What are Food Additives?

Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer, Laura Foist
  • Author
    Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

    Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has been teaching math for over 9 years. Amy has worked with students at all levels from those with special needs to those that are gifted.

  • Instructor
    Laura Foist

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

Learn about additives and see common food additive examples. Explore types of food additives. Understand why food additives are used and how they’re regulated. Updated: 11/23/2021

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What are Food Additives?

Processed foods purchased from grocery stores include an ingredients list. Looking at the list, some are easily recognizable as food ingredients. Others are not easily recognizable and serve a different purpose from the food ingredients. These are the food additives. What are food additives? The food additives definition is any item that affects a food product, either directly or indirectly. Legally, the definition of a food additive is a bit different. Legally, a food additive is any item that is not on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) item list. For the purposes of this lesson, the general definition of a food additive is used and not the legal definition.

Whole foods—foods that have not been majorly processed from their original form—are not on the GRAS list and are not considered food additives. Sliced carrots, for example, are not on the GRAS list and are not considered a food additive since the whole food has not been majorly altered. But beta carotene, on the other hand, is a food additive because the carrot has been majorly altered to extract the beta carotene. If the food additive is not currently on the GRAS list, then it needs to undergo premarket review before receiving FDA approval.

Sliced carrots are not a food additive.

Sliced carrots are not a food additive

To be added to the GRAS list, a food additive must be shown to be safe and not cause adverse effects from its use. Beta carotene is on the GRAS list and listed as safe to consume.

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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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Types of Food Additives

Food additives serve many different purposes. Here is a list of various types of food additives. These are direct additives because these go directly into or onto the food and will be consumed together with the food.

  • Anti-caking agents keep ingredients from getting lumpy before use. Pancake mixes and other mixes have anti-caking agents.
  • Emulsifiers prevent fats from clumping together. Dressings have emulsifiers.
  • Flavors enhance the taste in the food. MSG is a flavor enhancer.
  • Preservatives keep foods from spoiling and growing mold. Most processed foods have preservatives.
  • Glazing agents make foods look prettier and can also protect the food item. Apples often come with a glazing agent.
  • Colors either add color or enhance the natural color of the food. Many processed food items such as juices contain added color.
  • Artificial sweeteners add to the sweetness of a food. Many foods advertised as 0 sugars use artificial sweeteners.
  • Stabilizers and firming agents keep foods from separating and increase their thickness and stability. Ice cream uses stabilizers.

The above is not an exhaustive list as there are many types of food additives. The above are common food additives found in foods at the grocery store.

Food additives serve various purposes and some foods have a combination of food additives to increase their shelf and storage life. Without these food additives, foods will spoil on their own, and sauces and mixtures will naturally separate if left alone. For example, mixtures with oil and water will naturally separate if left alone for just a few hours. Add in an emulsifier, however, and this mixture will stay together for a longer period of time.

While there are many types of food additives, the overarching goal of all of them is to keep food fresh and presentable for as long as possible. Food additives are the reason cereals stay fresh for months and cake mixes stay smooth for months, as well.

Cereals contain preservatives.

Cereals contain preservatives

Food Additives Examples

Below is a list of food additives examples for each type and what food typically contains that food additive.

Type Food Additive Common Food
Anti-caking agents Magnesium stearate Baby formula
Emulsifiers Lecithin Chocolate
Flavors MSG Noodle soup packets
Preservatives Ascorbic acid Fruit juice
Glazing agents Beeswax Cheese coating
Colors Food coloring Cakes
Artificial sweeteners High fructose corn syrup Soda
Stabilizers Carrageenan Coconut milk

Why are Food Additives Used?

Food additives are added for three main reasons.

1. To increase safety and freshness

Food additives, such as ascorbic acid and other preservatives, are added to fresh foods to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold. Wax is a food additive used as a covering over the skin of apples and other fruits with skins to keep them looking pretty and to prevent them from oxidizing and turning brown.

2. To improve nutrition

Food additives are added to increase the nutritional value of food. Some processed foods lose their nutritional value during the processing stage. Food additives are then added to make up for that loss. Vitamin D is routinely added to milk to make sure children who drink milk are not deficient in vitamin D. Some food additives, such as ascorbic acid, serve a dual purpose. Ascorbic acid acts as both a preservative and a nutritional enhancer, as it provides vitamin C.

3. To improve appearance, texture, and taste

Food additives are also added to enhance the look of foods. Waxes are put on apples to make them look shiny with no brown spots. Emulsifiers and stabilizers are used to keep mixes, like sauces, creams, and dressings, from separating. Ice cream requires emulsifiers so its ingredients don't separate with storage. Flavor enhancers are also used to increase the flavor of foods. MSG is often added to many foods to enhance its flavor.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are additives used for?

Additives are used to enhance the look of food and to help preserve it. Other additives also increase the nutritional value of processed foods.

What is one example of a food additive?

One example of a food additive is carrageenan. This additive acts as a stabilizer and emulsifier. Carrageenan is added to ice cream to keep it at its creamy consistency.

What is the most common additive in food?

MSG, a flavor enhancer, is a common additive. Food coloring is also a common additive. MSG is added to many foods to enhance their flavor. Food coloring is added to many foods to enhance their appearance. Juices have food coloring to make them look pretty.

Are additives bad for you?

The FDA has approved over 3,000 food additives as generally safe. Some people may have allergies to certain additives and will therefore need to avoid those additives.

What are examples of additives?

Examples of additives are preservatives and emulsifiers. Other types include flavor enhancers. MSG is a common flavor enhancer. Ascorbic acid is a preservative and also a nutritional enhancer.

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