Discussing Food Additives

That Food Science is written about in main stream newspapers is really important to me. One of my goals is to educate people so that they can make informed choices about what they eat. A recent article on this topic was in the Observer on Sunday. In it, Rebecca Seal correctly comments on the fact that food with additives cannot be considered to be fresh. The presence of additives indicates that the food is processed. This she says is a concern because:

What is certainly true is that the increasing availability of processed food makes it easier for us to avoid the fresh produce we need while eating certain foods that may taste pleasant but are nutritionally suspect.

I don’t have any complaints about that. It is rare, if not impossible, to create a processed* food that is healthier for you than the original fresh food.

The article proceeds to detail some of the additives found in certain food products and their role in the food product. All very laudable and an important part of public education, until you get to comments like this one:

Sodium acetate (E262i) is a chemical used in the paper industry and in heating pads. In food it is used as a preservative.

Or this one:

Potassium nitrate (E249 or saltpetre) is a preservative, which also happens to be used in fireworks.

Finally there was this one:

Sodium metabisulphite (E223) is a preservative sometimes associated with skin reactions.

So does it matter that acetate is used in the paper industry or that nitrates are in fireworks. There are lots of food ingredients that are used in other industries that might not be appealing to consumers. For example, flaxseed oil, that darling of the omega-3 movement, is also used to make linoleum. Please don’t let that put you off eating flaxseed and flaxseed oil. I personally think flaxseed oil is a good thing. I also think that is doesn’t matter if sodium acetate is used by the paper industry. It is a very important buffer; it helps control the acidity of the food. In fact if you have a solution of acetate and you increase the acidity of the food you get acetic acid. This is the the acid present in vinegar.

Interestingly, she hasn’t got all the awful facts straight about sodium metabisulphite. It is the soluble form of sulphur dioxide, the environmental scrouge and asthmatic trigger.

Having written all of that I do agree with the basic premise of the article, which is that processed food can never replace fresh. If you want food that lasts a long time, that is has a long shelf-life, you need to add preservatives, flavors, colors to it. Otherwise, it is time start cooking.

If you want to find out more about food additives from a scientific perspective, a good book to get is “The Dictionary of Food Ingredients” by R.S. Igoe and Y.H. Hui.

(*As I write this, I am reminded of foods that have to be processed because they can’t be eaten raw. It depends on your definition of processed. In this article processed = mass produced.)