Food Additives

Humans have added substances to food for thousands of years to preserve or improve the taste. Historians have found records that indicate that salt was used to preserve meat as early as 3,000 BC. Adventurers in the Middle Ages undertook hazardous journeys in search of spices, an extremely important food additive of the time. Man has also used additives to alter the color of a food so that it appeared fresh. Poisonous copper sulfate was used to color pickles, alum to whiten bread, and indigo to color tea. Laws were enacted as early as 1202 to eliminate harmful additives used as color or flavor enhancers.

Food additives are any substance or mixture of substances other than the basic foodstuff that is present in food as a result of any phase of production, processing, packaging, or storage (Food and Drug Administration 1990). This definition is used by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as it regulates the use of food additives. It is estimated that an individual consumes 140 to 150 pounds of food additives each year. Of that, 98% are made up of in food items like salt, sugar, baking powder, and yeast (FDA 1990).

Additives that are added to a food for a specific purpose are known as direct additives. For example, the low calorie sweetener, aspartame, is a direct additive that is added to puddings, soft drinks, yogurt, and many other foods. Direct additives are identified on a food’s ingredient label.
Indirect additives become part of the food in very small amounts during the processing, packaging, or storage of the food item. By law, manufacturers must document that the amounts present are considered so insignificant as to be safe.

Food additives are used to:

  • improve or maintain nutritional quality. Examples are the addition of Vitamin D to milk and vitamins A and D to margarine.
  • improve keeping quality and reduce waste. Calcium propionate to keep bread from molding; nitrite to prevent botulism in cured meats like hot dogs, bacon , and ham; and BHA or BHT to keep oils or fat in food products from going rancid are examples.
  • maintain food quality characteristics. Examples of this additive include cornstarch added to powdered sugar to prevent lumping and leavenings to make baked products rise.
  • facilitate fast and convenient food preparation. The use of phosphate additives in instant oatmeal or instant pudding is an example.
  • make food more appealing. Artificial or synthetic colors and flavors are examples of this type of additive. These additives are added in minute amounts that can have a large impact. By FDA regulations, colorings can only be used to enhance visual appeal, not to misrepresent the food (Jones 1992).

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and its 1958 and 1960 amendments give the FDA regulatory authority over food additives. The FDA regulates the type of food in which the additive can be used, the maximum quantity that can be used, and the information that must appear on the label. Manufacturers must document the “safety” of the additive to the FDA by performing chemical studies and tests involving animals before the additive is approved for use. The test involving animals are used to determine whether the substances could have harmful effects such as cancer and birth defects. Two major groups of food items are exempt from this testing and approval process. One is a group of 700 substances categorized as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) which have been classified this way based on extensive past use. The other major group includes substances that were approved for use prior to 1958 either by the FDA or the US Department of Agriculture. Safety is not defined by law but has been interpreted by the FDA to be “a reasonable certainty of no harm under intended use conditions” (Redlinger and Nelson 1990). Additives are never given permanent approval but are continually reviewed and modified and withdrawn if necessary.


Works Cited: 
Food and Drug Administration. “Food Additives”. 1990. Jones, Julie Miller.
Food Safety. St. Paul, MN: Eagan Press. 1992 Redlinger, Patricia, and Diane Nelson.
“Food Additives: How Safe Are They?”. Iowa State University Extension. 1990.

Revised 12/97