Purdue University

Cooperative Extension Service

West Lafayette, Indiana 47907

What Are All Those Chemicals in My Food?

Wilella Daniels Burgess and April C. Mason
Extension Specialists, Foods and Nutrition
School of Consumer and Family Sciences, Purdue University

We often think of food additives as complex chemical substances produced by our modern society. However, the use of food additives dates to ancient times. Early people used salt to preserve meat and fish, herbs and cucumbers.

Today American food manufacturers use nearly 3000 direct food additives. Some of these additives sound familiar like salt, sugar, yeast, and vanilla. Others have complex scientific names that may sound foreign, like ascorbic acid, butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA), sodium benzoate, sodium erythorbate, and carageenan. Whether familiar or not, all food additives serve a useful function and must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

What are food additives?

A food additive is any substance that becomes part of a food product either directly or indirectly during some phase of processing, storing, or packaging. They can either be derived from naturally occurring or synthetic materials. Direct additives are purposefully added to food to serve a specific function. Indirect additives become part of food in very small quantities as a result of growing, processing, or packaging.

Food additives can only be used for specific purposes. They must serve a useful function. Manufacturers cannot use additives to deceive the consumer by disguising faulty processing or concealing damage or spoilage. Nor can food additives be used if they significantly decrease the nutritional value of the food, or if the manufacturer can obtain the desired effect using economical, good manufacturing practices without additives.

Why are food additives used?

Food additives perform a number of functions in food. In general, they can be divided into the following five categories:

Preservatives--help to keep food fresh and prevent spoilage by control-ling bacteria, mold, fungi, yeast, or chemical changes.

Nutrients--maintain or improve the nutritional quality of food. For example, vitamins and minerals are added to many common foods like milk, flour, cereal, and margarine to make up for those likely to be lacking in a person's diet or lost in food processing.

Processing Aids--make products more pleasing by improving the consistency, providing body, adding stability, helping oil and water mix, retaining moisture, or preventing lumping.

Flavors--complement, magnify, or modify the taste and aroma of a food. These can include spices, flavor enhancers, natural and synthetic flavors, and sweeteners.

Colors--give foods a desired, appetizing, or characteristic color.

Using food additives enables manufacturers to produce and distribute convenience foods with increased shelf lives and decreased waste. Stabilizers and preservatives make it possible to ship a wide variety of foods all over the world. Nutrient supplementation and enrichment, such as adding iodine to salt, help the nutritional status of those who might not otherwise obtain certain nutrients. Food additives increase the availability, quality, and safety of foods while keeping costs low.

How are food additives regulated?

Food additives are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the authority of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and amendments in 1958 and 1960. These amendments include the Delaney Clause which prohibits the approval of an additive if it is shown to cause cancer in humans or animals.

Before using a new food or color additive, a manufacturer must petition the FDA for approval. As part of the petition, the manufacturer must prove that the additive does what it is intended to do, and is not harmful to humans at the expected level of consumption.

The FDA determines, based on the best scientific data available, if the additive is safe under the proposed conditions of use. If the FDA approves an additive, it issues regulations that may include:

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) must also authorize additives that are proposed for use in meat and poultry products. After approving a new additive, government officials monitor consumption and keep track of any new research on its safety. The FDA also operates an Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARS) to investigate complaints from consumers, physicians, or food companies regarding food additives. The ARS database helps officials track complaints and determine if a reported adverse reaction represents a real public health hazard associated with food.

There are two categories of food additives that are not subject to the testing and approval process, ``prior sanctioned'' and ``GRAS'' substances. Substances designated as ``prior sanctioned'' were approved by the FDA before the 1958 Food Additives Amendment. GRAS additives (Generally Recognized As Safe) have been extensively used in the past with no known harmful effect and are believed to be safe. Substances on the GRAS list have been under review since 1969 to insure their safety.

