Get Familiar with Common Food Additives

February 8, 2017

So your New Year’s resolution is to read Nutrition labels more carefully and pay attention to the ingredients, but you keep coming across ingredients you don’t understand or can’t even pronounce - ascorbic acid, aspartame, calcium carbonate and gum? What are these ingredients and why are they in our food?



These ingredients are known as food additives. “A food additive is a natural or synthetic (artificial) substance that is added to our food, or comes in contact with our food during production.” There are two types of food additives, direct and indirect. A direct additive includes ingredients that help to preserve flavor, enhance nutrition, and extend the shelf life or improve the taste, texture or appearance. Indirect food additives include any substance used during the production, packaging, and transportation of the food. Usually, these ingredients find their way into foods in trace amounts, especially during storage.

Direct food additives are added to serve a particular purpose. Some examples include:

Preservative: prevent spoilage. Common names include: Ascorbic acid, citric acid, sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, calcium sorbate, potassium sorbate, BHA, BHT, EDTA, tocopherols (Vitamin E)


Emulsifier, Stabilizer - keep blended ingredients from separating. Like mayonnaise Look out for words like sodium phosphates, lecithin, or diglycerides to spot emulsifiers. Common names include: soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, egg yolks, polysorbates, sorbitan monostearate


Anticaking Agent- reduce the formation of lumps in granulated foods. Common names include: calcium silicate, iron ammonium citrate, silicon dioxide


Humectants- help keep food stay moist. Common names include glycerin, sorbitol


Thickeners- improve the texture of certain foods. Common names include gelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, whey


Color Additives- used for a visual appeal. Common names include FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, annatto extract, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, cochineal extract or carmine, paprika oleoresin, caramel color, fruit and vegetable juices, saffron (Note: Exempt color additives are not required to be declared by name on labels but may be declared simply as colorings or color added)


Sweeteners: to improve taste. Common names include sucrose (sugar), glucose, fructose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), neotame.


Final thought. There have been countless studies and hours of scientific evaluation completed when reviewing food substances and their safety. But if there is a concern about a specific additive one should always use evidence-based analysis to evaluate the information to determine if the product is safe.  


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