Food preservatives and additives

Dear Alice,

Can you tell me what are the uses of artificial preservatives and additives? Also, can you tell me info on the different types of preservatives and additives and why food manufacturers use them? Can you give examples for those??

Thank you very much!!!


Dear Jeeeeaaan,

Food additives help maintain the freshness, appearance, and overall quality of food products. The most common food additives are used to improve the taste and flavor of foods, while other additives are widely used to ensure that foods remain safe during the journey from factories, industrial kitchens, and warehouses to shops and consumers. Without food additives, food would taste blander and would be at greater risk for spoiling — especially commercially-prepared foods that might need to travel long distances from growing to harvesting to arriving on the shelf at your local grocery store. These additives can be either synthetic substances or naturally derived from plants, animals, or minerals.

Food additives may be used in a variety of ways, including:

  • To enhance taste: Natural and artificial flavors, sweeteners, and spices may be used to add flavor to food.
  • To maintain consistency or texture: Emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners help to sustain smoothness or prevent the food from separating, caking, or clumping.
  • To improve appearance: Dyes, pigments, and other substances enhance colors that occur naturally or make colorless foods appear more “fun.”
  • To improve or retain nutritional value: Enrichment replaces nutrients from grains, vitamins, and minerals that are lost in the milling process. Fortification adds a nutrient that wasn't there before in order to address diet deficiencies. These processes have helped reduce malnutrition globally. For example, iodized salt has proven beneficial in preventing goiter, a thyroid disease caused by a deficiency in iodine.
  • To maintain freshness: Preservatives prevent food spoilage due to exposure to air, moisture, bacteria, or mold. Antioxidants, for example, can help prevent cut fresh fruits from turning brown and oils and fats from turning rancid.

The roles of food additives can be divided into three main categories: those that provide flavoring, enzymes that help with the process of food preparation by boosting biochemical reactions, and other additives that improve the final product such as preservation and coloring. Additives that are directly added to the food for a specific purpose are identified on the ingredient label. On the other hand, indirect food additives (trace amounts of an additive that wasn’t added directly to the food but rather lingers from packaging, storage, or other handling practices) aren't always included in the ingredient list but are usually disclosed. Both direct and indirect food additives are closely regulated to ensure consumer safety.

Humans have used additives for food preservation for thousands of years. Since ancient times, salt has been used to cure meats and fish, sugar to preserve fruits, and vinegar to pickle produce. Today, food additives are monitored and evaluated at both national and international levels. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates additives and preservatives used in domestic food products. At an international level, any additives used in foods that are traded across international borders are subject to regulation and approval by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), a partnership between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). For an additive to be approved for use, manufacturers must provide evidence that the additive is safe for human consumption, which is then evaluated by the regulatory agency. If the agency agrees that the additive poses a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers based on the best science available at that time, they will then determine an acceptable daily intake (ADI) — in other words, how much of that additive may be safely consumed per day — and set guidelines for the maximum use of that additive in foods and drinks. If a product is later deemed unsafe, national and international authorities can revoke its use and proceed with further testing to determine its safety.

Food additives in and of themselves don't connote something "bad." Some people see long, unfamiliar names of additives and think of them as complex chemical compounds that pose a threat to health. The reality is that every single food item, from apples to ice cream, is made up of chemical compounds, all of which are regulated by multiple organizations to ensure that they're safe to consume. For example, complex words such as ascorbic acid just refers to vitamin C, while alpha-tocopherol is actually vitamin E. These vitamins work as antioxidants to prevent spoilage, flavor changes, and loss of color caused by exposure to air. Lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, and polysorbate 60 and 80 are emulsifiers used to keep water and oil mixed together. They can be found in foods such as peanut butter, ice cream, whipped cream, and even baked goods. When making choices regarding additives in a food product, it may be useful to consult the list of over 3,000 FDA approved food additives, a complete and regularly updated guide. Another useful source describing many food additives and their uses can be found at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Hope this provides you with lots of useful information,

Last updated Dec 17, 2021
Originally published Apr 21, 2000