Common Food Additives

Benzoates (inhibit microorganisms)
BHT, BHA (antioxidants)
Calcium Propionate (inhibit molds)
Citric Acid (antioxidant)
Potassium Sorbate (inhibits yeasts/molds)
Sodium Bisulfate (prevents discoloration)
Sodium Erythorbate (antioxidant)
Sodium Nitrate (inhibits microorganisms/fixes color)
Sodium Nitrite (inhibits microorgansisms/fixes color)
Sulfur Dioxide (prevents discoloration)

Processing Aids
Acacia (stabilizer/thickener)
Acetic Acid (vinegar)
Agar (stabilizer/thickener)
Algin (stabilizer/thickener)
Aluminum Calcium Silicate (anticaking agent)
Ammonium Chloride (dough conditioner)
Benzoyl Peroxide (flour treating agent)
Calcium Silicate (anticaking agent)
Carrageenan (emulsifier, stabilizer/thickener)
Diammonium Phospate (pH control, leavening agent, dough conditioner)
Diglyceride (emulsifier)
EDTA (antioxidant, sequestrant)
Glycerol Monostearate (humectant)
Propylene Glycol (emulsifier, humectant, stabilizer/thickener, texturizer)
Silicon Dioxide (anticaking agent)
Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (leavening agent)

Alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E)
Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
Beta Carotene (Vitamin A)
Biotin (a B Vitamin)
Calcium Pantothenate (calcium)
Ferric Orthophosphate (iron)
Ferric Sodium Pyrophosphate (iron)
Ferrous Fumarate (iron)
Folic Acid (Vitamin)
Niacin (a B Vitamin)
Potassium Iodide (iodine)
Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6)
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
Thiamine Hydrocloride (a B Vitamin)
Zinc Gluconate (zinc)

Aspartame (nutritive sweetener)
Autolyzed Yeast (flavor enhancer)
Corn Syrup (flavoring agent)
Disodium Guanylate (flavor enhancer)
Disodium Inosinate (flavor adjuvant)
Ethyl Vanillin (flavor)
Glycine (flavor)
Mannitol (nutritive sweetener)
Monosodium Glutamate (flavor enhancer)
Potassium Glutamate (flavor enhancer)
Saccharin (nonnutritive sweetener)
Sodium Chloride (salt)
Sorbitol (nutritive sweetener)
Sucrose (table sugar)
Vanilla (flavoring agent)
Xylitol (nutritive sweetener)

Annatto Extract (yellow - reddish orange)
Beta-apo-8' Carotenal (orange)
Caramel (brown)
Citrus Red No. 2 (red)
Cochineal (red)
Corn Endosperm Oil (reddish-brown)
FD & C Blue No. 1 (blue)
FD & C Red No. 3 (red)
FD & C Red No. 40 (red)
FD & C Yellow No. 5 (yellow)
Ferrous Gluconate (black)
Tagetes (Aztec marigold)
Titanium Dioxide (white)
& Tumeric (yellow)

Are food additives safe?

Both the government and the food industry are constantly studying the effects of food additives on health. In the levels commonly used, food additives are safe for the vast majority of people. However, just as some people are allergic to certain foods like eggs or wheat, a small percentage of the population may have a reaction to specific food additives. Only a certified specialist can tell you if you are allergic to a substance in food. Reading food labels and requesting additional information from manufacturers should help you avoid substances or foods to which you are sensitive.


Food additives provide Americans with a wide range of attractive and tasty foods that can be stored for extended periods of time. Additives also make possible convenience foods that can be rapidly and easily prepared. In the quantities used, food additives are safe for most people. Product labels list most of the food additives present. Thus, people with sensitivities to specific additives can usually avoid problems by carefully checking the packaging. Some food additives could be eliminated, but we would have to make sacrifices in the quality, quantity, availability, and price of our food.


Andrews, S. L. and Mason, A. C. 1987. ``Food Additives.'' CES Paper No. 194. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, West Lafayette, IN.

Igoe, R. S. 1989. Dictionary of Food Ingredients, 2nd edition. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, N.Y.

Lewis, R.J. 1989. Food Additives Handbook. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, N.Y.

Middlekauff, R.D. 1989. ``Regulating the safety of food.'' Food Technology, 43(9):296-307.

Strauss, D.M. 1987. ``Reaffirming the Delaney anticancer clause: The legal and policy implications of an administratively created de minimus exception.'' Food Drug Cosmetic Law Journal, 40; 393-428.

Taylor, M.R. 1985. ``Federal preemption and food regulation: Where do we go from here?'' Food Drug Cosmetic Law Journal,40:221-228.

Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue University. 1992. HE-621 Producer Through Consumer: Partners to a Safe Food Supply (Reference Manual). Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907.

Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, State of Indiana, Purdue University and U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperating. H.A. Wadsworth, Director, West Lafayette, IN. Issued in furtherance of the Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. It is the policy of the Cooperative Extension Service of Purdue University that all persons shall have equal opportunity and access to our programs and facilities.

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West Lafayette, Indiana 47907