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What are Food Additives?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Food additives are products which are added to food to improve safety, performance, taste, texture, or appearance. Processed foods in the supermarket all contain food additives, and many people also use food additives at home when preparing food or processing food so that it can be safely stored. There are a number of different types, including both natural and artificial additives. As a general rule, the additives used must be listed on the label of a food product.

While many people think of food additives as artificial 20th century inventions, people have actually been using additives in food for thousands of years. Salt, for example, has been used historically as a preservative and flavor enhancer in many cultures, including Ancient China, Egypt, Rome, and Greece. People have also utilized acids for pickling, or herbs for preservation in processes such as smoking and drying.

Some food additives are designed to promote flavor. Flavor enhancers may be natural or artificial in nature, including things like salt, monosodium glutamate, and spices such as vanilla. Texture enhancers may be used to make foods feel softer, firmer, chewier, or crispier, among other things. Color additives may be used to make a food more visually pleasing, or to help a food retain natural color. Nitrates, for example, are used with meat to keep it looking pink and fresh.

One of the most critical groups of food additives are preservatives and stabilizers, which keep food safe to eat by helping it retain its integrity. Without the use of preservatives, many foods would rot, and they could also potentially harbor harmful bacteria and other organisms which could make people sick. Additives can also improve consistency and reliability, as for example in the case of additives included in flour so that it will behave dependably in baking, or anticaking agents added to baking powder to keep it from clumping together.

In the European Union, food additives are identified by E-numbers. In other regions of the world, additives may be listed by name or by numeric code. While companies must disclose which additives they use, they do not necessarily need to disclose concentrations or amounts, which is something important to keep in mind.

Some food additives have been linked with health concerns, and some people are very concerned about the use of artificial additives in their food. Governments are obliged to investigate safety concerns and to make recommendations such as removing an additive from the market or forcing companies to use less of an additive if the safety concerns are borne out. Individuals with certain medical conditions may find that otherwise safe additives are dangerous for them, making it important to talk about safe and dangerous foods with a medical professional when discussing management of a disease.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By famnfriends — On Mar 03, 2011

Our son, who has ADD, has been put on a diet called the Feingold diet by our pediatrician. This is a diet that recommends taking a lot of the additives out of what you eat. We are eating mostly organic and fresh, whole foods.

Apparently, he is allergic to a lot of the food coloring additives.

We have not only noticed a difference in his attention span and behavior, we have also noticed some positive changes in our health as well!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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