I have always been told growing up to shop the outer edge of the grocery store only- fresh produce, fresh meats, etc… The interior of the grocery store (the aisles) is full of products with extensive ingredient lists, written in a foreign language. Literally, hundreds of food additives and food dyes have been FDA approved for the use in food products.
Common Food Additive Categories
There are many categories of additives needed to make a food “product.” Who knew? Take a look at the different types of additives to familiarize yourself with the “lingo.”
- Acids: added to make flavors “sharper”, and also act as preservatives and antioxidants. Common food acids include vinegar, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, fumaric acid, and lactic acid.
- Acidity Regulators: used to change or otherwise control the acidity and alkalinity of foods.
- Anticaking Agents: keep powders such as milk powder from caking or sticking.
- Antifoaming Agents: reduce or prevent foaming in foods.
- Antioxidants: such as vitamin C act as preservatives by inhibiting the effects of oxygen on food, and can be beneficial to health.
- Bulking Agents: such as starch are additives that increase the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value.
- Food Coloring: added to food to replace colors lost during preparation, or to make food look more attractive.
- Color Retention Agents: used to preserve a food’s existing color.
- Emulsifiers: allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise, ice cream, and homogenized milk.
- Flavors: additives that give food a particular taste or smell, and may be derived from natural ingredients or created artificially.
- Flavor Enhancers: enhance a food’s existing flavors. They may be extracted from natural sources (through distillation, solvent extraction, maceration, among other methods) or created artificially.
- Flour Treatment Agents: added to flour to improve its color or its use in baking.
- Glazing Agents: provide a shiny appearance or protective coating to foods.
- Humectants: prevent foods from drying out.
- Tracer Gas: allow for package integrity testing to prevent foods from being exposed to atmosphere, thus guaranteeing shelf life.
- Preservatives: prevent or inhibit spoilage of food due to fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms.
- Stabilizers: like agar or pectin (used in jam for example) give foods a firmer texture. While they are not true emulsifiers, they help to stabilize emulsions.
- Sweeteners: added to foods for flavoring. Sweeteners other than sugar are added to keep the food energy (calories) low, or because they have “beneficial effects” for diabetes mellitus and tooth decay and diarrhea.
- Caffeine: not required to go through the regulation process.
The Safety of All Food Additives
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is an amazing resource.
- Here is a complete summary table of every single food additive, why it’s used as an ingredient, and its effects on health.
Food Additive Resources
Food Additive Information as a collaborative effort:
- Codex General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA)– Online Database of the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and the reports of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
For FDA information on each approved food additive:
- Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors (FDA)
- FDA Food Ingredients and Colors (pdf of the above- FDA)
- FDA Food Additive List