Food additives have been used for centuries to improve and
preserve the taste, texture, nutrition and appearance of food. According to
nutrition consultant Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, food additives and preservatives
are used in today’s food supply to prevent foodborne illness, enable the
transportation of food to geographic areas that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,
and for the efficient manufacture of products to consistently meet the established
quality standards from batch to batch.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a
database of more than 3,000 ingredients, entitled "Everything Added to Food in the United States." Here’s a peek at a few categories and
ingredients commonly used in the food supply and what they do.
pH Control Agents
Ingredients that either maintain or control the acidity or
alkalinity of foods are known as pH control agents. Citric acid, acetic acid
and sodium citrate are widely used agents and are often found in gelatins,
jams, ice cream and candies. Lactic acid is an acidity regulator used in
cheese-making, and adipic acid can be found in bottled fruit-flavored drinks.
Anti-caking agents are added to powdered or granulated
ingredients — such as powdered milks, egg mixes, sugar products, flours and
baking mixes — to prevent lumping, caking or sticking. There are many agents to
choose from, including calcium phosphates, silicon dioxide, silicates (calcium,
aluminum and tricalcium) and stearic acid.
Emulsifiers are added to oil and water-based mixtures so they
stay blended over the course of the food product’s shelf life. Examples of emulsions
in everyday foods include vinaigrette dressings, milk and mayonnaise. Lecithin
from egg yolk and soybean are commonly used emulsifiers in the food supply.
Others include diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides (DATEM) and
sodium stearyl lactylate. These are often used in commercial bread doughs,
artificial whipped creams and dried, liquid or frozen egg whites.
Humectants keep foods moist. Common examples include
glycerin, honey, sugar polyols (glycerol, sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol) and
propylene glycol, and are often found in candy, baked goods and salad
dressings. It’s important to note that polyols are also used in foods as a
low-calorie sweetening option, particularly for sugar-free chewing gums, candies
and other low-calorie foods.
Stabilizers, Thickeners and Gelling Agents
These are widely used across many food product categories to
increase viscosity and improve stability by preventing emulsions from
separating, ice crystals from forming and ingredients from settling. The
starch-based category of thickeners includes arrowroot, corn, potato and
tapioca. Vegetable gums include guar, locust bean and xanthan gum. Common
protein-based thickeners include collagen, egg whites and gelatin. Alginic
acid, alginates (sodium, potassium, calcium), agar-agar and carrageenan are
polysaccharides derived from algae and seaweeds, while pectin is a
polysaccharide originating from apple and citrus fruits.
Leavening agents are incorporated into doughs and batters to
increase the volume, shape and texture of baked goods. Common leavening agents
include baking powder, beer, buttermilk, yeast, whey protein concentrate and
yogurt. Used in a wide variety of sweet and savory products, these leavening
agents can be found in cakes, cookies, breads, biscuits, scones, muffins and
To learn more about other food additive categories and
particular ingredients, visit FDA’s Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors.
Reviewed October 2013