Food Additives: Definition, Examples & Uses

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  • 0:03 What is a Food Additive?
  • 1:33 Why Are Food Additives Used?
  • 2:20 Examples of Food Additives
  • 3:56 Indirect Food Additives
  • 4:26 Controversial Food Additives
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will learn about food additives. We will learn what a food additive is, why they are used, and some examples of food additives. We will also learn about some of the controversies surrounding some food additives.

What Is a Food Additive?

Look at the ingredient declaration on just about any product in the grocery store. Chances are you probably recognize the first few ingredients - flour, sugar, salt - because they are pretty basic ingredients that you probably have in your own kitchen. Yet as you go further down the list you start noticing some things that you don't recognize, such as monoglycerides, sorbic acid, and sodium benzoate. You may wonder what these ingredients are, what they are doing in your food, and whether or not they are safe. These types of ingredients are food additives.

A food additive is anything that affects food (directly or indirectly) or is a component of food. Legally, a food additive is anything added to food, or used in food preparation, that is not on the 'Generally Recognized as Safe' (GRAS) list. The GRAS list includes products such as flour, sugar, and salt - any ingredient that has been used for a long time and has shown no adverse effects; so food additives are ingredients that need government approval before they can be added to food.

Some foods, such as sugar, are included on the GRAS list because they have been used for years with no adverse effects seen

When it comes to food additives, there is a lot of controversy over how safe they are and if they should be used. Before the government will approve a food additive, it needs to be proven not only that the additive is safe, but also that it doesn't cause any adverse effects. If further research ever shows a food additive to have adverse effects, then the government has the right to remove that additive from the approved list.

Why Are Food Additives Used?

Frequently, food companies use food additives in order to ensure that their products are stable and uniform. Most food we buy at the grocery store isn't very fresh, and one thing about food is that it never stays good for very long; so in this day and age where most of the food we eat isn't fresh, food additives are added abundantly. There are many other reasons for food additives being used as well.

Food additives can be used as a preservative, no-calorie sweetener, color, flavor, fat replacer, nutrient addition, emulsifier, stabilizer, thickener, pH control, leavening, anti-caking agent, humectant (to hold in moisture), dough strengthener, and enzyme preparation.

Examples of Food Additives

There are many food additives that are used as a preservative, such as ascorbic acid, potassium sorbate, sodium nitrite, and calcium sorbate. These food additives can prevent oxidation of fats, which cause an off-flavor to develop; prevent the growth of microbes by changing the acidity; and prevent other changes in flavor. Preservative-type food additives can be found in anything from canned fruits and vegetables to breads and meats.

Nutrients are frequently added to food, such as adding iron and thiamine into flour. Sometimes these nutrients are even mandated by law to be added. Since most nutrients are removed from flour in the processing, the government requires producers to add many of the nutrients back into the flour. Other times nutrients are added simply to increase the nutritional value of the product.

Here are some different types of food additives:

  • Preservatives: ascorbic acid, calcium sorbate, and sodium nitrite
  • Color additives: fruit and vegetables juices, yellow 5, and beta-carotene
  • Flavors and spices: 'real' vanilla or 'artificial' vanilla
  • Flavor enhancers: MSG and yeast
  • Emulsifiers: soy lecithin, mono and diglycerides
  • Stabilizers and thickening agents: whey, guar gum, and gelatin

This is not a comprehensive list of all approved food additives, just an example of the uses of some of the food additives you may see on an ingredients list.

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