The Nature of Food Additives

What are food additives? Here’s a really simple definition: Food additives are substances added to food. The list of common food additives includes:

  • Nutrients
  • Coloring agents
  • Flavors and flavor enhancers
  • Preservatives

Food additives may be natural or synthetic. For example, vitamin C is a natural preservative. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are synthetic preservatives.

Many people think natural additives are safer than synthetic ingredients, probably because “synthetic” seems synonymous with “chemical,” a sort of scary word. Besides, synthetic additives often have names no one can pronounce, much less translate, which makes them even more forbidding.

In fact, every single thing in the world is made of chemicals: your body, the air you breathe, the monitor on which this blog is written, and the glasses through which you read it, not to mention every single bite of food you eat and every ounce of beverage you drink.

To ensure your safety, the natural and synthetic food additives used in the United States come only from the group of substances known as the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. All additives on the GRAS list

  • Are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning that agency is satisfied that the additive is safe and effective
  • Must be used only in specifically limited amounts
  • Must be used to satisfy a specific need in food products, such as protection against molds
  • Must be effective, meaning that they must actually maintain freshness and safety
  • Must be listed accurately on the label

Adding nutrients

One example of a clearly beneficial food additive is vitamin D, which is added to virtually all milk sold in the United States. Most bread and grain products are fortified with added B vitamins, plus iron and other essential minerals to replace what’s lost when whole grains are milled into white flour for white bread.

Some people say that we’d be better off simply sticking to whole grains. But adding vitamins and minerals to white flours enhances a product that many people just plain like better. Another example of a nutrient used as a food additive is the calcium found in some commercially prepared orange juices.

Some nutrients also are useful preservatives. For example, vitamin C is an antioxidant that slows food spoilage and prevents destructive chemical reactions. Manufacturers must add a form of vitamin C (isoascorbic acid) to bacon to prevent the formation of potentially cancer-causing compounds.

Adding colors and flavors

Colors, flavoring agents, and flavor enhancers make food look and taste better. Like other food additives, these three may be either natural or synthetic.


Coloring agents make food look better. An example of a natural coloring agent is beta carotene, the natural yellow pigment in many fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene is used to make margarine (which is naturally white) look like creamy yellow butter.

Other natural coloring agents are annatto, a yellow-topink pigment from a tropical tree; chlorophyll, the green pigment in green plants; carmine, a reddish extract of cochineal (a pigment from crushed beetles); saffron, a yellow herb; and turmeric, a yellow spice.

An example of a synthetic coloring agent is FD&C Blue No. 1, a bright blue pigment made from coal tar and used in soft drinks, gelatin, hair dyes, and face powders, among other things.

And, yes, as scientists have discovered more about the effects of coal-tar dyes, including the fact that some are carcinogenic, many of these coloring agents have been banned from use in food but are still allowed in cosmetics. To avoid these dyes entirely, read the label and choose foods made with only natural colors.

Flavors and flavor enhancers

Every cook worth his or her spice cabinet knows about natural flavor ingredients, especially the most basic natural ones: salt, sugar, vinegar, wine, and fruit juices. Artificial flavoring agents reproduce natural flavors.

For example, a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice in the batter lends cheesecake a certain je ne sais quoi, but artificial lemon flavoring works just as well. You can sweeten your morning coffee with natural sugar or with the artificial sweetener saccharin.

Flavor enhancers are a slightly different kettle of fish. They intensify a food’s natural flavor instead of adding a new one. The best-known flavor enhancer is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is widely used in Asian foods. MSG may trigger headaches and other symptoms in people sensitive to the seasoning.

Adding preservatives

Food spoilage is a totally natural phenomenon. Milk sours. Bread sprouts mold. Meat and poultry rot. Vegetables lose moisture and wilt. Fats turn rancid. The first three kinds of spoilage are caused by microbes (bacteria, mold, and yeasts). The last two happen when food is exposed to oxygen (air).

All preservative techniques — cooking, chilling, canning, freezing, drying — prevent spoilage either by slowing the growth of the organisms that live on food or by protecting the food from the effects of oxygen. Chemical preservatives do essentially the same thing:

  • Antimicrobials are natural or synthetic preservatives that protect food by slowing the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts.
  • Antioxidants are natural or synthetic preservatives that protect food by preventing food molecules from combining with oxygen (air).

Table 22-1 is a representative list of some common preservative chemicals and the foods in which they’re found.

