Frequently Asked Questions
- Q: What are food additives?
A: A food ingredient is any substance that is added to a food to achieve a desired effect. Direct food additives are used in foods to impart specific technological or functional qualities. For example, stabilizers are used to help prevent separation of nutrients in milk products, while phosphates are used as a leavening agent in baked goods. Indirect additives are not intentionally added to food, but may be present in trace amounts as a result of processing, packaging, shipping or storage. Both direct and indirect food additives are controlled by national regulatory authorities, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Any food ingredient must be proven safe to be used in foods.
- Q: Why are food additives added to foods?
A: Food additives are added to foods for several reasons:
- To provide or maintain nutritional benefits.
- To maintain product quality and freshness
- To prevent spoilage during transport, storage and sale.
- To aid in the processing and preparation of foods.
- To make foods more appealing and ensure that familiar foods have consistent qualities.
- To extend shelf-life and prevent food waste.
- To make some foods more affordable.
- Q: Are food additives harmful to my health?
A: Food safety is and always will be the primary objective for food ingredient manufacturers. Before food additives can be added to foods, they must be reviewed and deemed safe for their intended use by either the Food and Drug Administration or a panel of experts. These experts examine studies and all scientific information related to a particular substance and must conclude that the substance is safe for its intended use. Many food additives actually help make foods safer and more enjoyable by ensuring they do not spoil in transport or storage, maintain desirable characteristics, and remain uniform from batch to batch. Additives may also have beneficial health effects. For example, some food additives such as stabilizers and emulsifiers help ensure vitamins and nutrients do not separate out of a food or beverage.
- Q: How are food additives determined safe?
A: Under current U.S. law, a food additive may be deemed safe for use in food in one of two ways. First, it may be declared “Generally Recognized As Safe,” for its intended use based on a review by qualified experts of the publicly available scientific data on the substance. FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) Program is transparent, requiring information considered by the GRAS review panel to be publicly available. This process is rigorous; science based, and has a proven track-record of success and safety. Additionally, an additive may go through the food additive petition process, which requires FDA review of publicly and privately held information on the substance.
- Q: Where do food ingredients come from?
A: Food ingredients, including food additives, are as varied in their source as in their function. Some food additives come from mineral sources that contain phosphorus compounds, which can be used to help foods retain moisture. Other additives come from plant sources like seaweed and kelp, which naturally produce compounds that can be used for thickening foods and maintaining texture. Another source of food ingredients is microbiological substances (e.g., probiotics), which are added to foods to improve digestive health. Additives may also come from crops like corn or from items that might be discarded like the rinds of citrus fruits.
- Q: Are food ingredients natural?
A: Food ingredients, including food additives, come from a variety of sources using a variety of production methods. Some ingredients are derived from plant and mineral sources, while others are synthesized using chemical processes. However, there is no difference in how the body metabolizes food additives and naturally occurring substance found in foods. For example, the vitamin C found in an orange is metabolized the same as ascorbic acid added to canned and frozen food. Similarly, citric acid produced by fermentation is the same naturally-occurring substance that makes lemons tart. Each of these substances, whether found naturally in a fruit or synthesized in a lab, are metabolized using the same normal pathways of digestion. The body does not discriminate.
- Q: How do I know what ingredients are in my food?
A: In the United States, food manufacturers are required to include a list of used ingredients on all packaged foods and beverages. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, meaning the ingredient that weighs the most in the final product is listed first and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last. The ingredient list is placed on the same label panel as the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor, so you can always reach out to a company and ask about ingredients in their products if you have questions.t.
- Q: I read that a particular ingredient is unsafe. What should I do?
A: In the United States, all food ingredients must be determined to be safe prior to being used in a food or beverage. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) outlines what manufacturers must do to demonstrate the safety of their products. With regard to food additives and ingredients, the 1958 Food Additive Amendments to the FFDCA established two processes by which substances may be added to food: the food additive petition process and the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) process. Both require scientific evidence to demonstrate the safety of an ingredient. Food manufacturers must also complete both processes before they can use a substance in their products. The FDA has authority to review records associated with review of ingredients when inspecting a food facility to ensure that companies are following the law.
- Q: When were food additives first used in foods?
A: Salting, smoking, coloring and spicing food have been ways of life for centuries to preserve, add flavor and improve the appearance of foods. As the global population has grown, the need to provide foods that are convenient, affordable, tasty, and most importantly, safe, has also increased. Food additives are even more important today in meeting the needs of this growing population, extending supply chains, reducing energy use and improving safety.
- Q: Can I use food additives in cooking at home?
A: Of course. Food additives are used regularly in home cooking. Common food additives used in home cooking include: baking soda, vinegar, pectin, cornstarch, salt, xanthan gum and gelatin. You might also find use for food additives when making innovative and eye catching cocktails. Click here to learn how to make some delicious and tantalizing foods and drinks using common food ingredients.
- Q: Why are there chemicals in my food?
A: First and foremost, don’t be afraid of the word “chemical”. Chemical compounds consist of two or more elements that have been bonded together either naturally or through man-made processes. Human beings, as well as foods, consist of many chemical compounds. Water is a perfect example of a chemical compound that occurs naturally. In fact, the chemical formula for water is quite familiar — H2O — while the chemical name — dihydrogen monoxide — might not be so familiar. Water is a chemical that is essential for life, but which can sound scary when called by its chemical name. Like water and oxygen, many food additives are also chemical compounds. These compounds are added to food because they provide functions in foods that are intended to improve safety, freshness, nutritional value, taste, texture and appearance.
