What is a food additive

In its broadest sense, a food additive is any substance added to food. The term refers to “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.” This definition includes any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food.

Most additives are identified on the ingredient label of food.

Additives perform a variety of useful functions in food that consumers often take for granted. Some additives could be eliminated if we were willing to grow our own food, harvest and grind it, spend many hours cooking and canning, or accept increased risks of food spoilage. But most consumers today rely on the many technological, aesthetic and convenient benefits that additives provide.

Following are some reasons why ingredients are added to food:

  1. To Maintain or Improve Safety and Freshness: Preservatives slow product spoilage caused by mold, air, bacteria, fungi or yeast. In addition to maintaining the quality of the food, they help control contamination that can cause foodborne illness, including life-threatening botulism. One group of preservatives — antioxidants — prevents fats and oils and the food containing them from becoming rancid or developing an off-flavor. They also prevent cut fresh fruits such as apples from turning brown when exposed to air.
  2. To Improve or Maintain Nutritional Value: Vitamins and minerals (and fiber) are added to many food to make up for those lacking in a person’s diet or lost in processing, or to enhance the nutritional quality of a food. Such fortification and enrichment has helped reduce malnutrition worldwide. All products containing added nutrients must be appropriately labeled.
  3. Improve Taste, Texture and Appearance: Spices, natural and artificial flavors, and sweeteners are added to enhance the taste of food. Food colors maintain or improve appearance. Emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners give food the texture and consistency consumers expect. Xanthan gum is used in salad dressings, chocolate milk, bakery fillings, and  puddings to add texture. Leavening agents allow baked goods to rise during baking. Some additives help control the acidity and alkalinity of food, while other ingredients help maintain the taste and appeal of food with reduced fat content.