Food additives: what they are, what are the types and their effects on health

A large part of the population will surely have heard of it already. the presence of food additives in food that we buy, especially pre-baked or packaged, and it’s common to try to avoid consuming it by relating it to something negative.

On the other hand, we know that although there are great economic interests behind it and that they are not entirely healthy if they accumulate, they also have their function when it comes to keeping the assets. food. There is a lot of controversy with these products.

What are food additives, what are they used for and how do they affect us? This is what we will be talking about throughout this article.

    Food additives: what are they and what are they used for?

    They are called food additives to all the substances which are not naturally part of the food and which are added to them in order to add, improve or modify one of its functionalities, Without adding or removing any of the nutritional properties of the food in question.

    In general, the main objective of adding this type of product is to promote its preservation as long as possible, or to enhance its flavor. But it also has a health significance, because food in poor condition can suffer from spoilage. and the reproduction of bacteria, fungi and other substances dangerous to health.

    While when we talk about food additives we usually think of synthesized products, the truth is that throughout history mankind has used salt, sugar or sulfur dioxide for this purpose. Or, it even generated procedures such as smoking that preserves food. But little by little, new ones were generated with the aim of increase the storage time of food, Improve aroma, appearance or taste or reduce the cost of manufacturing processes.

    Its main types

    When we talk about food additives, we are not talking about something homogeneous, but a series of elements that are added to food but in fact they can be grouped into different types of food additives with different properties or purposes. So, we can find some of the following types of food additives.

    1. Preservatives

    Probably the best known group of food additives and the function makes the most sense, preservatives are the products that are used for the purpose of prevent food spoilage due to the activity of microorganisms. Among them we can find sorbic acid or benzoic acid, but also controversial compounds such as nitrates in pickles and sausages.

    2. Aromas

    Flavorings are food additives that are added to improve the aroma and taste of food.

    Products of plant origin or products that mimic their aroma, including nuts, usually fall into this group. They are usually found in sweets, pastries, wines or cereals. Elements such as sugar could also be considered as flavorings, although they do not benefit from this consideration at the legal level.

      3. Colorants

      Colors are a group of food additives, which can be natural or synthetic, the main function of which is to improve the visual appearance of food. Thus, its use aims to give more color to the product. We have an example in saffron or chlorophyll or in the case of synthetic erythrosine or tartrazine. However, it should be noted that many of these products can contribute to health problems.

      4. Antioxidants

      While many foods naturally contain antioxidants, it is common to find that in many foods they are added synthetically in order to prevent food from oxidizing and becoming bad, as well as making it bad and tasty.

      The main objective is to prevent dietary fat from oxidizing and being lost. These can either be elements that directly remove oxidizing substances from the food, or substances that promote and strengthen the natural antioxidants already present in the food itself. An example is found in L-ascorbic acid, Usually in fruit and in packaging, lactic acid and citric acid.

      5. Stabilizers, thickeners, gelling agents and emulsifiers

      Although each of these names refers to a type of additive, they all share the fact that its use is based on the alteration of the texture and composition of food, allowing to generate a wide variety of products and in the mouth are all very different and have the same origin. . They also allow us to give more consistency to a liquid food. generate gels and emulsions. However, they are generally not digestible on their own. Examples of this are found in pectins or sorbitol.

      6. Acidulants

      Acidulants are another type of food additive classified by the World Health Organization. The main purpose of these products is to regulate the acidity level of food or modify the taste of the product. This is typical of carbonated drinks, in which sulfates such as sodium or calcium are used.

      7. Flavor enhancers

      We call flavor enhancers this set of substances that increase the perception of the taste of the food in which they are added, in principle without the booster having a taste of its own. The best known is L-glutamic acid, which in high concentrations is responsible for the taste of umami.

      8. Sweeteners

      Along with preservatives and colorings, sweeteners are the most well-known food additives, and perhaps the most used by the end consumer on a daily basis, whether or not the food chosen contains them.

      Sweeteners are a collection of substances that are added to foods to give a sweeter flavor. These are usually products that were created to replace the use of sugars, which is essential for people with certain illnesses. Saccharin and aspartame are the best known, along with stevia (which is part of a natural product) and glycyrrhin.

      9. Modified starches

      This type of additive is characterized by the fact that it relies on the properties of starch to manufacture additives with binding properties, that is, they are used to achieve joining and holding together two or more types of food that on their own would not mix.

      10. Enzyme preparations

      This type of food additive is a natural protein-based preparation that aims to generate biochemical reactions in food, seeking to replace procedures that would require the use of chemicals to function. Typical for the preparation of cakes, fermented products or fruit. It is also possible that the preparation is not included in the final product that reaches the table.

      Health effects

      As we have seen, food additives are products considered useful and are used to preserve or try to improve the final product, or reduce the cost of its production. But although we usually consume additives all the time, the truth is that many of them have been investigated because in high proportions and with regular consumption they can promote the appearance of different health problems or even that they become directly toxic.

      Among the various problems that they can cause, it can be seen that certain additives can cause allergic reactions in some people, as well as the possibility that they make it more difficult to digest food, problems with absorption, impaired excretion or can interfere with or destroy some of them. beneficial components of the food to which they are added.

      In addition, in some cases they have been associated with difficulty carrying oxygen in the blood, For teratogenic effects that can harm the fetuses of pregnant women or even in some cases an increased likelihood of cancer, such as for example with nitrates. It should also be borne in mind that the short-term effects of some of them are known, but the data on possible long-term effects are unknown or unclear.

      Despite this, it must be said that there are several organizations that assess the level of toxicity of additives and regulate their presence in foods in order to reduce and attempt to eliminate the risks. Among other actions, they can regulate the levels of additives used, or in the event that one in particular is particularly dangerous, or even prohibit its use. However, it can be useful to assess the type of items that are part of the food we eat.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Ibáñez, FC; Torre, P. and Irigoyen A. (2003). Food additives. Public University of Navarre.
      • World Health Organization. (2018). Food additives. WHO [Online]. Available at:

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