Food Additives


The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines food additives as “any substance, the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.” In other words, an additive is any substance that is added to food.


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 the following.

Regulating safety of food additives and preservatives

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. For example, some people are allergic to certain food additives, and their reaction can be mild or very severe when consumed. 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.

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.


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.

A molecule that prevents oxidation. In the body antioxidants attach to other molecules called free radicals and prevent the free radicals from causing damage to cell walls, DNA, and other parts of the cell. Vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene are common antioxidants.
Single-celled organisms without nuclei, some of which are infectious.
A state that prevents growth of bacteria.
A substance that kills bacteria.
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.

The flavoring enhancer MSG is another controversial food additive. MSG is made commercially from a natural fermentation process using starch and sugar. Despite anecdotal reports of MSG triggering headaches or exacerbating asthma, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the FAO, WHO, the European Commission's Scientific Committee for Food, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences have all affirmed the safety of MSG at normal consumption levels.

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 been considered 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.



Numerous difficulties may be encountered by the FDA in assessing potential harm that may come 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 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 study of mice, and re-evaluations of the additive by the European Food Safety Authority did not find any risk to humans.

See also Food and Drug Administration ; Food quality; Toxicology ; World Health Organization .



Minich, Deanna. An A–Z Guide to Food Additives: Never Eat What You Can't Pronounce. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2012.

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.

Smith, Jim, and Lily Hong-Shum. Lily. A Consumer's Food Additive Data Book. 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.


European Commission, Directorate General for Health and Consumers. “Food Additives.” (accessed October 26, 2012).

Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Additives in Meat and Poultry Products.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. (accessed October 26, 2012).

International Food Information Council Foundation. “Questions and Answers about Caramel Coloring and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI or 4-MI).” . (accessed October 26, 2012).

International Food Information Council Foundation. “The Rigorous Road to Food Ingredient Approval.” . (accessed October 26, 2012).

Lembert, Phil. “The 5 Things You Need to Know About Deli Meats.” TODAY Food, . (accessed October 26, 2012).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Color Additives.” (accessed October 26, 2012).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Additives.” (accessed October 26, 2011).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).” (accessed October 26, 2012).


Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 5100 Paint Branch Pkwy., College Park, MD, 20740, (888) SAFE FOOD (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) 4636332, .

M. Elizabeth Kunkel
Revised by Tish Davidson, AM

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