Food Additives Background

What Are Food Additives?

The definition of a food additive is:

“any substance not normally consumed as a food by itself and not normally used as a typical ingredient of food, whether or not it has nutritive value….”

This definition is from the General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA), published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

These substances are added to prepared foods in order to improve their nutritional quality or stability and to assist in the food’s production, packaging, transport or storage.

Technically, ingredients such as sugar or salt are not considered food additives because they are derived from food. But I’ll include some common ingredients like these on Know Additives because I find they also can be confusing and have potentially negative health effects.

Who Decides Which Food Additives Are Safe?

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) judges which food additives are included in the international GFSA. They review currently available research and documentation on each food additive and determine what amount would be acceptable based on their findings.

Most countries have their own national food additive approval body that works similarly, where the manufacturer of any new food additive must submit an application to have the additive approved for use.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States is unique because it has two types of approval for food additives. If a company wants to use a new food additive, they can:

1) Submit a petition to the FDA for approval of the additive’s use. The manufacturer must include enough information to establish that the food additive is safe and accomplishes its intended use, including data derived from animal and other biological experiments. Once its safety has been demonstrated, the FDA can approve an additive and determine any regulations around how it can be used. If it’s rejected, its use becomes prohibited.

2) Determine that the additive is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The FDA defines GRAS foods as “’substances that are generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience…to be safe under the conditions of their intended use.” A company can decide this through their own independent review and have the choice of submitting the GRAS substance to the FDA for another review or simply going ahead and using the substance in food. If they go ahead and use it, there is no requirement to provide any notification to the FDA. It’s completely voluntary.

If you were a food additive manufacturer, what option would you choose? The first option of a lengthy petition process, or the second option of simply determining your additive is GRAS and you’re good to go?

Not a tough choice. The FDA used to have a petition process for GRAS substances as well, but it was considered too resource-intensive. In 1997 the voluntary GRAS approval was introduced to streamline the process of getting new additives on the market.

Most other countries have more strict approval processes, but food additive manufacturers in the US are essentially self-regulated and can introduce whatever additives they want.

Would you trust a company with the potential to make significant profit on a new additive to effectively regulate it? I know I wouldn’t.

What Types of Food Additives Exist?

In order to assist with identifying food additives labels, the International Numbering System for Food Additives (INS) was developed. Internationally recognized food additives are all given a number, which can be used on ingredient lists. For example, the color additive tartrazine could be written as “color (tartrazine)” or “color 102” on an ingredient label.

The INS also groups food additives into different categories to identify the function of each substance:

  • Acids– increases acidity or sour taste to a food
  • Acidity regulators– changes or controls the acidity or alkalinity of foods
  • Anticaking agents– prevents dry foods from sticking together or clumping
  • Antifoaming agents– prevents foaming in foods
  • Antioxidants– prolongs the shelf-life of foods by preventing oxidation
  • Bulking agents– substance that provides bulk to a food without adding to its calories
  • Colors– add or restore color to a food that was lost in production
  • Color retention agents– preserve a food’s real color
  • Emulsifiers– form or maintain a uniform mixture of separate ingredients, such as oil and water
  • Firming agents – keeps tissues of fruit or vegetables firm, or strengthens a gel
  • Flavors– give food a certain smell or taste. Although, these are not included in the INS because the Codex General Standard for Labelling does not require them to be specifically identified in an ingredient list.
  • Flavor enhancers– enhance the existing taste or smell of a food
  • Flour treatment agents– improve flour’s baking quality or color
  • Foaming agents – allow the maintenance of a gaseous form of a liquid or solid food
  • Gelling agents – help form a gel
  • Glazing agents – gives a shiny or protective coating on the exterior of food
  • Humectants– prevent food from drying out
  • Preservatives– protects again deterioration caused by microorganisms and prolongs shelf-life of food
  • Raising agents – create gas, which increases the volume of a dough
  • Stabilizers– maintains a uniform combination of two or more different substances in a food in order to improve texture
  • Sweeteners– non-sugar substances that create a sweet flavor in food
  • Thickeners – make fluids more solid

Know Additives has also grouped food additives into these categories to make them easier to find on the site. If you can’t find a particular additive, please use the search tool at the top of the page.