DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am hoping to learn more about the history of chemicals used as food additives. With the advent of controlled atmospheres to limit spoilage, why are additives even needed? -- S.L., Tulsa, Oklahoma
DEAR S.L.: There is definitely confusion about food additives: about how they work and why they are needed. Fresh, whole foods remain on the top of the priority list, but food additives -- which include preservatives, flavors and colors -- should not be automatically feared. To be sure, they are a mixed lot, but the more you learn, the more you may find that some deserve appreciation.
Some additives are naturally occurring substances, while others are synthesized in a laboratory. All are chemicals, but the same can be said for everything we eat, whether it comes fresh from the garden or in a package on your grocer’s shelf. And what may surprise you is the fact that whether an additive is “all-natural” or chemically manufactured has little bearing on its safety. This is a big and controversial topic, but seeing as you asked about history, that will be my focus.
If you think that food additives are an invention of modern science, think again. For thousands of years, people have added substances to food to maintain or enhance its appearance and taste, and to preserve its shelf life. Cosmetic color additives have been traced as far back as 5000 B.C.; the use of salt as a preservative dates back to 3000 B.C.; sulfite preservatives were used by the ancient Romans; and the use of herbs and spices to enhance taste and appearance, and often to conceal spoilage, has been around since biblical times.
Beginning with the industrial revolution, more and more people moved from the farm to the city. There were more mouths to feed with less land, and food had to be transported greater distances. All this brought about a greater need for foods and food products to remain fresher for longer, and be able to withstand a wider variety of storage conditions. Through the use of food additives, processors could begin to offer a year-round supply of safe, wholesome and convenient foods.
But were they safe? Could just anything be used as an additive? For a long time, there was little control over what was added. Unscrupulous food purveyors could get away with using questionable chemicals to make already-spoiled foods take on the appearance and taste of a more wholesome product. It wasn’t until 1889 that a USDA chemist named Harvey Wiley began to examine the widespread use of additives. His work led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906; the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938; and eventually to the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. These laws formed a protective framework that remains in place today.
Today’s food additives are strictly regulated. The testing of a new additive can take several years, and includes a comprehensive battery of chemical and animal testing for a wide variety of potential effects and interactions. The Food and Drug Administration decides on additives’ safety, and regulates their use in foods.
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