Preservative Found in . . .
Ascorbic acid Sausages, luncheon meats
Benzoic acid Beverages (soft drinks), ice cream, baked goods
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) Potato chips and other foods
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) Potato chips and other foods
Calcium propionate Breads, processed cheese
Isoascorbate Luncheon meats and other foods
Sodium ascorbate Luncheon meats and other foods
Sodium benzoate Margarine, soft drinks

Ruth Winter, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (New York: Crown, 1996)

Naming some other additives in food

Food chemists use a variety of the following types of natural and chemical additives to improve the texture of food, to keep it smooth, or to prevent mixtures from separating:

  • Emulsifiers, such as lecithin and polysorbate, keep liquid-plus-solids such as chocolate pudding from separating into, well, liquid and solids. They can also keep two unfriendly liquids, such as oil and water, from divorcing so that our salad dressing stays smooth.
  • Stabilizers, such as the alginates (alginic acid) derived from seaweed, make food such as ice cream feel smoother, richer, or creamier in your mouth.
  • Thickeners are natural gums and starches, such as apple pectin or cornstarch, that add body to foods.
  • Texturizers, such as calcium chloride, keep foods such as canned apples, tomatoes, or potatoes from turning mushy.

Although many of these additives are derived from foods, their real benefit is aesthetic (the food looks and tastes better), not nutritional.

Determining the Safety of Food Additives

The safety of any chemical approved for use as a food additive is based on whether it is:

  • Toxic
  • Carcinogenic
  • Allergenic

Defining toxins

A toxin is a poison. Some chemicals, such as cyanide, are toxic (poisonous) in very, very small doses. Others, such as sodium ascorbate (a form of vitamin C), are nontoxic even in very large doses. All chemicals on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list are considered nontoxic in the amounts that are permitted in food. By the way, did you realize that both examples — cyanide and vitamin C — are natural chemicals?


A carcinogen is a substance that causes cancer. In 1958, New York Congressman James Delaney proposed, and Congress enacted into law, an amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that banned from food any synthetic chemical known to cause cancer (in animals or human beings) when ingested in any amount.

Since then, the only exception to the Delaney clause has been saccharin, which was exempted in 1970. Although ingesting very large amounts of the artificial sweetener is known to cause bladder cancer in animals, no similar link can be found to human cancers. In addition, saccharin provides clear benefits for people who cannot use sugar.

Note: In 1977, Congress required all products containing saccharin to carry a warning statement: Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals. This requirement was lifted in 2000; the warning is no more.

As of this writing, the Delaney clause is still in effect, even though many scientists, including cancer specialists, consider it to be outmoded because it imposes an impossible standard — zero risk — and applies only to synthetic chemicals. The Delaney clause does not apply to natural chemicals, even those known to cause cancer, such as aflatoxins, poisons produced by molds that grow on peanuts.

Listing allergens

Allergens are substances that trigger allergic reactions. Some foods, such as peanuts, contain natural allergens that can provoke fatal allergic reactions. The best-known example of an allergenic food additive is sulfites, a group of preservatives that:

  • Keep light-colored fruits and vegetables (apples, potatoes) from browning when exposed to air
  • Prevent shellfish (shrimp and lobster) from developing black spots
  • Reduce the growth of bacteria in fermenting wine and beer
  • Bleach food starches
  • Make dough easier to handle

The following is a list of foods that may contain sulfites.

  • Beer
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Cakes, cookies, pies
  • Molasses
  • Cider (hard)
  • Potatoes (dehydrated, pre-cut, peeled fresh)
  • Condiments
  • Shrimp
  • Dried fruit
  • Soup mixes
  • Fruit juices
  • Tea
  • Jams and jellies
  • Vegetables (canned)
  • Gravy
  • Vegetable juices
  • Wine

Ruth Papazian, “Sulfites” (FDA Consumer, December 1996)

Sulfites are safe for most people but not for all. In fact, the FDA estimates that one out of every 100 people is sensitive to these chemicals; among people with asthma, the number rises to five out of every 100.

For people sensitive to sulfites, even infinitesimally small amounts may trigger a serious allergic reaction, and asthmatics may develop breathing problems by simply inhaling fumes from sulfite-treated foods.

The FDA tried banning sulfites from food but lost in a court case brought by food manufacturers who wanted to use the additive. To protect sulfite-sensitive people, the FDA created rules for safe use of the preservatives.

The rules called for a total ban on sulfites in food at salad bars and a requirement that sulfites be listed on the label of any food or beverage product with more than ten parts sulfites to every million parts food (10 ppm). These rules, plus plenty of press information about the risks of sulfites, have led to a dramatic decrease in the number of sulfite reactions.