Consumers today are getting a lot of mixed messages about food additives. On the one hand, many fast food companies and other processed food brands are pursuing some type of program to remove additives from their food, and are widely publicizing the fact that they are doing so. On the other hand, this sudden, high-profile rejection of additives—many of which have been in common use for decades—has led to a fair amount of negative criticism, with many people feeling that the framing of all additives as “unhealthy” is little more than a fearmongering marketing ploy.
But before consumers can wade into the debate about whether food additives are good or bad—spoiler alert: even the experts don’t agree—it’s important to understand what exactly food additives are, and why we use them in the first place. Read on to get a closer look at the role additives play in the foods we eat.
What are additives?
Answering the question of whether food additives are healthy or unhealthy is complicated because the definition of “food additives” is extremely broad. Officially defined by the US Food and Drug Administration as a substance that is a component of food or that affects the characteristic of any food, food additives are most commonly understood as substances, both natural and artificial, that are added to food to improve and preserve its flavor and appearance.
Under that definition, it seems clear that just about any processed food product will contain some type of food additive, even organic products. What’s more, you probably use some common food additives in foods you make from scratch. (For example, baking soda and corn starch are additives.) Determining whether or not additives are healthy therefore depends on a huge range of factors, including the source of the additive, how much of it is used in the food, and how often it is consumed.
What are the different types of additives?
Food additives are grouped into different categories depending on the purpose they serve, and some additives belong to more than one category. These categories include:
Acid regulators—Regulating acidity in foods is an important part of preserving taste and preventing the growth of bacteria and other microbes. Acidity can be controlled by adding acids, bases, or neutralizing agents; for example, phosphates, which are derived from natural phosphate rock like clay, are often used in ketchup and soft drinks.
Anti-caking agents—When powdered foods like flours, powdered milks, or cake mixes absorb moisture, they can clump or stick together, often ruining their texture. Anti-caking agents help preserve the free-flowing texture of these foods by preventing moisture absorption. One of the most popular and commonly-used anti-caking agents is baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).
Antioxidants—Antioxidants are important preservers because they prevent food from reacting with oxygen, thus helping it last longer and stopping it from becoming rancid. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and vitamin E (tocopherols) are natural antioxidants that are often added to processed foods.
Colors—Natural and artificial colors can be added to foods to enhance their appearance, or to replicate colors that may have been lost during preparation or processing. Synthetically produced colors must be certified for use by the FDA.
Cultures—Microbial food cultures, like bacterial food cultures or yeast, are naturally occurring in some foods, but they can also be added to dairy, breads, meats, and fermented foods to increase acidification, enhance texture, and boost flavor. Some cultures, particularly those in the “probiotics” category, can offer important nutritional benefits.
Emulsifiers—We all know that oil and water don’t mix, but in foods like mayonnaise or ice cream, it’s important that the fat and water components don’t separate. Added emulsifiers, such as sodium phosphates and lecithin, help keep these kinds of mixtures smooth and cohesive.
Firming agents—Firming agents like citric acid (also known as sodium citrate, which is derived from citrus) help foods like fruits, vegetables, pickles, and relishes stay crisp and strong and have a longer shelf life.
Humectants—These additives help food retain moisture and prevent it from drying out; they can also reduce microbial activity and thus prolong shelf life. Sorbitol, derived from natural fruit and vegetable sugars, and glycerin are among the moisture-stabilizing humectants typically used in dairy, confections, and baked goods.
Preservatives—One of the most important categories of additives, preservatives come in a wide variety of forms, both natural and artificial. Their function is to prevent spoilage and help food maintain its appearance, taste, and texture while remaining safe for consumption. Some examples of natural food preservatives include sugars, salts, and vinegars. Artificial preservatives include nitrates and nitrites, which are often found in meats.
Thickeners and stabilizers—These additives increase food’s viscosity (thickness), smooth its texture, and add body and structure. For example, pectin, agar, and gelatin are commonly used stabilizers for jams and jellies, while starches like corn starch are frequently used as thickeners.