Food Additives

Benefits | Testing and Approval | Food Coloring

Substances added to foods, known collectively as food additives, are an important element in processed foods. Food additives contribute to consumer confidence, ensuring that the processed foods they buy are of the highest quality and are safe to eat. Additives are used in foods for many reasons and provide a wide range of benefits.


The benefits that food additives provide include:

  • Enhancing the appearance of food

  • Improving the taste

  • Preserving or retaining freshness

  • Boosting the nutritional value

  • Making food processing or preparation easier

  • Helping to ensure a safe food supply

Appearance and taste are often improved through the use of coloring agents, natural or synthetic flavors (such as MSG - monosodium glutamate), sweeteners, syrups, seasonings, and herbs. Freshness and preservation are often accomplished with the addition of nitrites and sodium nitrates. The nutritional value is often improved by adding vitamins, minerals, and natural ingredients containing added nutritional elements. Food processing or preparation is enhanced with a variety of ingredients, such as yeast for baked foods, humectants to preserve moisture, and thickeners to improve texture.

In processed food, the most used additives by weight are not the unusual chemical substances that consumers often find on ingredient listings, but items that are readily available to the consumer and commonly used in cooking. These additives include corn syrup, baking soda, spices, salt, sugar, and food coloring.

Testing and Approval

Although the benefits of food additives are numerous, the additives must be proven safe for human consumption. Manufacturers of food additives subject the substances to rigorous testing before they can ever be approved for use. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is responsible for approving additives after reviewing the manufacturers exhaustive test results, which may have included comprehensive chemical analysis and testing on animals to determine if the additive has any far-reaching human health implications.

Some food additives have not undergone the extensive testing process that most additives are subject to. This is because these additives were first used in food many years ago, prior to the establishment of mandatory testing procedures, and have never had harmful effects on humans. These additives are classified as GRAS or Generally Recognized As Safe.

Another group of additives that have been used for decades, without any apparent ill effects, were first approved by the FDA or USDA prior to 1958 when testing procedures were not the same as current measures. Therefore, even though these substances are still used in foods, a review of these additives is ongoing in order to absolutely verify their safety according to current scientific testing.

Food Coloring

Chemical Colorings

One of the largest groups of food additives is food coloring, which is composed of a chemical or natural substance that is used to enhance or alter the color of a processed food. Many food manufacturers, chefs, and food preparers use color additives to give foods, such as baked goods, cereals, condiments, desserts, dairy products, confections, and many others, a more attractive appearance.

Food coloring may be in the form of a dye or pigment or any other substance used for the specific purpose of altering the appearance of food. In the United States, food coloring substances must be approved (certified) for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Nine color additives have been approved by the FDA for use in the United States:

  • Red = three shades
  • Blue = two shades
  • Yellow = two shades
  • Green = one shade
  • Orange = one shade

The color additives are identified as either a "dye" or a "lake". Dyes may be in the form of powders, liquids, granules, or other substances that can be dissolved with water or liquids during food processing. Dyes are the most common variety of food coloring used in homes for altering the color of foods being prepared.

Lake additives are not dissolvable in water and are therefore, most often used for products lacking moisture. Oils and fat-base products such as cake mixes, candies, and chewing gums are examples of foods requiring lake additives.

Natural Colorings

Foods can also be colored with natural additives rather than chemical additives. Natural food coloring additives do not require certification from the FDA. Examples of natural coloring agents are shown below.

Natural coloring is provided when heavily pigmented berries, such as blueberries, are pureed or juiced and are then added to foods.
The juices of fruits and vegetables are excellent coloring agents when stirred into other ingredients or added to beverages.
Brightly colored spices, such as saffron or turmeric, can be blended with foods to provide rich colors and distinctive flavors.
When sugar is heated, it caramelizes, producing a pleasing golden color, which is used to flavor and color desserts and sauces.

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