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Know your additives: What gives food flavour?

Food additive is the name given to any of the various chemical substances added to foods to produce specific desirable effects. Additives such as salt, spices, and sulfites have been used since ancient times to preserve foods and make them more palatable. With the increased processing of foods in the 20th century, there came a need for both the greater use of and new types of food additives. Many modern products, such as low-calorie, snack, and ready-to-eat convenience foods, would not be possible without food additives.

The flavour of food results from the stimulation of the chemical senses of taste and smell by specific food molecules. Taste reception is carried out in specialised cells located in the taste buds. The five basic taste sensations—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami—are detected in regions of the tongue, mouth, and throat. Taste cells are specific for certain flavour molecules (e.g., sweeteners).

In addition to the basic tastes, the flavouring molecules in food stimulate specific olfactory (smell) cells in the nasal cavity. These cells can detect more than 10,000 different stimuli, thus fine-tuning the flavour sensation of a food.

Flavour additives

A flavour additive is a single chemical or blend of chemicals of natural or synthetic origin that provides all or part of the flavour impact of a particular food. These chemicals are added in order to replace flavour lost in processing and to develop new products.

Flavourings are the largest group of food additives, with more than 1,200 compounds available for commercial use. Natural flavourings are derived or extracted from plants, spices, herbs, animals, or microbial fermentations. Artificial flavourings are mixtures of synthetic compounds that may be chemically identical to natural flavourings. Artificial flavourings are often used in food products because of the high cost, lack of availability, or insufficient potency of natural flavourings.

Flavour enhancers

Flavour enhancers are compounds that are added to a food in order to supplement or enhance its own natural flavour. The concept of flavour enhancement originated in Asia, where cooks added seaweed to soup stocks in order to provide a richer flavour to certain foods. The flavour-enhancing component of seaweed was identified as the amino acid L-glutamate, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) became the first flavour enhancer to be used commercially. The rich flavour associated with L-glutamate was called umami.

Other compounds that are used as flavour enhancers include the 5′-ribonucleotides, inosine monophosphate (IMP), guanosine monophosphate (GMP), yeast extract, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. Flavour enhancers may be used in soups, broths, sauces, gravies, flavouring and spice blends, canned and frozen vegetables, and meats.

But are they safe?

Food additives and their metabolites are subjected to rigorous toxicological analysis prior to their approval for use in the industry. The lowest level of additive producing no toxicological effects is called the no-effect level (NOEL). The NOEL is generally divided by 100 to determine a maximum acceptable daily intake (ADI).

Back to Basics

The trend towards clean eating and using natural ingredients has seen a move and demand for natural flavour enhancers that also have additional health benefits, for example ginger and turmeric remain popular with newcomers maca and moringa being used more.

Salt the oldest of all flavour enhancers has also had a facelift with various types of salt now available for example there is sea salt, Fleur de Sel, Himalayan pink salt, Himalayan black salt, Hawaiian Red Salt and even Black lava salt.

Chemgrit Food supplies a range of flavour enhancers to the food industry. The company is also constantly investigating and sourcing new ingredients in order to stay abreast of developing industry trends.

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