Sometimes it’s the smallest ingredient in a meal that makes it stand out — the briny bite of pickle on a sandwich, perfectly light, melt-in-your-mouth pancakes or freshly cracked pepper atop fluffy scrambled eggs. The hallmarks of all these favorites are simple but essential ingredients: vinegar, baking soda and spices.
Not only are these food additives the secret ingredients in some of our favorite dishes, they’re the motivation of some pretty awesome culinary, cultural and global advancements.
In their earliest form, food additives were used to preserve food. Techniques like salting and smoking helped early cultures protect and extend their food supplies through lean times. Communities all over the world used regional spices to further preserve and enhance their foods — the dawn of foodies. The pursuit of spices is even credited with promoting world exploration — Columbus discovered the Americas while looking for new trade routes to access India for its spices.
Today, food additives have advanced well beyond their early rudimentary uses. We still use salt and vinegar to preserve food, but we’re now able to use food additives to enrich and fortify our foods and drinks as well. Vitamins added to milk enhance its healthiness. Probiotics added to yogurts aid in digestion. Natural colors added to whole grain cereals make them fun and appealing.
Chefs involved in the modern cuisine movement use food additives to make surprising and inventive new foods that puzzle and delight eaters — think “caviar” made out of fruit juice, or powdered bacon. These applications use more impressive-sounding additives than simple salt or sugar. Alginates enable the encapsulation of fruit juice to look like caviar, and maltodextrin is essential in the creation of bacon powder. Though these ingredients may sound intimidating, they’re naturally derived — alginates are extracted from brown seaweed, and maltodextrin is a product of starch. The source of their power is the same as that of baking soda — chemistry.
As additives and their uses have evolved, so too has the process by which we cultivate them and monitor their use. Early explorers have given way to food scientists and food safety organizations, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA and other scientific experts help to regulate food additives to make sure they are used safely in the foods and drinks.
Food additives have come a long way since early civilizations discovered that salt helped preserve food. They’ve advanced the possibility and potential of foods, but by far their most important role remains to make our foods better, meaning both more accessible and more delicious.
To learn more about food additives and their myriad of uses, visit FoodScienceMatters.com.