A Guide To Food Additives And Preservatives

By Marisa Ramiccio. May 7th 2016

Thousands of years ago, before the modern convenience of refrigerators and freezers, salt was used to keep meat and fish from spoiling in the hot sun. Nowadays, salt is mostly used to add flavor and to bring out the taste of other ingredients, but the concept of using preservatives and other food additives still remains.

What Are Food Additives?

Additives are any type of ingredient that is added to food. That may sound vague, but the term “additive” covers a broad spectrum of ingredients that can be added while processing, cooking, packaging or transporting the food.

Overall, there are two categories of additives: direct and indirect. Direct additives are ingredients that are purposefully added to food, while indirect additives are ingredients that become part of the food through growing or processing. The different types of direct additives can further be broken down into these categories:

  • Preservatives: Like salt, these ingredients preserve food so it has a longer shelf life. These ingredients also prevent mold and bacteria from growing on the food.
  • Flavors: This includes herbs, spices, sugar and any other natural or synthetic ingredient that enhances the flavor of the product.
  • Colors: Since people eat with their eyes first, natural and artificial food dyes are used to preserve or add color to food to make it look more appealing.
  • Nutrients: The process of adding nutrients to food is known as fortifying or enriching, and is often done to foods, such as milk, rice and cereal, that lose key vitamins and minerals during the milling process.
  • Processors: These ingredients ensure that food maintains the proper consistency and texture over time. For example, processors can be used to keep oil and water from separating to prevent the food from clumping or drying out.

FDA Regulation

The FDA regulates the use of food additives and preservatives to ensure that they are used for intended purpose. Manufacturers can only use food additives under these terms:

  • They can be used if there is no other way to manufacture the desired effect.
  • They cannot be used to mask spoilage or damage to the product.
  • They cannot be used to hide an error in growing or processing.
  • They cannot be used if they significantly decrease the nutritional value of the food.

In order to use food additives, manufacturers must first seek the approval of the FDA. To do so, they must file a petition, which the FDA will evaluate. During the evaluation, the FDA considers:

  • The composition of the additive.
  • The way in which the additive will be use.
  • The long-term health effects the additive may have.
  • Any safety factors involved in the use of the additive.

During evaluations of additives for meat and poultry, the FDA will consult with the USDA. If the FDA, and if necessary, the USDA, approves the use of the additive, guidelines will be established on how and how much of the additive can be used. If a food additive is not approved, or if a previously approved additive becomes a cause for concern, the FDA will re-evaluate that additive.

Since the approval process can be lengthy, the FDA has exempted two categories of additives:

  • Prior-sanctioned substances: This includes sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate and other additives that were approved by the FDA before the establishment of the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, which requires food additives to be approved by the FDA.
  • GRAS or generally recognized as safe: This includes herbs, spices, sugar and other ingredients that have been deemed safe by experts and scientific evidence.

Side Effects

Certain food additives can cause an adverse reaction in some people, especially if they are already food sensitive. For instance, sulfates can cause an asthma attack while food dyes can cause an allergic reaction. MSG, a preservative often added to Chinese food, can also cause some people to experience chest pains and a tingling sensation. Finally, people who suffer from phenylketonuria need to avoid aspartame and other additives that contain the amino acid phenylalanine, which people with this disease cannot metabolize.

Other research suggests that additives can exacerbate hyperactivity in children and can lead to the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines, which come from nitrates. While preliminary studies have been conducted, further research needs to be done to determine the side effects food additives may cause.


Aside from preserving food and making it more appealing to the senses, food additives are also beneficial because they protect against the effects of reactive oxygen species, which are often associated with cancer and aging.

Without food additives, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of food to choose from at the grocery store. The food would be rotting before you even took it home and it probably wouldn’t taste or look as good. Whether natural or artificial, additives rarely cause adverse side effects, but they can cause a reaction in those who have food allergies. More research needs to be done on the effects that additives have on human health, but if you’re concerned about having an allergic reaction, be sure to read the ingredient label before eating or buying.


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