- Q: Are food colors safe for children?
A: Yes. While a single study in Europe claimed to have found a link between food colors and hyperactivity, the results of the study have been widely criticized by regulatory bodies around the world. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Food Safety Authority both reviewed the study and found that the research did not prove that food colors were the cause of the behavioral effects observed.
- Q: Can I consume too many food additives?
A: When a food additive or GRAS substance is evaluated for safety, qualified researchers look at many different usage levels of it to determine the level that is safe for consumption. For consumers that eat a large amount of a particular type of food or ingredient, a 100 fold safety factor is used. This means that the maximum levels allowed to be used in food are 100 or more times lower than what might cause an effect. While everyone should pay attention to the types and amounts of food they eat, there are no concerns about consuming too many additives through processed foods.
- Q: Do food additives cause cancer?
A: Carcinogenicity is always considered when evaluating the safety of a food additive or ingredient. If a substance is known to be carcinogenic in humans or animals, it is not permitted in the U.S. food supply by federal law. The National Toxicology Program, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, maintains a list of known, probable, and anticipated carcinogens. This list can be found here. This database also provides information on the scientific reviews of these substances.
- Q: Are all the of same food ingredients used in food all over the world?
A: To a degree, yes. Many food ingredient producers and manufacturers are multinational, meaning they operate and supply ingredients to various countries around the world. As a result, the food industry strives to have the same set of standards and specifications for their food products across the globe. However, not all countries regulate their food supply the same and companies sometimes have to manufacture products differently, or provide different products altogether, for certain markets.
- Q: Can I have sensitivity to a food ingredient or additive?
A: Yes, just like you may be intolerant of a naturally occurring component of food, like lactose or gluten, you can be intolerant of a specific ingredient or additive that has been added to your food. If you are concerned about a sensitivity or intolerance to a particular ingredient, try removing foods containing that ingredient from your diet to see if the effects continue. You should also consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian/nutritionist as food intolerance could indicate other physiological problems.
- Q: Do organic foods contain food additives?
A: Yes. Food additives are very important to maintaining the integrity of the food supply. Therefore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through the National Organic Program (NOP), permits the use of non-organic substances, including many common food additives, in foods labeled as “organic” and “made with organic.” There is a special review process that non-organic substances must go through to be used in organic products, but many common food additives like phosphate compounds and some food gums are permitted to be used in organic foods. The list of permitted nonorganic substances can be found here.
- Q: Should I be concerned about food additives that are also found in household products?
A: Not at all. Many components of food, like vinegar, water and certain food additives, are also common in household products, including soaps, cosmetics, lotions, detergents and air fresheners. Carrageenan, for example, derived from seaweed and used to form gels, is commonly found in household gel air fresheners. Phosphates, which are produced from refined phosphate rock, may be found in soaps and detergents. Xanthan gum, which is made through a fermentation process, may be found in cosmetics and lotions. Different grades of these additives exist to ensure only the highest quality of additives is used safely in foods. Therefore, just because carrageenan might be used in air fresheners, phosphates in soaps or xanthan gum in cosmetics, it doesn’t mean you’re eating air fresheners, soap or cosmetics.
- Q: Are natural food additives better than artificial ones?
A: Not necessarily. Almost any substance, even water, can be toxic when consumed in excess. Some naturally derived substances can contain natural toxins, such as poison hemlock, which comes from a flowering plant in the parsley family. Just because an additive is natural does not mean it is superior to artificial additives.
- Q: Is it true that companies are using yoga mats, wood or fish bladders in my food?
A: Absolutely not. In 2014, “Food Babe” blogger Vani Hari made a splash in the media by highlighting the use of azodicarbonamide in a particular company’s sandwich breads. The Environmental Working Group later confirmed that nearly 500 food items from more than 130 brands contained the same chemical compound. This is the same chemical compound that is found in non-food items like yoga mats and sneaker soles. In breads, azodicarbonamide is used in the manufacturing process as a dough conditioner to improve the bread’s texture. It has similar functionality in yoga mats, but that doesn’t mean that when you eat bread that contains azodicarbonamide you are eating yoga mats. In fact, by the time the final bread product reaches the consumers, azodicarbonamide is broken down into a number of byproducts, all of which are present in a number of other foods, including those not made with azodicarbonamide.
As for wood: This claim has come from the recognition of cellulose in various processed foods from crackers to cheese to ice cream. Cellulose is used to add fiber to foods and to help provide structure, add bulk and reduce breakage. Yes, cellulose can be derived from wood pulp, but that doesn’t mean you are eating wood when you consume cellulose. Cellulose occurs naturally in all fruits and vegetables because it is the substance that makes up plants’ cell walls.
Isinglass, a derivative of sturgeon bladder, is often used in a process called fining which is completed prior to or instead of filtration of wine, beer and some other beverages. Like egg whites and milk proteins, isinglass attracts suspended particles in the liquid and causes them to settle to the bottom of the barrel where they can be filtered out. The proteins are not present in the finished product.