The food industry is at a unique point in history. With better transparency, ingredient sourcing, manufacturing, and product research, consumers can make educated choices about what to consume.

While food trends are always changing, the additives and ingredients used in food products are more regulated than ever before. This ensures customers get healthier and more nutritious products. It hasn’t always been this way, though. Before looking at the history of additives, let’s discuss their purpose.

About additives

A food additive is any substance added to food that affects the characteristics of that product. To elaborate, an additive usually has one of three functions:

  1. Improving food preservation or freshness. Additives like preservatives help slow spoilage by preventing mold, bacteria, or yeast. They help control contamination of the product, striving to keep the consumer healthy.
  2. Improving nutritional value. Adding vitamins and minerals to a product helps enhance its nutritional value.
  3. Improving taste, texture, or appearance. Additives like color dyes can improve the appearance of a product, while thickeners and stabilizers can improve the texture. Herbs and spices are good examples of additives that improve taste and flavor.

With a strict approval process in place, additives are more tightly controlled and governed than ever before, providing more transparency to the end consumer. While an additive may be harmless, a long technical name can look daunting in the ingredient list on the back of a food product. Consumers get to choose what they want, and people don’t particularly want to eat chemicals. Finding alternative or natural additives is key to building consumer trust.

A history of additives

Since the dawn of time, humans have used additives to help preserve food and make it taste and look better. Building up a supply of food allowed our ancestors to survive the cold months when resources were scarce. Smoking or salting meats was an early method of preservation, used to lengthen their shelf life. With the increased availability of cane sugar, the popularity of canning or preserving fruit in sugar increased. The history of pickling stretches back thousands of years, too, with vinegar being used as an additive to pickle and preserve vegetables. Adding herbs or sugar to improve the flavor of bland or spoiled foods was another common use of early additives. These basic examples of food additives have been around for a long time, spanning entire cultures and continents.

The history of preservation often lines up with the history of food additives, with humans always striving to improve taste, color, and shelf life. But with the industrial revolution, the workforce in the United States changed. The population increased, and further condensed in cities. This inherently changed the production of food. With this shift, corporations became responsible for feeding more of the population. Initially, additives were used for food preservation purposes. But outside of preservation, they were used to cover up quality issues and disguise problems. Chemicals were used to keep products looking good until they reached the consumer, hiding the smell and appearance of spoilage. Times have changed, however; additives are now much more strictly regulated. These rules were put in place to benefit the consumer, but consumers are wising up about additives.

The future of additives

Without all the extra gunk of additives, food tastes better and is better for us. Preservation processes have improved greatly as well, with advances in freeze-drying and other drying methods. Produce, dairy, and meat products are now safer and have longer shelf lives—without relying on complex chemical additives. While additives are still used to enhance the color or taste of food products, they aren’t always necessary. For example, using ground-up freeze-dried berries adds color and flavor to a product, but without the chemicals or unnatural color.

While eating only fresh food sounds like an ideal plan to almost everyone, it’s not always feasible. Most consumers need food to stay fresh and last in their pantry, so finding alternative preservation and flavoring methods is key. With our improved technology and scientific testing, we’re pushing the boundaries of freeze-dried food. Discover what new and innovative products you can create without all the additives, but with all the flavor!

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