Food Additives and Their Functions

It's not easy to know what you're eating, some food today may be perfectly edible and good tasting, but not nourishing in the way you expect, and that's important. If you understand what you're eating, you may prefer to do without it. A food may contain supplements to replace those lost in processing. If you are avoiding supplements or keeping track of them, you need to know. For example, although fiber is important for your health, the source of fiber is even more important, as some kinds of fiber are constipating. Vegetable oils doesn't mean the oil is unsaturated; coconut oil and palm oil are more highly saturated than beef fat.

It is also important to bear in mind that not all additives are listed, because some additives that are on the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list are allowed not to be listed, like Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), for example. Recent studies have shown that this food additive may contribute to obesity and increased appetite. MSG is often listed as added flavor. In fact, no food product needs artificial anything.

Here is a basic list of common food additives. It is far from being complete, but you will get the idea about what you really eat.

Acacia (gum Arabic, acacia Senegal) - A natural gum thickener derived from exudates of Acacia senegal or Acacia seyal trees and used to retard sugar crystallization in candies and confections. Also as a foam stabilizer in the soft drink and brewing industries.

Acetic acid (vinegar) - Adds a sharp taste to foods. Also a preservative in pickles and marinated fruits and vegetables.

Adipic acid (hexanedioic acid) - Adds tartness to baked goods, dairy products, meat products, oils, margarines, relishes, snack foods, soft drinks, and gelatin desserts. Also prevents spoilage. The chemical may give rise neoformed compounds with potentially high toxicity, based on its chemical structure.

Agar A - Seaweed derivative used as a thickener.

Albumin - An emulsifier derived from egg whites and other sources.

Alcohol (ethanol) - Solvent, commonly used with flavoring extracts.

Alginates - Seaweed derivatives used as stabilizers and water retainers in beverages, ice creams, salad dressings, and confections.

Artificial colors - Current accepted colors for food use are Blue No. 1 (E133, Triarylmethane dye, disodium salt), Blue No. 2 (Indigo carmine, E132), Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine, E102), Yellow No. 6 (E110, banned or restricted as a food additive in Norway, Finland and Sweden), Red No. 3 (Erythrosine), and Red No. 40 (Allura Red AC, banned in many European countries). High consumption of Allura Red has claimed an adverse effects of human health including allergies, food intolerance, cancer, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, brain damage, nausea, cardiac disease and asthma.2

Artificial flavors - Usually an organic ester added to enhance food flavor.

Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) - Preservative and antioxidant in fruits, jellies, preserves, processed meat products, and dairy products. Necessary for normal teeth, bones and blood vessels. Ascorbic acid adds no flavor in the quantity used in most foods.

Aspartame (NutraSweet) - Artificial sweetener. Aspartame is 160 times as sweet as normal table sugar (sucrose).

Muffins contain many food additives, including BHT, BHA, artificial colors, and preservatives.
Muffins contain many food additives, including BHT, BHA, artificial colors, and preservatives.

Beeswax - Candy glaze and polish

Benzoic acid - Preservative

Beta carotene (Vitamin A) - Important for eyesight, prevents night blindness. Used for yellow coloring.

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) - Preservative and antioxidant (muffins).

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) - Preservative and antioxidant (muffins).

Caffeine - Flavor in coffee, cola-flavored soft drinks, and root beer beverages.

Calcium carbonate. - Used as a white food color. Controls acidity.

Calcium citrate - Buffer to control acidity in foods.

Calcium disodium EDTA - Preservative and sequestrant. Prevents crystal formation, color loss, and for flavor retention in canned and carbonated soft drinks.

Calcium phosphate - Mineral supplement. Prevents “off” flavors due to metals. Adjusts pH.

Calcium propionate - Preservative, prevents mold.

Calcium silicate - Anti-caking agent.

Calcium sulfate - Dough conditioner. Controls pH.

Caramel color - Color in beer and soft drinks.

Carbon black - Black coloring in confections.

Carnauba wax - Candy glaze and polish.

