Food Additives


Food additives

Types of ingredients

What they do

Examples of uses

Names found on product labels


Prevent food spoilage from bacteria, molds, fungi, or yeast (antimicrobials); slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, or texture and delay rancidity (antioxidants); maintain freshness

Fruit sauces and jellies, beverages, baked goods, cured meats, oils and margarines, cereals, dressings, snack foods, fruits and vegetables

Ascorbic acid, citric acid, sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, calcium sorbate, potassium sorbate, BHA, BHT, EDTA, tocopherols (Vitamin E)


Add sweetness with or without the extra calories

Beverages, baked goods, confections, table-top sugar, substitutes, many processed foods

Sucrose (sugar), glucose, fructose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), neotame

Color additives

Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and “fun” foods

Many processed foods (candies, snack foods, margarine, cheese, soft drinks, jams/jellies, gelatins, pudding and pie fillings)

FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, annatto extract, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, cochineal extract or carmine, paprika oleoresin, caramel color, fruit and vegetable juices, saffron (Note: Exempt color additives are not required to be declared by name on labels but may be declared simply as colorings or color added)

Flavors and spices

Add specific flavors (natural and synthetic)

Pudding and pie fillings, gelatin dessert mixes, cake mixes, salad dressings, candies, soft drinks, ice cream, BBQ sauce

Natural flavoring, artificial flavor, and spices

Flavor enhancers

Enhance flavors already present in foods (without providing their own separate flavor)

Many processed foods

Monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium guanylate or inosinate

Fat replacers (and components of formulations used to replace fats)

Provide expected texture in reduced-fat foods

Baked goods, dressings, frozen desserts, confections, cake and dessert mixes, dairy products

Olestra, cellulose gel, carrageenan, polydextrose, modified food starch, microparticulated egg white protein, guar gum, xanthan gum, whey protein concentrate


Replace vitamins and minerals lost in processing (enrichment), add nutrients that may be lacking in the diet (fortification)

Flour, breads, cereals, rice, macaroni, margarine, salt, milk, fruit beverages, energy bars, instant breakfast drinks

Thiamine hydrochloride, riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin, niacinamide, folate or folic acid, beta carotene, potassium iodide, iron or ferrous sulfate, alpha tocopherols, ascorbic acid, Vitamin D, amino acids (L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-leucine, L-methionine)


Allow smooth mixing of ingredients, prevent separation, keep emulsified products stable, reduce stickiness, control crystallization, keep ingredients dispersed, help products dissolve more easily

Salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, frozen desserts

Soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, egg yolks, polysorbates, sorbitan monostearate

Stabilizers and thickeners, binders, texturizers

Produce uniform texture, improve texture

Frozen desserts, dairy products, cakes, pudding and gelatin mixes, dressings, jams and jellies, sauces

Gelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, whey

pH Control agents and acidulants

Control acidity and alkalinity, prevent spoilage

Beverages, frozen desserts, chocolate, low-acid canned foods, baking powder

Lactic acid, citric acid, ammonium hydroxide, sodium carbonate

Leavening agents

Promote rising of baked goods

Breads and other baked goods

Baking soda, monocalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate

Anti-caking agents

Keep powdered foods from clumping, prevent moisture absorption

Salt, baking powder, confectioner's sugar

Calcium silicate, iron ammonium citrate, silicon dioxide


Retain moisture

Shredded coconut, marshmallows, soft candies, confections

Glycerin, sorbitol

Yeast nutrients

Promote growth of yeast

Breads and other baked goods

Calcium sulfate, ammonium phosphate

Dough strengtheners and conditioners

Produce more stable dough

Breads and other baked goods

Ammonium sulfate, azodicarbonamide, L-cysteine

Firming agents

Maintain crispness and firmness

Processed fruits and vegetables

Calcium chloride, calcium lactate

Enzyme preparations

Modify proteins, polysaccharides, and fats

Cheese, dairy products, meat

Enzymes, lactase, papain, rennet, chymosin


Serve as propellant, aerate, or create carbonation

Oil cooking spray, whipped cream, carbonated beverages

Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide

SOURCE: International Food Information Council. “Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors.” United States Food and Drug Administration. (accessed April 4, 2018).


