By definition, a food additive is anything added to a food to preserve, maintain, or improve its safety, freshness, taste, texture, and appearance. We have been using food additives, such as sugar and salt, for centuries. In recent years, the need for these ingredients has greatly increased due to the advancement of food science, safety and standards, the need for foods to be shipped long distances, and a desire for foods to be more shelf stable and affordable. Food additives are used in a variety of everyday foods and are used for numerous reasons including:
- To Improve and Maintain Nutritional Quality – Did you know that the vitamins and minerals added into dairy, cereals, breads, and pasta are considered food additives? Folate, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, and iron are also used to fortify and enrich foods.
- To Give Food a Smooth Consistency and Texture – Emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners prevent food from separating (think peanut butter, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and baby formula) and provide a uniform texture. Additionally, these are what make plant-based milks and ice cream stay smooth and creamy when you eat it.
- To Control the Acid-Base Balance of Foods and Provide Leavening – Yeast, baking powder, and baking soda in baked goods are considered food additives that help with leavening. Other ingredients are also used to control the acid-base balance of foods and produce a certain flavor or texture.
- To Preserve the Safety of the Food – There are a number of food additives used to preserve the wholesomeness and quality of foods, allowing them to be transported safely from a factory to a store and to your table at home. These include antioxidants, which prevent browning of fresh produce, rancidity of fats, and reduce the deterioration of food; and antimicrobials, which prevent bad bacteria, yeasts, and molds from spoiling food. Often products use a combination of these food additives to ensure your food is of high-quality and safe to consume.
- To Improve and Maintain the Sensory Characteristics of the Food – Food additives make sure the food you eat tastes and looks appealing. Food coloring, both natural and synthetic as well as flavoring ingredients and sweeteners, fall into this category. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with determining the safety of food additives in the United States, while the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducts safety reviews in Europe. There are similar agencies that regulate food safety in different countries around the world. After the safety of an ingredient is established, regulatory authorities establish requirements to ensure its continued safe use in food products.