Understanding Food Additives

Knowing what is really in the food we eat can sometimes be a mystery, and so with this article I hope that I can give you some information that you can use and be a more informed consumer. If you know what some of the additives are and why they are put into your food than you can decide for yourself if this is something that was needed or if it was an additive that you would rather do without. Many food additives are considered safe by the USFDA and here is how they define safe:

Safe is defined by Congress as "reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use" of an additive. Some substances that are found to be harmful to people or animals may be allowed, but only at the level of 1/100th of the amount that is considered harmful. This margin of safety is a protection for the consumer by limiting the intake of a dangerous substance.

Quoted from USFDA Pamphlet on food additives.

Food additives are not all bad. Because of food additives, Rickets, a disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency has been eliminated in this country as have all diseases caused by Vitamin C deficiency. Food additives are added to our food for the following reasons:

  • To maintain food consistency: Emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners and anti-caking agents fall within this category. All of these work so that you have a product that flows or does not cake.
  • To improve or preserve the nutrient value: Milk and bread are fortified with vitamins and minerals to make them better for us.
  • To maintain the wholesomeness of foods: Preservatives fall in this category, they are added to give bacteria a run for its money and to keep foods fresh and safe.
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  • To control the acidity and alkalinity to provide a certain taste.
  • To provide leavening so that biscuits and breads will rise.
  • To provide color and enhance flavor: These are used to improve the color and taste of our foods and can be simply the spices that are added.

Additives perform nine distinct functions:

  1. As Nutrition Supplements Example: Vitamins, minerals, and amino acids may be used to improve general nutrition.
  2. As Coloring Agents Example: The natural coloring materials in foods may be intensified, modified, or stabilized by the addition of neutral coloring materials or certified food dyes.
  3. As Preservatives Example: Chemicals may be used to help prevent or retard microbiological spoilage and chemical deterioration.
  4. As Flavoring Agents Whether they are natural or synthetic they are used to enhance flavors.
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  6. As Agents to Improve Functional Properties Example: Chemicals in this classification act as thickening, firming agents.
  7. As Processing Aids Example: Sanitizing agents, metal binding compounds, anti-foaming agents, chemicals that prevent fermentation.
  8. As Moisture-Content Controls Example: Glycerin is approved for use in marshmallows as a humectant to retain soft texture Calcium silicate is frequently added to table salt to prevent caking due to moisture in the air.
  9. As Acid-Alkaline Controls Example: Various acids, alkalis, and salts may be added to food to establish a desired pH.
  10. As Physiologic Activity Controls Example: the additives in this group are usually added to fresh foods to serve as ripeners or anti-metabolic agents.

Here are a list of some food additives and what they do so that when you are reading the labels of your foods you will have a handy reference: (Note this is a list of common additives)


Nutritional Supplements

  • Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, calcium, and Vitamin D are all found in cereals, milk, and margarine.
  • Food Sweeteners: for sweetening
  • Acesulfame K 0 calorie sweetener
  • Aspartame low calorie sweetener
  • Cyclamate
  • Saccharin

Food Flavorings

The chemicals and what they taste like

  • Allylpyrazine: Roasted nut
  • Methoxypyrazines: Earthy vegetables
  • 2-Isobutyl-3 Methoxypyrazine: Green pepper
  • Acetyl-L-Pyrazines: Popcorn
  • 2-Acetoxy Pyrazine : Toasted flavours
  • Aldehydes : Fruity, green
  • Alcohols: Bitter, medicinal
  • Esters: Fruity
  • Ketones : Butter, caramel
  • Pyrazines : Brown, burnt, caramel,
  • Phenolics : Medicinal, smokey
  • Terpenoids : Citrus, piney

Food Acids

To help preserve food and stop the growth of bacteria but can also be used as a flavoring.


  • Citric Acid: Citrus fruits, lemon, orange
  • Malic Acid: Apple
  • Tartric Acid: Grapes, pineapples, potatoes, carrots
  • Acetic Acid: Vinegar
  • Oxalic Acid : Tea, cocoa, pepper
  • Tannic Acid: Tea
  • Caffeotannic Acid: Coffee
  • Benzoic Acid: Cranberries, prunes and plums
  • Butyric Acid: decomposition of butter
  • Lactic Acid: Milk

Glazing Agents

To provide a glossy or shiny appearance

  • Stearic acid or fatty acid
  • Beeswax: white and yellow
  • Carnauba wax
  • Shellac
  • Petrolatum or Petroleum jelly
  • Chemical Preservatives: These are also used to preserve food
  • Benzoates (such as sodium benzoate, benzoic acid)
  • Nitrites (such as sodium nitrite)
  • Sulphites (such as sulphur dioxide),
  • Sorbates (such as sodium sorbate, potassium sorbate)


About The Author: Debra Frick is a mother of 5 and a grandmother to 7 grandsons. She is a published author and poetress. Born in California, she now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and many pets. Her hobbies include crocheting, reading, arts and crafts and bargain hunting.

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