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Additives are important to properties of various foods, beverages


Kathy Kolasa


Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Dear Readers: Last week, Heather Reburn, an ECU dietetic intern, gave you an overview of the type of jobs additives might have in your food. This week, Lauren Boyd, an ECU dietetic student, will give you some specific information about three additives.

Have you ever looked at the ingredient label on the back or side of a food product and wondered what some of the ingredients are? Maybe you can’t even begin to pronounce some of the ingredients. You may have also noticed that there are three common ingredients that you see in the food and beverages you buy — soy lecithin, sodium benzoate and xanthan gum. I will explain what they are and why they are in your food and beverages.

First, soy lecithin (pronounced  soy less-e-thin) is a term used to describe a group of yellow-brownish fatty substances found in animal and plant tissues. Sounds disgusting, right? However, it is non-toxic and is a great emulsifying agent. Examples of foods that we want to be emulsified are salad dressings and mayonnaise. It is known that oil and water do not mix. When oil and water are placed in a solution and shaken, they blend together. But once the shaking stops, the oil separates from the water. This is why lecithin is important. When it is placed into the solution of water and oil, it acts as an emulsifying agent and breaks the oil down into smaller particles which are easier to digest.

The emulsifying property makes it an ideal ingredient for cooking sprays. It also benefits other foods. For example, it keeps cocoa and cocoa butter in candy bars from separating. Although it is approved by the United States Food and Drug administration for human consumption, it could have potential harmful effects. It’s not common, but some people experience bloating, diarrhea, mild skin rashes, nausea and stomach pain if exposed to too much soy lecithin.

Second, sodium benzoate is used as a preservative in acidic foods such as salad dressings, carbonated drinks, jams and fruit juices, pickles and condiments. It is also found in medications and cosmetics. Sodium benzoate is designated as “generally recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration but could also have harmful effects to some people. Benzene is a chemical that has been linked to an increase in leukemia and other blood cancers. Although sodium benzoate doesn’t contain benzene, it can form when combined with ascorbic acid or vitamin C. Also, there are some reports that suggest that the combination of sodium benzoate with certain artificial colors could lead to hyperactive behavior. 

Last, gums represent a group of polysaccharides, a kind of carbohydrates, that have the ability to modify the flow of the food system and are known primarily for their thickening and gelling agents. Gums are derived from naturally occurring compounds and synthetics, including xanthan. Other vegetable-based gums are guar and locust bean.

Xanthan (pronounced zan-thun) gum is a sugar typically found in corn but also can be found in soy or wheat. Xanthan gum gives food its shape, consistency, sensory characteristics and provides a mouthfeel similar to fats. It is considered a safe food additive due to its ability to direct flow behavior or viscosity, stability and texture of foods. There has been no scientific evidence that says it could be potentially harmful to humans. Without xanthan, it would be impossible to have foods such as sauces, ice cream, preserves, pie fillings, desserts and cream unless you made them at home.

As you can see, these additives are important to the properties of the various foods and beverages we consume. Without them, we would not be able to eat and drink some of the things we do. A helpful tip to remember is, when eating products that contain soy lecithin and sodium benzoate, it is best to consume in moderation to prevent the harmful effects.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.


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