We are taking a break in our official "pseudo-science study", but since food additives are an area where there is a lot of misinformation, we will talk about ways in which the topics are connected. There is a Web site of the Week to evaluate as well.

Food Additives - What's Safe?

by Laura Dolson

February 14, 2005

Depending upon how they are defined, there are over 3000 substances that may legally be added to food before bringing them to market. How can we tell what and how much is safe to eat?

What are the purposes of food additives? Some food additives have been used for thousands of years to preserve food and enhance flavor. Salt is an ancient additive, and still one of the most widely used ones. Today, additives serve many purposes, including keeping food from spoiling quickly, improving nutrition, making food look good, keeping it from drying out, holding it together, adding texture, and, of course, improving flavor.

How do additives get approved for use in our food? New food additives need to go through a very long process to get approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The additive must be tested in many ways, in a process that usually takes 5 - 10 years. Most of the studies, especially the preliminary ones, are done in animals.

Does going through mean additives are guaranteed to be safe? No, not entirely. The goal of the testing and approval process is that consumers will have a "reasonable certainty that no harm will result" from eating foods with the additive. However, there have been cases where additives were approved and then taken off the market later when more information was discovered. It is fairly common is for more safety issues to be raised after approval, then studied, and the additive is still found to be safe. It is possible that small amounts of an additive over long periods of time will have unknown effects, and also possible that combinations of additives or other foods will have a surprising effect on the human body.

In short, while we can truly have a reasonable expectation that most additives are safe, it is probably even safer to focus on eating whole, fresh foods which have minimal processing. However, in this day and age, it is probably impractical to avoid all processed foods. So how can we decide which are safest?

1) Long track record - The longer the substance has been on the market, the more likely it is that problems with it would have been discovered.
2) Approved in lots of countries - Different countries have different approval processes, so the more of these the substance passes, the safer we can feel about consuming it.
3) The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a group that closely watches food safety issues. They have a list of additives, and which ones they feel people should steer clear of or cut back on. Take a look at the list here (scroll down a bit).

Web Site of the Week: The Truth about Splenda - please evaluate the site as we have been doing. Since there has been a lot of interest in artificial sweeteners, we will be discussing them in more detail in class this week.