Adding colors and flavors

Colors, flavoring agents, and flavor enhancers make food look and taste better. Like other food additives, these three may be either natural or synthetic.

Colors

Coloring agents make food look better. An example of a natural coloring agent is beta carotene, the natural yellow pigment in many fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene is used to make margarine (which is naturally white) look like creamy yellow butter. Other natural coloring agents are annatto, a yellow-to-pink pigment from a tropical tree; chlorophyll, the green pigment in green plants; carmine, a reddish extract of cochineal (a pigment from crushed beetles); saffron, a yellow herb; and turmeric, a yellow spice.

An example of a synthetic coloring agent is FD&C Blue No. 1, a bright blue pigment made from coal tar and used in soft drinks, gelatin, hair dyes, and face powders, among other things. And, yes, as scientists have discovered more about the effects of coal-tar dyes, including the fact that some are carcinogenic, many of these coloring agents have been banned from use in food but are still allowed in cosmetics.

To avoid these dyes entirely, read the label and choose foods made with only natural colors.

Flavors and flavor enhancers

Every cook worth his or her spice cabinet knows about natural flavor ingredients, especially the most basic natural ones: salt, sugar, vinegar, wine, and fruit juices.

Artificial flavoring agents reproduce natural flavors. For example, a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice in the batter lends cheesecake a certain je ne sais quoi (French for "I don't know what" ā€” a little something special), but artificial lemon flavoring works just as well. You can sweeten your morning coffee with natural sugar or with the artificial sweetener saccharin. (For more about substitute sweeteners, see Chapter 19.)

Flavor enhancers are a slightly different kettle of fish. They intensify a food's natural flavor instead of adding a new one. The best-known flavor enhancer is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is widely used in Asian foods. MSG may trigger headaches and other symptoms in people sensitive to the seasoning.

Alphabet soup: Understanding artificial colors

When you read the label on a food, drug, or cosmetic product containing artificial colors, you may see the letters F, D, and Cā€” as in FD&C Yellow No. 5. The Fstands for food. The D stands for drugs. The C stands for cosmetics. An additive whose name includes all three letters can be used in food, drugs, and cosmetics. An additive without the Fis restricted to use in drugs and cosmetics or is for external use only (translation: You don't take them by mouth). For example, D&C Green No. 6 is a blue-green coloring agent used in hair oils and pomades. FD&C Blue No. 2 is a bright blue coloring agent used in hair rinses, as well as mint jellies, candies, and cereals.

Adding preservatives

Food spoilage is a totally natural phenomenon. Milk sours. Bread sprouts mold. Meat and poultry rot. Vegetables lose moisture and wilt. Fats turn rancid. The first three kinds of spoilage are caused by microbes (bacteria, mold, and yeasts). The last two happen when food is exposed to oxygen (air).

All preservative techniques ā€” cooking, chilling, canning, freezing, drying ā€” prevent spoilage either by slowing the growth of the organisms that live on food or by protecting the food from the effects of oxygen. Chemical preservatives do essentially the same thing:

1 Antimicrobials are natural or synthetic preservatives that protect food by slowing the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts.

1 Antioxidants are natural or synthetic preservatives that protect food by preventing food molecules from combining with oxygen (air).

Table 22-1 is a representative list of some common preservative chemicals and the foods in which they're found.

Table 22-1 Preservatives in Food

Preservative

Found in...

Ascorbic acid

Sausages, luncheon meats

Benzoic acid

Beverages (soft drinks), ice cream, baked

goods

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)

Potato chips and other foods

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

Potato chips and other foods

Calcium propionate

Breads, processed cheese

Preservative

Found in...

Isoascorbate

Luncheon meats and other foods

Sodium ascorbate

Luncheon meats and other foods

Sodium benzoate

Margarine, soft drinks

Ruth Winter, A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (New York Crown, 1996)

Ruth Winter, A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (New York Crown, 1996)

Naming some other additives in food

Food chemists use a variety of the following types of natural and chemical additives to improve the texture of food, to keep it smooth, or to prevent mixtures from separating:

1 Emulsifiers, such as lecithin and polysorbate, keep liquid-plus-solids such as chocolate pudding from separating into, well, liquid and solids. They can also keep two unfriendly liquids, such as oil and water, from divorcing so that our salad dressing stays smooth.

1 Stabilizers, such as the alginates (alginic acid) derived from seaweed, make food such as ice cream feel smoother, richer, or creamier in your mouth.

1 Thickeners are natural gums and starches, such as apple pectin or corn-starch, that add body to foods.

1 Texturizers, such as calcium chloride, keep foods such as canned apples, tomatoes, or potatoes from turning mushy.

Although many of these additives are derived from foods, their real benefit is aesthetic (the food looks and tastes better), not nutritional.

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