Carrageenan - Stabilizer and emulsifier.

Casein - Principal protein from cow’s milk. Texturizer for ice cream products.

Cellulose gum - Thickener

Citric acid - Preservative. Adjusts acid in fruit juices and products. Used to produce sour flavor in candies.

Cornstarch - Thickener. Also used as a powdering agent to prevent sticking.

Corn syrup (dextrose) - Sweetener

Cyclamates (sodium and potassium cyclamate) - Artificial sweetener

Dextrin A - Gum produced from starch used as a foam stabilizer for beer and to prevent sugar from crystallizing in candy.

Dextrose - Sweetener. Also known as D-glucose. Sweetness rating of 74 compared to sucrose at 100.

Disodium phosphate - Controls acidity. Also a sequestrant in evaporated milk and noodle products.

EDTA (ethylenediammine tetraacetic acid, disodium salt) - Preservative and sequestering agent.

FD&C colors - Food colors regulated by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. See artificial colors.

FD&C lakes - Color pigments prepared by combining FD&C; colors with aluminum or calcium which make the colors insoluble. Used in confections, candies, and foods which cab be affected by water.

Ferric chloride (iron(III) chloride) - Nutrient. Source of iron. May impart a yellow color.

Ferric citrate (iron(III) citrate) - Nutrient. Source of iron.

Ferric phosphate (iron(III) phosphate) - Nutrient. Source of iron

Folic acid (B vitamin) - Nutrient. Aids in red blood cell formation.

Fructose - Sweetener. Fruit sugar. Sweetness rating of 173 compared to sucrose at 100.

Fumaric acid - Dry acid for powdered desserts such as gelatin. Also an antioxidant.

Gelatin - Protein thickener and stabilizer obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones with water.

Gellan gum - Stabilizer

Glucose - Sweetener. Sweetness rating of 74 compared to sucrose at 100.

Glycerin (glycerol) - Used as a humectant in jellies, confections, gelatin desserts, beverages, and chewing gum. Sweetness rating of 60 compared to sucrose at 100.

Glyceryl monostearate - Emulsifying and dispersing agent used in oleomargarine, shortenings and other food products.

Guar gum - Stabilizer for frozen fruit, ice cream, icings, glazes, and fruit drinks. Used as a thickener for hot and cold drinks, and salad dressings.

Gum tragacanth - Thickener and stabilizer in fruit jelly, sherbets, salad dressing, confections, and candy.

High fructose corn syrup - Sweetener. Corn syrup treated with enzymes to make it sweeter.

Hydrogenated oil - Oil that has been partially converted from naturally polyunsaturated to saturated. Makes liquid oils partially solidified.

Invert sugar - Mixture of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Sweetness rating of 130 compared to sucrose at 100.

Iodine - Nutrient. Usually added as potassium iodide or cuprous iodide. Essential for thyroid hormones.

Iron - Mineral nutrient. May be used as powdered iron or an iron salt. See individual ferric compounds.

Kaolin - Clay used as an anticaking agent in food.

Lactic acid - Acidulant in many foods including cheese products, butter, fruit jelly, and breads. Also a preservative.

Lactose - Milk sugar. Sweetener and nutrient. Sweetness rating of 16 compared to sucrose at 100.

Lecithin - Emulsifier

Magnesium carbonate - Alkali for sour cream, butter, ice cream, cacao products, and canned peas.

Magnesium phosphate - Nutrient. Source of magnesium.

Magnesium sulfate - Nutrient. Source of magnesium.

Magnesium silicate - Anticaking agent

Malic acid - Strong sour taste. Used in candies, frozen dairy products, fruits, jellies and jams.

Maltodextrin - Sugar obtained by hydrolysis of starch. Stabilizer and flavor enhancer in candies and chocolate.

Maltose - Malt sugar. Nutrient, sweetener, and stabilizer. Sweetness rating of 32 compared to sucrose at 100.

Mannitol - Sweetener prepared from seaweed. Used as a dusting or antisticking agent in food products. This is the powder on chewing gum.

