Fitness Nutrition Forums

Food Additives: Learn the Lingo!


Food additives are added to foods to improve the quality, affordability, shelf life and flavor. They prevent spoilage and increase nutrition. There are over 3,000 food substances used as food additives. There are two main kinds of food additives: direct and indirect additives. Direct additives are added for specific functions and indirect additives are found in small amounts, occurring during the handling of the food or packaging. Both are regulated by the government, checked for safety and listed on packaging. Food safety is a key concern and federal food laws determine additives that pass the testing to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

Nutrition Additives

Enrichment: The process where nutrients that are lost during manufacturing are added back to the foods.

Fortification: The process of adding nutrients or substances that are not found in the foods before processing. Some common examples are adding iodine to salt or calcium to juice, or when milk is fortified with vitamins A and D. Fortification enhances foods functional qualities and addresses nutrition deficiencies in populations.

Antioxidants: Like adding lemon juice to cut apples, antioxidants work to prevent discoloration, spoilage and oxidation of foods. Commonly found in oils, baked foods, salad dressings and processed foods.

Tocopherols: More commonly known as Vitamin E, the antioxidant properties are added to foods to delay rancidity. Some forms of this include BHA and BHT.

Citric Acid: Another antioxidant working to help foods maintain color.

Calcium Propionate: A preservative that delays food from getting moldy. Often found in baked foods and bread.

Sulfites: Found in wine and dried fruit. They work by slowing bacterial growth in fermented products. Some people are sulfite sensitive and should read labels of packaged and processed foods for sulfites.

Sodium Nitrate: Adds flavor and color to processed meats, but its main function is as a preservative to keep the meat from bacteria, especially botulism.

Processing/Preparation Additives

Emuslifers: Keep foods containing fat and water blended. These are added to nut butters, salad dressings and baked foods to keep the ingredients uniform and unseparated. Emulsifiers include alginates, mono and diglycerides and lecithin, and come from food-based origins.

Anti-caking agents: These are added to your spices, seasonings, baking products and powdered foods to keep them from lumping together. Some common anti-caking agents include calcium silicate and silicon dioxide.

Leavening agents: Keep foods from becoming dense and heavy. They include baking soda/sodium bicarbonate, baking powder, yeast and even eggs. They produce carbon dioxide that makes dough rise and leaves foods with a light and fluffy texture.

Thickeners and stabilizers: Enable foods to stay in suspension and maintain a uniform and smooth texture. Common thickeners and stabilizers include carrageenan (seaweed), pectin (fruit) and (gelatin). They are what keeps ice cream smooth, thick and free of ice.

Humectants: Function as humidifiers for foods, to keep them moist and soft. Glycerine and sorbitol are common humectants. Used in foods like gum, marshmallows and candy.

Maturing and bleaching agents: By bleaching wheat flour, dough becomes more elastic and results in an improved baked product. It is added to cheese to improve the appearance and instant potatoes for uniformity.

pH control agents: These affect the texture, flavor and safety of foods by slowing the growth of bacteria and preventing discoloration. Acids add a tart flavor and alkalizers neutralize acids and provide a softer flavor.

Flavoring and Colors

Flavoring: Made from natural and synthetic sources. These come from herbs, spices, fruit juices, caffeine, seasonings, extracts and essential oils. Natural flavors are often taken from one food and minimally processed to be added to another food. Artificial flavors are developed by trying to imitate the chemical structure of natural flavors. You will find flavoring added to candy, pie fillings, salad dressings, soft drinks, sauces and baked foods.

Flavor Enhancers: One of the most common flavor enhancers is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), derived from glutamic acid found in vegetable proteins. Flavor enhancers work to enhance natural flavors already found in foods. Commonly used to enhance the flavor of processed meats, gravy, soup and sauces.

Sweetener: Includes nutritive sweeteners like mannitol, dextrose, sucrose, and fructose as well as non-nutritive sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin. They add mouth feel and sweeten the flavor of foods. Often found in foods like frozen fruit, juices, soft drinks and yogurt.

Coloring: Food colors are added for many reasons, including replacing color lost during oxidation, moisture or storage, improving appearance and just for fun! Coloring is sometimes made from natural sources and sometimes synthetic. There are nine colors approved in the U.S., and they provide uniform vibrant color to foods otherwise lacking. Yellow #5 is linked to causing allergic reactions in limited cases. Many manufacturers are trying to move away from synthetic colors to colors made from plants and minerals. Some common colors come from beets, carrots, saffron, annatto extract and paprika. Ice cream, jam, candy and baked foods are commonly colored.


Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.

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