Surprising sources of food additives

Amanda
Amanda O'Brien
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Shopping used to be easy when people knew exactly where their food was coming from. Today, the components of food and their ingredient lists aren’t so clear cut. With factory-made foods contributing to the diets of many, ingestion of food additives has become the norm. You might be a little surprised, however, to learn the sources of some of food additives.

Carmine, also known as cochineal extract, is a food colouring that comes from an insect that lives in Peru and the Canary Islands. The red, pink and purple colourings can be found in yogurts, candy, ice cream, and some drugs and cosmetics. It’s usually listed on nutrition labels as “artificial colouring” or “colour added.”

Castoreum is an additive that comes from our national animal, the beaver. But brace yourself — it comes from their anal sacs and is used by the animal to be mixed with their urine to mark their scent, in addition to making their fur and tail water-resistant. For foods, it’s occasionally used as a “natural flavouring,” mostly in vanilla-favoured products. With recent public outcry, however, its usage has been reduced and is thought to be minimal. It’s now more common in perfume than foods. If you’re a smoker, take note: it’s added to cigarettes for flavour and odour purposes.

Alginate is a derivative of seaweed that is used in dairy products and canned frosting. Propylene glycol alginate is a chemically derived form of alginate which is used to thicken acidic foods such as soft drinks and salad dressings, in addition to stabilizing the foam of beer.

Gelatin is an additive which is used as a thickening and gelling agent for marshmallows, ice cream, yogurt, powdered pudding and Jell-o, cheese spreads and some beverages. It is sourced from animal skins and bones.

Gums, of which there are several, including arabic, guar, locust bean, xanathan, karaya, ghatti, tragacanth and furcelleran, come from “natural” sources, including bacteria, trees, bushes or seaweed. They are used to thicken and stabilize such foods as beverages and drink mixes, cottage cheese, dough and candies, or to replace fat in low-fat ice creams, frozen puddings and salad dressings.

Silicon dioxide, also known as silica, is essentially sand. It’s used as an anti-caking agent and is often finely ground and added to help foods flow more easily; think salt. This additive is found in soups, coffee creamer and other powdery foods.

Tortula yeast is a food additive that can come from food-grade sugars, but it can also be grown from wood sugars which are the byproducts of paper production. It contains MSG, a.k.a. monosodium glutamate, and has an umami, or pleasant savory taste. Hence it’s use as a taste enhancer or flavouring. On food labels it may be listed as named, otherwise it is often referred to as “natural flavouring.” You can find this additive in snack foods, crackers, cheese and snacks dips, processed meats, seasoning blends, rice and pasta dishes, gravies and sauces, and soup and bouillon mixes.

If you haven’t already become a label reader, perhaps you might now. If you’re keen to learn more about food additives, check back next week as I discuss ones which, from a health standpoint, you might wish to avoid.

Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s.

Contact her through the website: www.recipeforhealth.ca.

Geographic location: Peru, Canary Islands

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  • Steven Carmichael
    April 03, 2014 - 22:59

    The most popular natural vanilla flavor comes from leptotes bicolor (type of orchid). Considering castoreum is insanely expensive and in low supply its probobly only found in niche or exotic foods where the manufacturers brag about using it.