Mono- and diglygerides - Fats and oils used as emulsifiers.

Monosodium glutamate, MSG - Flavor enhancer

Monopotassium phosphate - Emulsifier and a pH buffer.

Niacin - Nutrient. A component of the vitamin B complex.

Niacinamide a form of vitamin B3- Nutrient. A skin stimulant.

Oleic acid - As a synthetic butter and cheese flavoring and in various foods.

Olestra Sucrose polyester. - Fat substitute that has no calories and cannot be digested.

Partially hydrogenated oils - Oil that has been partially converted from naturally polyunsaturated to saturated. Makes liquid oils partially solidified for improved baking.

Pectin - Stabilizer, thickener, and bodying agent for artificially sweetened beverages, syrups, ice cream products, fruit sherbets, fruit jellies and jams.

Phosphoric acid - Acidulant and flavor for soft drinks, jellies, and frozen dairy products.

Inorganic phosphate - salt of phosphoric acid; present in many processed foods, including soft drinks.

Polysorbate 60 - Emulsifier. A condensate of sorbitol with stearic acid. Waxy solid.

Polysorbate 80 - Emulsifier and humectant. A condensate of sorbitol with oleic acid. Thick oil.

Potassium acid tartrate - Acid and buffer. Acid constituent of some baking powders.

Potassium bromate - Improving agent in bread.

Potassium chloride - Salt substitute. For low sodium diets. Source of potassium.

Potassium citrate - Buffer to control pH.

Potassium nitrite - Preservative. Color retention in cured meats.

Potassium sorbate - Preservative. A mold and yeast inhibitor.

Propionic acid - Used in butter and fruit flavorings. Also a preservative.

Propyl gallate - Antioxidant for fats and oils.

Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) - Nutrient for health skin and for building and maintaining body tissue.

Saccharin - Artificial sweetener. 500 times sweeter than sucrose.

Silicates - Anticaking agents.

Sodium benzoate - Preservative in margarine, soft drinks, and fruit products.

Sodium caseinate - Emulsifier and stabilizer in frozen desserts.

Sodium citrate - Buffer to control pH. Emulsifier.

Sodium nitrate - Preservative. Color retention in cured meats.

Sodium phosphate - Prevents "off" flavors in foods due to presence of metal ions.

Sodium polyphosphate - Prevents "off" flavors in foods due to presence of metal ions.

Sodium proprionate - Preservative to prevent mold and fungus.

Sodium sulfite - Preservative. Used to preserve color in dried fruit.

Sodium tripolyphosphate - Texturizer and sequestrant for use in food-starch modifiers.

Sodium stearoyl-2-lactate - Strengthen bread dough.

Sorbitol - Sweetener, a sugar substitute for diabetics. Thickener and humectant in candies, shredded coconut, and dietetic fruits and soft drinks.

Starch - Thickener

Sucrose - Table sugar. Cane sugar.

Sulfur dioxide - Preservative. Used to preserve color in dried fruit.

Thiamine (thiamine hydrochloride) (Vitamin B1) - Nutrient. Acts as a helper in important energy-yielding reactions in the body.

Tocopherols (Vitamin E) - Preservative. Antioxidant. Protects fat in the body from abnormal breakdown.

Xanthan gum - Emulsifier and stabilizer for water based foods such as dairy products and salad dressings.

Yeast and yeast extract - Flavor

Zinc - Mineral nutrient.


  1. Compounds from multilayer plastic bags cause reproductive failures in artificial insemination C. Nerin,a,1 J. L. Ubeda,2,3 P. Alfaro,1,3 Y. Dahmani,2,3 M. Aznar,1,3 E. Canellas,1,3 and R. Ausejo2,3 Scientific Reports PMC4015085
  2. Extraction, Analytical and Advanced Methods for Detection of Allura Red AC (E129) in Food and Beverages Products Kobun Rovina,1 Shafiquzzaman Siddiquee,1,* and Sharifudin M. Shaarani2 Front Microbiol. 2016; 7: 798.

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