoric acid, and acetic acid into food? All of these items are acidulants, which not only provide a sharp taste, they also set gels and act as preservatives.
You may not realize it, but emulsifiers are actually the most commonly used food additive. Emulsifiers keep food from separating, which makes food more appealing and helps prevent the growth of mold. Baked goods, candies, and condiments are examples of just some of the foods that contain emulsifiers like monoglycerides and lecithin.
While sweeteners do add sweetness to food, they are also added to processed food for other reasons. They provide texture to bake goods, prevent food from drying out, and lower the freezing point of ice cream. Many different sweeteners are used to achieve these purposes. For example, xylitol can be used to add bulk to baked goods.
While you should always favor whole food over processed food, it is good to know what the ingredients in processed food are used for if you are going to eat it. At least if you know the purpose of these additives, your food won’t seem so mysterious. Have you ever wondered why various food additives are put in processed foods?