They say knowledge is power and while that might be true, the improved food labelling laws detailing every additive, nitrate and nitrite in the food we eat; while a good thing, can also be disconcertingly informative. Unless you’re a specialist in nutrition or chemistry, the long list of wildly unpronounceable ingredients may have you thinking you’re putting a test tube concoction in your body as opposed to a delicious (and seemingly healthy) muesli breakfast bar.
But not all additives are to be avoided; in fact many of them have been used for hundreds of years and still play a very important role in the food we eat.
Additives extend the longevity of our food – natural preservatives such as salt and vinegar slow down the deterioration process allowing us to keep food for longer, but so too does manufactured preservatives such as benzoates, nitrate and sulphur dioxide.
Additives prevent oxidation – most food, as it’s exposed to air, starts to lose colour; antioxidants naturally found in citrus fruits, seeds and nuts, and seed pods all help to impede the spoilage; but so too does man-made BHA, BHT and TBHQ.
Additives replace colours – very often they’re added where colour has been lost during preparation, or they’re added to enhance appearance; this is done naturally with the likes of turmeric, saffron or beetroot, but also through synthesised tartrazine and ponceau.
And additives enhance flavour – natural flavourants like salt and spices add depth and taste to a dish, but so too does MSG, and not the much maligned chemically-made MSG, but rather the MSG found naturally in foods like parmesan cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms.
Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you’re likely to see additives in a vastly different light – health guru fanatics see it as poison; scientists and food manufacturers see it as a marvel of modern science. The answer, as with most things, is to strike a line somewhere down the middle – try to eat whole foods wherever you can and shop the periphery of a store, where the fresh produce is kept, rather than the centre of a store where foods are more likely to be higher in additives. And always aim to use high-quality suppliers such as N1 – Cape Town and Johannesburg’s favourite meat wholesalers.