Definition of Food Additive

What Is a Food Additive?

A food additive is a functional substance that is added to food products during the processing, storage, and/or the packaging process. The additive is added in small quantities to foods to improve the food in many different ways such as providing better consistency, aroma, texture, color, nutrition, flavor and/or shelf life.

There are both direct additives and indirect additives. Direct additives are purposefully added to a product as noted above. Indirect additives, on the other hand, migrate into food products unintentionally during the growing, processing and/or packaging stage. Direct additives have been in use for centuries, like vinegar for pickling and salt for preserving which were the first forms of food preservation used by humans. It wasn’t until the advent of processed foods in the 20th century that additives became more widely used.

Depending on where you live, food labeling may or may not list additives for the products that you purchase. In many countries, such as the US, Canada, and the UK, additives are each given a unique number to identify them on a product label.

Food additives can be categorized into many different groups:

  • Acids and acid regulators: To sharpen flavors, improve shelf life, and add antioxidant properties
  • Anticaking agents: To prevent powdery products from becoming lumpy
  • Antifoaming agents: Prevents foods from foaming
  • Antioxidants: Foods that help to reduce the effects of oxidation
  • Bulking agents: Added to increase the bulk of a food product
  • Food colorings and color retention agents: To enhance color and prevent fading
  • Emulsifiers: Prevent oils and water from separating during storage and use
  • Flavorings and flavor enhancers: Additives that boost a food’s flavor, aroma, or add unique flavor
  • Flour treatment agents: Specific to flour, these improve the results when flour is used for baking
  • Humectants: Prevent foods from drying out
  • Preservatives: Slow or prevent food products from spoiling due to bacteria, microorganisms, or fungi
  • Propellants: Used to help propel foods from packaging
  • Stabilizers: Improve a food product’s texture
  • Sweeteners: Increase a food product’s sweetness, some of which also reduce the product’s overall caloric load

Some scientists have questioned the use of food additives due to the concern that they may not have been tested adequately for their implications on human health.

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