- Because of its importance, humans quickly found ways to keep food edible for extended periods of time. The earliest food additives and preservatives included salt, vinegar, sugar and other spices. Prehistoric men are believed to have preserved meats by smoking them over fires near their caves. Those who lived near the oceans soaked meats in the salt water to enhance the flavor and preserve them. Explorers left their homes to search for unique spices. Roman nobles were kidnapped in return for these exotic spices. Early humans also found that significant amounts of sugar helped preserve fruits. In Europe, spices were often added to cover up the taste of rotting foods.
- It was not until the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that there were statutes regarding food additives. This act stated that all new food additives were to be approved before they could be sold. Manufacturers are now responsible for the safety of these additives. In order to introduce a food additive, a company must file a petition with the FDA that specifically details the research conducted to prove the product's safety under the designated conditions. When approved as safe, the FDA determines in which foods these additives can be used and how they may be used. The 1958 law was extended two years later, when it also became necessary for the companies to notify the FDA of natural and synthetic colors in additives. Consumers cannot be made to believe that the color of the food they see is the actual color of the original. These regulations also require manufacturers to provide information on the labels. For example, the color additives have to be listed by their common or usual names, such as FD&C Yellow 5, instead of collectively as "colorings."
- Many people are allergic to certain food additives or colors. When someone has a reaction after eating certain foods, such an allergy is suspected. Unfortunately, some people do not have a reaction until a day or two later, so it is difficult to know what is causing the problem. When a certain food additive is believed to cause an allergic reaction, doctors can a conduct a test called the RAST (radioallergosorbent test) for only certain natural substances. The RAST is conducted on a patient's blood sample to check for allergic sensitivity. The blood is mixed with materials known to trigger allergies. The test measures the level of allergy antibodies in the blood that are present with an allergic reaction. Such tests for synthetic additives is not reliable. Thus, people have to go on an elimination diet. They stop eating all foods that might be problematic and introduce one at a time to see if a reaction occurs. It is best to eat a preservative-free diet if at all possible. The reaction from these additives can be very mild to life-threatening. They can be immediate or build up in the body over time. Only in recent years have researchers seriously considered the physical impact of these additives over the long term.
- Although additives and preservatives are essential to maintain food safety, too much of a good thing is not healthy. Besides allergies, these foods may cause stomach pains, vomiting, breathing problems, hives and skin rashes. Some of the worst additives include benzoates, which can cause skin rashes, asthma and perhaps brain damage. Bromates can cause nausea and diarrhea. Saccharin may lead to toxic reactions that impact the gastrointestinal tract and heart, as well as cause tumors and bladder cancer. Red Dye 40 may result in certain birth defects. Sodium chloride can lead to high blood pressure, kidney failure, stroke and heart attack. Such problems are why some doctors are now saying it is better to have a soda with sugar than a diet soda with additives.
- It is being increasingly recognized that for the best long-term health and minimal risks of developing health issues from food additives and preservatives, you should eat as little as possible of such foods. Look at the ingredients and try to buy those that are the most natural. Although organic foods are normally more expensive, they do not have artificial additives. Before purchasing canned food, check the ingredients to see how many additives are listed on the label. Compare different brands to find the one with the least added. Also, look for meat that is free of added chemicals. If you are having a reaction when eating, keep a diary to see if it is possible to determine a cause and effect. You cannot stay away from all additives, but some are more problematic than others. Some additives that are not considered much of an issue include maltodextrin, a starch thickening agent and sweetener in canned fruit, dressings and puddings; sodium carboxymethyl-cellulose, which keeps sugar from becoming crystallized in beer, pie fillings, ice cream and candy; and thiamin mononitrate, which is a type of vitamin B-1 in cereals and flour.