Food additives are substances that become part of a food product when they are added during the processing or making of that food.
"Direct" food additives are often added during processing to:
Direct food additives may be man-made or natural.
Natural food additives include:
"Indirect" food additives are substances that may be found in food during or after it is processed. They were not used or placed in the food on purpose. These additives are present in small amounts in the final product.
Food additives serve five main functions.
Give the food a smooth and consistent texture:
Improve or preserve the nutrient value:
Maintain the wholesomeness of foods:
Control the acid-base balance of foods and provide leavening:
Provide color and enhance flavor:
Most concerns about food additives have to do with man-made ingredients that are added to foods. Some of these are:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of food additives that are thought to be safe. Many have not been tested, but most scientists consider them to be safe. These substances are put on the "generally recognized as safe (GRAS)" list. This list contains about 700 items.
Congress defines safe as "reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use" of an additive. Examples of items on this list are: guar gum, sugar, salt, and vinegar. The list is reviewed regularly.
Some substances that are found to be harmful to people or animals may still be allowed, but only at the level of 1/100th of the amount that is considered harmful. For their own protection, people with any allergies or food intolerances should always check the ingredient list on the label. Reactions to any additive can be mild or severe.
It is still important to gather information about the safety of food additives. Tell the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) about any reactions you have to food or food additives. Information about reporting a reaction is available at http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OfficeofFoods/CFSAN/ContactCFSAN/default.htm.
The FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supervise and regulate the use of additives in food products sold in the United States. However, people who have special diets or intolerances should be careful when choosing products in the grocery store.
Additives in food; Artificial flavors and color
Food Ingredients and Colors. International Food Information Council (IFIC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. November 2004; revised April 2010. Page last updated May 23, 2011. Available at: www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/ucm094249.pdf.
Updated by: Stuart I. Henochowicz, MD, FACP, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology, Georgetown University Medical School, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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