Additives and Preservatives in Food

Food additives and preservatives are nothing new. For thousands of years, people have used spices, salt, sugar, and vinegar to preserve food or improve its taste and appearance.

Of course, not all additives and preservatives are safe. In the early 20th century, food processors put formaldehyde and borax in food to disguise unclean practices. Yuck! Find out about today’s food additives.


Fun Facts

  • Food additives are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regularly tests them for safety. Sometimes new research will show that a previously used additive is not safe and should be banned.
  • Additives are generally used for three reasons: to preserve food and prevent harmful contamination; to improve food’s taste, texture, or appearance; and to improve food’s nutritional value.
  • Additives, such as xanthum gum, are used to thicken foods or prevent them from clumping.
  • Many foods, especially cereal, are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals that might be lacking in our diets. Orange juice, for example, is sometimes fortified with calcium, an important mineral for healthy bones.
  • Some people are sensitive to food dyes. Many of these dyes have been banned over the years.
  • Ingredient labels are sometimes filled with unrecognizable words that read like a chemist’s grocery list. Ascorbic acid, citric acid, and sodium nitrate, for example, are preservatives. Soy lecithin and polysorbate are are emulsifiers. They keep food stable.
  • Some food additives are natural, which means they’re found in nature; other additives are made in a chemist’s lab.


Questions and Answers

Question: Are additives and preservatives harmful?

Answer: Some additives, such as monosodium glutamate, sodium benzoate, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrup may have the potential to cause or exacerbate health problems, such as cancer, asthma, and infertility. Some additives that are legal in the U.S. have been banned in Europe.

Your best bet: eat a variety of foods and choose foods with minimal processing, e.g., fruits, vegetables, rice, whole grains, organic meats, and organic dairy products.

Learn More

Watch a video about food additives.