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Your Guide to Food Additives

Almost all foods in U.S. supermarkets contain additives, most with long names derived from chemical formulas. A food additive can be something intentionally added to a food by the manufacturer or a substance that ends up in the food during the production process.

Substances can be added to a food for several reasons.

  • They can make the food item more uniform throughout. An emulsifier helps keep a food item from separating into different elements. A stabilizer or thickener helps the texture of a food more uniform. An anti-caking additive keeps the food flowing.

  • An additive can boost the nutrition of a particular food. Vitamins and minerals are added to flour, cereal, margarine, and milk to get more of these nutrients to people who may not get enough of them in their regular diet.

  • Additives can help keep a food safe to eat. A preservative keeps a food from spoiling, and in baked goods, prevents the fats and oils from becoming rancid. Added to fruits, a preservative keeps them from turning brown after exposed to the air. Nitrites added to fresh meat, bacon, sausage, and other meat products prevents growth of bacteria that cause botulism.

  • Additives help foods maintain their taste, color, or flavor by controlling how acidic or alkaline they are. Additives can also provide leavening, so that baked goods will rise in the oven.

  • They can add color and flavor to a food.

Additives have a long history. Salt is one of the oldest preservatives added to food, particularly meat and fish. Herbs and spices, as well as sugar, have long been added to food to enhance its flavor.

Today, food or color additives are strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Here are some examples of commonly used additives, according to the FDA:

  • Alginates, lecithin, monoglycerides, diglycerides, methyl cellulose, carrageenan, glyceride, pectin, guar gum, and sodium aluminosilicate. These are used to maintain desired consistency in baked goods, cake mixes, salad dressings, ice cream, processed cheese, coconut, and table salt.

  • Vitamins A and D, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, pyridoxine, folic acid, ascorbic acid, calcium carbonate, zinc oxide, iodine, and iron. These are used to add nutrition to flour, bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pasta, margarine, milk, iodized salt, and gelatin desserts.

  • Yeast, sodium bicarbonate, citric acid, fumaric acid, phosphoric acid, lactic acid, and tartrates produce a light texture and control flavor and color in cakes, cookies, quick breads, crackers, butter, chocolates, and soft drinks.

  • Cloves, ginger, fructose, aspartame, saccharin, monosodium glutamate, caramel, annatto, and turmeric are used for flavor and color in spice cake, gingerbread, soft drinks, yogurt, soup, confections, baked goods, cheeses, jams, and gum.