FOOD: Transforming the American Table

Food Plus

The use of food additives expanded along with the new processing techniques used to produce many foods introduced between 1950 and 2000. A variety of natural and synthesized compounds are added to enhance flavor, extend shelf life, improve texture, add color, and boost nutrition. Research into the safety of food additives led to federal legislation such as the 1958 Food Additives and the 1960 Color Additive amendments, which prohibited any additive “found to induce cancer in man or animal.” Research into the effects of additives on human health continues.


Artificial sweeteners

Various compounds have been used to add sweet flavors to food without adding calories. The FDA approved aspartame for use in diet soda in 1983; it replaced previously popular, but by then suspect, cyclamate and saccharin.

Synthetic fat

Olestra is a fat substitute that the body does not absorb. Introduced in 1996 in potato chips, it was welcomed as a way to make deep-fried snacks guilt-free. But an FDA-required label warning of side effects (“abdominal cramping and loose stools”) dampened sales.


Only seven compounds are FDA-approved as food-safe dyes, used to enhance the appearance and influence the perceived flavor of foods. One example, Red No. 4—once widely used in candy—was unapproved, or “delisted,” in 1976 when it was found to be carcinogenic.


Derived from natural sources, gums are used as thickeners and stabilizers. They give fat-like texture to ice cream, but are also put to uses as diverse as stabilizing the foam on beer and keeping oil and water mixed together in salad dressings.


When oxygen interacts with fat and oils in processed foods, those foods can become rancid. Synthetic antioxidants such as BHT, BHA, and TBHQ commonly are used to lengthen shelf life, but many question their safety.

Natural and artificial flavors

Flavor additives often contain more ingredients than the food, such as cereal, to which they give taste. A typical artificial strawberry flavor contains more than thirty chemicals.