Sunday, January 4, 2004

Get a grip on oddly named additives

By Mindy Merrell
The Nashville Tennessean

Unless you know food science, even a cursory look at labels on those boxes and cans in your pantry can be downright dumbfounding. Most packaged ingredient lists are unrecognizable and worse, unpronounceable. The majority of these multisyllabic chemicals are, believe it or not, closely related to natural substances.

Here's an overview of additives commonly found in today's foods - just in time for your New Year's resolution to eat better.


Too much oxygen is a bad thing for foods. It causes browning on fruits and vegetables and rancidity in fats and oils. The two most common antioxidants are vitamin C and E. In the kitchen, we commonly squeeze lemon juice on apple slices to keep them from turning brown. Two chemical antioxidants that commonly inhibit rancidity in baked goods are butylated hydroxyanusole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).


Products such as ice cream and canned soups get a boost from thickening agents. Flour and cornstarch are common thickeners found in home cupboards. Many seen on food labels also come from plant sources, such as pectin, gum Arabic, locust bean gum and guar gum. Others are derived from seaweed, such carrageenan and alginates. These are bland and tasteless, harmless substances.


A preservative kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms. Every living thing requires a set range of specific conditions to sustain life. Preservatives simply alter conditions so microorganisms can't thrive.

Country ham uses two of the world's earliest preservatives - smoke and salt. Common preservatives found on ingredient labels include potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, benzoic acid and sorbic acid.

Acidic flavors

More often than not, a little tangy flavor is just what a recipe needs, like adding a dash of lemon juice to guacamole or tuna. You'll find citric acid and acetic acid in almost everything, and phosphoric acid in soft drinks.


These keep oil and water suspended together in a happy union. Egg is one of the finest emulsifiers, mayonnaise one of the finest emulsions. Butter is a water-in-oil emulsion; hot dogs are extruded meat emulsions. A common naturally occurring emulsifier is lecithin and manufactured ones include glyceryl monostearate and mono- and diglycerides.

Anti-caking agents

Some substances simply keep foods such as salt, grated Parmesan cheese and nondairy cream from clumping up into a useless mess. Silicon dioxide, talc and calcium silicate are common anti-caking agents.

Flavorings and colorings

These are both naturally occurring and manufactured. Vanillin, for example, is the laboratory version of vanilla extract made from vanilla beans.

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Get a grip on oddly named additives