The legal definition of a food additive is “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.” According to the FDA’s website, this definition “includes any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food.”
The legal definition of a food additive is pertinent to the approval of foodstuffs into the market. As a regulatory rule, certain ingredients exist that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pre-approved as “safe” and not subject to the stated definition of a food additive.
The preponderance of food additives result from food processing practices. An important component of food processing is ensuring the protection of a food’s flavor or to improve its taste or aesthetics. Of course, additives are also used to prevent food from becoming spoiled.
The History of Food Additives
The practice of using food additives spans several centuries. Our distant ancestors likely smoked meat to improve its taste and submerged it into saltwater as a preservative. The proliferation of the spice trade, which began as early as 3000 B.C., led to increasing demand for additives to enhance the taste of food. During this time, it is also possible that our ancestors discovered the preservation benefits of sugar. Historical records also include the use of spices to preserve meat and inhibit the growth of bacteria.
Fast forward to the first century, when America’s inhabitants generally fended for their own food. Most people bought or produced farm-grown food, negating the need for additives from a preservation standpoint. The vast majority of the population lived in a similar fashion all the way up to the Industrial Revolution.
The period from the late 1800’s to the 20th century is noteworthy for its technological advancements and the vast migration from rural to urban life. The period saw vast improvements in farming equipment, the advent of refrigeration, new and elaborate transportation networks, and the introduction of canning. Together, these technological innovations, combined with the urban relocation of millions of people, led to a drastic increase in the nation’s food output.
In many ways, people’s demand for quality and convenient food stemmed the proliferation of food additives. In order to meet these demands and remain cost effective at the same time, producers began to package and transport food at a feverish pace.
Consumer demand continued to erupt as the 20th century unfolded. Facing exponential market demand, producers continued to rely on technology to satisfy consumers. The use of additives was not scientifically researched, nor was knowledge about such processes widely available. As such, the process of adding unnatural substances to food to improve taste, increase shelf life, and placate the populace became routine.
The Debate Surrounding Food Additives
The current debate surrounding food additives is a polarizing one. Most rhetoric used in this debate revolves around the safety of food additives. Generally speaking, scientists and food manufacturers tend to more or less support the use and consumption of food additives, while certain factions oppose them. Is such polarization necessary? The answer depends on which side you ask.
Supporters cite the various benefits of food additives: nutritional value, conservation of food quality and freshness, easier processing and preparation, aesthetic value, and palatability.
Furthermore, supporters note the “inconsequential” difference between natural and synthetic chemicals. Supporters often like to cite the minute difference in molecular structure (i.e. sugarcane and refined sugar.) These individuals argue that the human body consumes and accepts such substances without prejudice, and causes no bodily harm.
Lastly, supporters point out the strict regulatory requirements of food additives, most notably the “detailed and rigorous” approval process. They argue that the burden of proof of safety is placed upon the manufacturer, and that FDA approval is the result of long and tenuous research and development.
As a side note, the FDA reaffirms this position: “Food and color additives are more strictly studied, regulated, and monitored… . Federal regulations require evidence that each substance is safe at its intended level of use before it may be added to foods.”
The opposition rebuts the approval process argument, stating that FDA approval of additives is not nearly as stringent as advertised. These individuals are also very skeptical of the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” rules that allow for pre-approved substances to be added without further evaluation. The furor over the rules reached its peak in February 2014, when the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against the FDA over the rule.
Opponents also note studies that have linked certain food additives to hyperactivity and inattentiveness in children, and the proposed link between food additives and obesity. Critics are adamant that as more research is conducted, the adverse health consequences of food additives will quickly become apparent.