Safe at the Plate
by Suzanne Girard Eberle

As you make your child's lunch for school, you might twinge, wishing you had a little extra time to bake a loaf of homemade bread from wholesome ingredients. But reality strikes before you have a chance to measure that first cup of whole-wheat flour: Who has the time to cook pure, wholesome food with the fast pace of today's lifestyles? Instead, health-conscious consumers must rely on food labels to know what's in the foods they buy. And one glance usually tells you that the store-bought bread you hold in your hand is more than flour, yeast, sugar, salt and water.

Additives — substances added to food for a specific purpose — aren't always unnecessary ingredients. Some additives help keep foods wholesome and appealing while en route to the market, and improve the taste, texture, consistency and color of foods. Other additives may improve the nutritional value of certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating all additives in the United States under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Once an additive is approved, the FDA determines in what amounts and in what foods the additive may be used. It can be reassuring to know that no permanent approvals are given, and that all additives undergo periodic safety reviews as scientific understanding and methods of testing continue to improve.

Still, with 2,800 different chemicals that are purposely added to our food, it's prudent to take a close look at food labels. Even though additives usually enhance our food supply, you may want to familiarize yourself with those most commonly used — especially if you're sensitive to specific foods.

Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD is a nutrition writer and speaker in Portland, Ore.