Direct additives are those that are intentionally added to foods for a specific purpose, such as coloring. Indirect additives are those to which the food is exposed during processing, packaging, or storing. Preservatives are additives that inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds in foods.


Additives and preservatives have been used in foods for centuries. When meats are smoked to preserve them, compounds such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butyl gallate are formed and provide both antioxidant and bacteriostatic effects. Salt has also been used as a preservative for centuries. Salt lowers the water activity of meats and other foods and inhibits bacterial growth. Excess water in foods can enhance the growth of bacteria, yeast, and fungi. Pickling, which involves the addition of acids, such as vinegar, increases the acidity (lowers the pH) of foods to levels that slow bacterial growth. Some herbs and spices, such as curry, cinnamon, and chili pepper, also contain antioxidants and may provide bactericidal effects.

Uses of additives and preservatives in foods

Additives and preservatives are used to maintain product consistency and quality, improve or maintain nutritional value, maintain palatability and wholesomeness, provide leavening, control pH, enhance flavor, or provide color. Classes of food additives include:

Regulating safety of food additives and preservatives

Based on the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938, the FDA must approve the use of all additives. Manufacturers bear the responsibility of proving that additives are safe for their intended uses. The Food Additives Amendment excluded additives and preservatives deemed safe for consumption before 1958, such as salt, sugar, spices, vitamins, vinegar, and monosodium glutamate. These substances are considered “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and may be used in any food, although the FDA may remove additives from the GRAS list if safety concerns arise. The 1960 Color Additives Amendment to the FD&C Act required the FDA to approve synthetic coloring agents used in foods, drugs, cosmetics, and certain medical devices. The Delaney Clause, which was included in both the Food Additives Amendment and Color Additives Amendment, prohibited approval of any additive that had been found to cause cancer in humans or animals. However, in 1996, the Delaney Clause was modified, and the commissioner of the FDA was charged with assessing the risk from consumption of additives that may cause cancer and making a determination as to the use of those additives.

In the United States, food additives and preservatives play an important role in ensuring that the food supply remains the safest and most abundant in the world. Despite consumer concerns about use of food additives and preservatives, there is very little scientific evidence that they are harmful at the levels at which they are used.

In Europe, food additives and preservatives are evaluated by the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food. Regulations in the European Union countries are similar to those in the United States. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives work together to evaluate the safety of food additives, as well as contaminants, naturally occurring toxicants, and residues of veterinary drugs in foods. Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs) are established on the basis of toxicology and other information.


Food additives can induce a wide range of adverse reactions in sensitive individuals. A prevalence of 0.03% to 0.23% is estimated. Before any substance can be added to food, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) share responsibility with the FDA to ensure the safety of food additives used in meat, poultry, and egg products. Initially, all additives are evaluated for safety by FDA.

Single-celled organisms without nuclei, some of which are infectious.
A state that prevents growth of bacteria.
A substance that kills bacteria. Carcinogen—A cancer-causing substance.
The addition of vitamins and minerals to improve the nutritional content of a food.
A reaction performed by yeast or bacteria to make alcohol.
The addition of vitamins and minerals to improve the nutritional content of a food.
Yeast or other agents used for rising bread.
Bacteria and protists; single-celled organisms.

Safe is defined by Congress as “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use” of an additive in the food supply. Substances that are found to be harmful to either people or animals may be allowed as an additive, but only at the level of 1/100th of the amount that is considered harmful. This margin of safety is intended as a protection for the consumer by limiting the intake of dangerous substances. For example, some people are allergic to certain food additives, and allergic reactions can be mild or very severe.


Nitrites are a controversial additive. When used in combination with salt, nitrites serve as antimicrobials and add flavor and color to meats. However, nitrite salts can react with certain amines in food to produce nitrosamines, many of which are known carcinogens. Food manufacturers must show that nitrosamines will not form in harmful amounts, or will be prevented from forming, in their products.


Another controversial additive is ammonia, which is present in very small amounts in a number of foods, including ground beef and cheese. Ammonium hydroxide has designated as GRAS by the FDA since 1974, but many consumers are unaware of its presence in foods. If a substance is used during processing and is not considered to be part of the product, it is not required to be listed as an ingredient on the label.


