Food Additives: What Everyone Should Know

Food Additives: What Everyone Should Know

The bad rap on food additives: What are they and why?

Every day, we eat a wide variety of foods, from fresh fruits and vegetables to packaged snacks and processed meals. To ensure these foods stay safe, flavorful, and appealing, the food industry uses a range of substances known as food additives. Food additives serve various purposes, but it's essential to understand what they are, why they're used, the potential risks and how to make informed choices about the foods we eat. 

What are food additives?

Food additives have been used for centuries, with salt, vinegar, and sugar being some of the earliest examples. These natural additives and ones the food industry has learned to use are substances that are intentionally added to food during production or processing.

Types of food additives

Food additives can be categorized based on how they're used:

  1. Preservatives: These additives extend the shelf life of food by preventing spoilage and microbial growth. Common preservatives include sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and citric acid.
  2. Colorants: Color additives enhance or maintain the color of food. They are often used in processed foods, beverages, and candies to make them visually appealing. Examples include Red 40, Yellow 5, and caramel color.
  3. Flavor enhancers: Flavor enhancers are added to food to intensify or enhance existing flavors. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a well-known flavor enhancer.
  4. Sweeteners: Sweeteners add sweetness to foods and beverages without the calories of sugar. Examples include aspartame, saccharin, and steviol glycosides (found in stevia).
  5. Emulsifiers: Emulsifiers help mix ingredients that wouldn't naturally combine, like oil and water., so products like salad dressings don't separate Lecithin and mono- and diglycerides are common emulsifiers.
  6. Thickeners and stabilizers: These additives improve the texture and stability of food product and the way they feel in our mouths. Xanthan gum, guar gum, and pectin are examples.
  7. Antioxidants: Antioxidants prevent fats and oils from going rancid due to oxidation, enhancing food safety. Common antioxidants include vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and vitamin E (tocopherol).
  8. Acidulants: Acidulants are used to adjust the acidity or pH of foods. Citric acid and lactic acid are frequently used acidulants.
  9. Anti-caking agents: Anti-caking agents prevent powdered or granulated foods from clumping together. Silica and calcium silicate are examples.
  10. Nutrient supplements: Some additives are added to foods to fortify them with essential vitamins and minerals. For example, folic acid is often added to grain products to reduce the risk of birth defects.

Food additives in everyday foods

Food additives are commonly found in many everyday foods and beverages. Here are some examples of where you might encounter them:

  • Bakery items: Bread, cakes, and pastries often contain emulsifiers, thickeners, and preservatives.
  • Beverages: Soft drinks, fruit juices, and sports drinks may contain colorants, sweeteners, and preservatives.
  • Processed meats: Sausages, hot dogs, and deli meats may contain preservatives and flavor enhancers.
  • Canned foods: Canned vegetables, soups, and sauces often contain preservatives to extend their shelf life.
  • Snack foods: Chips, crackers, and snack bars may contain flavor enhancers, colorants, and preservatives.
  • Dairy products: Flavored yogurt, ice cream, and some cheese products may contain sweeteners and flavor enhancers, while milk contains added vitamins A and D. 
  • Condiments: Ketchup, salad dressings, and mayonnaise may contain colorants, thickeners, and flavor enhancers.
  • Cereals: Breakfast cereals may be fortified with vitamins and minerals as nutrient supplements. 

Note that many of those listed are highly processed foods and also may contain increased amounts of salt, sugar and saturated fats. 

Potential risks and concerns

While food additives are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) when used within established guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some concerns exist:

  1. Allergies and sensitivities: Some individuals may be sensitive or allergic to specific food additives, leading to adverse reactions. Some people are reactive to monosodium glutamate in soups and entrees.
  2. Overconsumption: Consuming excessive amounts of certain additives, like the daily use of  some sweeteners may have health consequences. 
  3. Long-term effects: The long-term effects of some additives are still being studied, and more research is needed. It's already suspicious that some emulsifiers, for example, may disrupt the protective mucus layer in the intestine, increasing the risk of inflammation and infection. 
  4. Interaction with medications: Some food additives may interact with certain medications. For example, acetaminophen takes longer to be absorbed when pectin is used as a thickener in jelly or jam. 
  5. Natural vs. synthetic additives: Some people prefer natural additives over synthetic ones due to concerns about artificial ingredients. 

How to make informed choices

As consumers, you can make informed choices about the foods you consume:

  1. Read labels: Check ingredient labels to identify the presence of food additives. Familiarize yourself with the names of common additives.
  2. Understand their role: Learn about the functions of various additives to assess their impact on the product.
  3. Moderation: Consume processed and packaged foods containing additives in moderation and prioritize whole and minimally processed foods.
  4. Know your sensitivities: If you have food sensitivities or allergies, be vigilant about checking labels for specific additives that may trigger reactions.
  5. Consult healthcare professionals: If you have concerns about certain food additives, consult with healthcare professionals or allergists for guidance.
  6. Choose natural ingredients: Opt for foods and beverages with fewer synthetic additives, or choose products with natural alternatives when available.
  7. Stay informed: Keep up with the latest research and information regarding food additives to make informed choices. 
  8. Be an advocate: Write your congressman, senator or the FDA to encourage re-evaluation of the GRAS status of additives, when research suggests concern. 


Food additives play a significant role in the modern food industry, contributing to food safety, flavor enhancement, and convenience. While concerns about their use exist, being informed and making conscious choices about the foods you consume can help mitigate potential risks. By reading labels, understanding the functions of additives, and prioritizing whole foods, we can enjoy a balanced diet that promotes both health and enjoyment.

Sources and resources

World Health Organization

Food Allergy Research and Education

Mayo Clinic

Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition


Processed foods