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Food additives

Food additives are substances that become part of a food product when they are added during the processing or making of that food.

Direct food additives are often added during processing to:

  • Add nutrients
  • Help process or prepare the food
  • Keep the product fresh
  • Make the food more appealing

Direct additives may be man-made or natural. Natural additives include:

  • Adding herbs or spices to foods
  • Pickling foods in vinegar
  • Using salt to preserve meats

Indirect food additives are substances that may be found in food during or after it is processed. They were not used or placed in the food on purpose. These additives are present in small amounts in the final product.

Alternative Names

Additives in food; Artificial flavors and color

Function

Food additives serve five main functions:

Give the food a smooth and consistent texture:

  • Emulsifiers prevent products from separating.
  • Stabilizers and thickeners provide an even texture.
  • Anticaking agents allow substances to flow freely.

Improve or preserve the nutrient value:

  • Many foods and drinks are fortified and enriched to provide vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to many foods, such as flour, cereal, margarine, and milk.
  • This helps make up for vitamins or minerals that may be low or lacking in a person's diet.
  • All products that contain added nutrients must be labeled.

Maintain the wholesomeness of foods:

  • Bacteria and other germs can lead to foodborne illnesses. Preservatives reduce the spoilage that air, fungi, bacteria, or yeast can cause.
  • Certain preservatives help preserve the flavor in baked goods by preventing the fats and oils from going bad.
  • They also keep fresh fruits from turning brown when exposed to the air.

Control the acid-base balance of foods and provide leavening:

  • Certain additives help change the acid-base balance of foods to get a certain flavor or color.
  • Leavening agents that release acids when they are heated react with baking soda to help biscuits, cakes, and other baked goods rise.

Provide color and enhance flavor:

  • Certain colors improve the appearance of foods.
  • Many spices, as well as natural and man-made flavors, bring out the taste of food.

Side Effects

Most concerns about food additives have to do with man-made ingredients that are added to foods, including:

  • Antibiotics given to food producing animals
  • Antioxidants in oily or fatty foods
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharine, and sodium cyclamate
  • Benzoic acid in fruit juices
  • Lecithin, gelatins, corn starch, waxes, gums, and propylene glycol in food stabilizers and emulsifiers
  • Many different dyes and coloring substances
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Nitrates and nitrites in hot dogs and other meat products
  • Sulfites in beer, wine, and packaged vegetables

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of food additives that are considered safe. Many have not been tested, but they are considered safe by most scientists. These substances are put on the "generally recognized as safe (GRAS)" list. The list contains about 700 items.

Congress defines safe as "reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use" of an additive. Examples of items on this list are: guar gum, sugar, salt, and vinegar. The list is re-checked regularly.

Some substances that are found to be harmful to people or animals may still be allowed, but only at the level of 1/100th of the amount that is considered harmful. People with any allergies or food intolerances should always check the ingredient list (label) for their own protection. Reactions to any additive can be mild or severe.

It is still important to gather information about the safety of food additives. Let the FDA know about any reactions you have to food or food additives.

Recommendations

The FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supervise and regulate the use of additives in products sold in the United States. However, people who have special diets or intolerances should be careful in selecting products in the grocery store.

The U.S. government requires everyone that manufactures food to list all the ingredients on the label. See: Learn to read and understand food labels

References

Food Ingredients and Colors.International Food Information Council (IFIC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. November 2004; revised April 2010. Page last updated May 23, 2011. Available at: www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/ucm094249.pdf

Updated: 6/17/2012

David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., and Stuart I. Henochowicz, MD, FACP, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology, Georgetown University Medical School.


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