There are numerous difficulties encountered by the FDA in assessing potential harm from food additives. These are due to the inadequacies and complications of animal models and the variability of human exposure and reporting of adverse reactions. Typically, testing for food additive toxicity is designed so that the additive is administered to an animal model for the life of that animal in a range of doses, of which the highest dose is much greater than that expected to occur during the course of human exposure. It is also too complicated to predict all of the possible interactions or reactions that can occur with any given food additive, such as from the packaging, the heating or cooling process, other additions to the food, or consumption of the food.

The FDA continually monitors the safety of all food additives as new scientific evidence becomes available. For example, use of erythrosine (FD&C Red No. 3) in cosmetics and externally applied drugs was banned in 1990 after it was implicated in the development of thyroid tumors in male rats. However, the cancer risk associated with FD&C Red No. 3 is about 1 in 100,000 over a 70 year lifetime, and its use in some foods, such as candies and maraschino cherries, is still allowed. Tartrazine (FD&C Yellow No. 5) has been found to cause dermatological reactions ranging from itching to hives in a small population subgroup. Given the mild nature of the reaction, however, it still may be used in foods. In 2012, consumer groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), were seeking a ban on caramel coloring used in soft drinks (4-methylimidazole) due to its potential risk as a carcinogen. However, this claim was based on the study of mice, and reevaluations of the additive by the European Food Safety Authority did not find any risk to humans.

See also ADHD diet ; Antioxidants ; Artificial preservatives ; Artificial sweeteners ; Diet apps ; Dr. Feingold diet ; Hyperactivity ; School lunches ; Turmeric .



Minich, Deanna M. An A–Z Guide to Food Additives: Never Eat What You Can't Pronounce. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2009.

Smith, Jim, and Lily Hong-Shum, eds. Food Additive Data Book. 2nd ed. Ames, IA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Taub-Dix, Bonnie. Read it Before You Eat it: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time. New York: Penguin Group, 2010.


European Commission. “Food Improvement Agents: Additives.” (accessed April 3, 2018).

Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Additives in Meat and Poultry Products.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. (accessed April 3, 2018).

Geller, Martinne. “Ammonia Used in Many Foods, not Just ‘Pink Slime.’” Reuters Science News, April 4, 2012. (accessed April 3, 2018).

International Food Information Council Foundation. “The Rigorous Road to Food Ingredient Approval.” June 5, 2012. Food Insight. (accessed April 3, 2018).

Largeman-Roth, Frances. “What You Need to Know about Deli Meats.” , March 9, 2016. (accessed April 3, 2018).

Mountjoy, Brittany. “Questions and Answers about Caramel Coloring and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI or 4-MI).” International Food Information Council Foundation, Food Insight, January 21, 2014. (accessed April 3, 2018).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Color Additives.” (accessed April 3, 2018).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Additives and Ingredients.” (accessed April 3, 2018).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).” (accessed April 3, 2018).



Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 5100 Paint Branch Pkwy., College Park, MD, 20740, (888) SAFEFOOD (723-3366),, .

European Commission, Directorate General for Health and Consumers, B-1049, Brussels, Belgium, 011 32 (2) 299-11-11, .

Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), 11781 Lee Jackson Hwy., Ste. 160, Fairfax, VA, 22033, (800) 929-4040, Fax: (703) 691-2713,, .

Food and Nutrition Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Rm. 105, Beltsville, MD, 20705, (301) 504-5414, Fax: (301) 504-6409,, .

Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250-3700, (888) 674-6854 (USDA Meat and Poultry Consumer Hotline),, .

Institute of Food Technologies, 525 W. Van Buren, Ste. 1000, Chicago, IL, 60607, (312) 782-8424, Fax: (312) 792-8348,, .

International Food Information Council Foundation, 1100 Connecticut Ave., NW Ste. 430, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 296-6540,, .

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 10903 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, MD, 20993, (888) 463-6332, .

M. Elizabeth Kunkel
Revised by Tish Davidson, AM
Revised by Megan Porter, RD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.