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Assessing the additives

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Jill Lucht, of Columbia, Mo., reads the ingredient lists on the food in her refrigerator. (Jessica Naudziunas/Harvest Public Media)
About the author
Reporter, KBIA
Jessica Naudziunas was Harvest's reporter in Columbia, Mo. from summer 2010 through spring 2012.

Pick up your favorite packaged food and read the ingredient list.

If you stumbled over any of the words or a color jumped out at you, you might be looking at what’s known as a food additive.  

These additives have various purposes. Anti-caking agents assist powdery substances from turning into a giant lump; acids help food stay fresher, longer; flavor enhancers trick us into believing the food we are eating really has a deep, fruit taste.

“We have become a nation of people who like to see attractive foods,” said Kantha Shelke, a food scientist with the Institute for Food Technologists.  And food additives are there, in part, to convince us to eat a food.

Shelke said if the preservatives and colors were taken away, we’d know less about the food.

“It would take away the pleasure of eating,” she said.

It’s true, though, that these ingredients -- like sodium nitrate in meats, artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame, and stimulants such as caffeine -- are some of the most scrutinized components of food.

Many consumers are wary. Consider a University of Michigan study in 2009 that asked people to rate safety for fake additives with names that were easy and confusing. On average, the tricky names were perceived as 29 percent riskier to health.

But Michael Jacobson agues that it’s some of the simpler-sounding additives that have caused real trouble.

“There have been questions about the dyes safety in many regards,” said Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The consumer advocacy organization petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to add warning labels for food dyes because of their potential effect on children’s behavior.

“The Food and Drug Administration for the first time acknowledged that food dyes affect the behavior of a subgroup of kids, kids who have hyperactivity...food dyes can trigger that behavior,” Jacobson said, recalling the review from a FDA advisory panel.

But the FDA ultimately ruled last March that there was not enough evidence to conclude that food dyes contribute to ADHD flare-ups in children.

Still, the United Kingdom and Europe banned synthetic food dyes over three years ago using some of the same evidence the Center for Science in the Public Interest brought to the FDA.

FDA spokesperson Doug Karas said you can’t compare European standards to what happens in the U.S.

“What we do, in the United States, is we want to provide customers with the information they need to make decisions about their lives,” Karas said. “If you want to avoid color additives, then they are listed in the ingredients on the label. So it’s just a matter of looking down at the label and seeing if there are color additives and seeing if you want to avoid that.”

Which puts the responsibility for health and food education in the hands of the consumer. But that’s only if the consumer has the know-how and time to translate.

There are tools that can help. For example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a smart phone app called “Chemical Cuisine” with food additive safety ratings.

But as far as an official word on Red 40 or Yellow 5, Karas said the FDA continues to collect safey data -- but the timeline remains unclear as to when the research will color potential label warnings.