Food additives


Food additives are substances that become part of a food product when they are added during the processing or making of that food.

Direct food additives are often added during processing to:

Direct additives may be man-made or natural. Natural additives include:

Indirect food additives are substances that may be found in food during or after it is processed. They were not used or placed in the food on purpose. These additives are present in small amounts in the final product.

Alternative Names

Additives in food; Artificial flavors and color


Food additives serve five main functions:

Give the food a smooth and consistent texture:

Improve or preserve the nutrient value:

Maintain the wholesomeness of foods:

Control the acid-base balance of foods and provide leavening:

Provide color and enhance flavor:

Food Sources


Side Effects

Most concerns about food additives have to do with man-made ingredients that are added to foods, including:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of food additives that are considered safe. Many have not been tested, but they are considered safe by most scientists. These substances are put on the "generally recognized as safe (GRAS)" list. The list contains about 700 items.

Congress defines safe as "reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use" of an additive. Examples of items on this list are: guar gum, sugar, salt, and vinegar. The list is re-checked regularly.

Some substances that are found to be harmful to people or animals may still be allowed, but only at the level of 1/100th of the amount that is considered harmful. People with any allergies or food intolerances should always check the ingredient list (label) for their own protection. Reactions to any additive can be mild or severe.

It is still important to gather information about the safety of food additives. Let the FDA know about any reactions you have to food or food additives.


The FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supervise and regulate the use of additives in products sold in the United States. However, people who have special diets or intolerances should be careful in selecting products in the grocery store.

The U.S. government requires everyone that manufactures food to list all the ingredients on the label. See: Learn to read and understand food labels


Food Ingredients and Colors.International Food Information Council (IFIC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. November 2004; revised April 2010. Page last updated May 23, 2011. Available at:

Review Date: 6/17/2012
Reviewed By: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., and Stuart I. Henochowicz, MD, FACP, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology, Georgetown University Medical School.
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