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Food additives: what they are, what types there are, and effects on health

Food additives: what they are, what types there are, and effects on health

May 10, 2021

Surely a large part of the population will have heard about the presence of food additives in food that we buy, especially in the precooked or packaged, being frequent that they try to avoid its consumption when relating to something negative.

On the other hand, it is known that although there are large economic interests behind and are not entirely healthy if they are accumulated, they also have their role in maintaining food preservation. There is a lot of controversy with these products.

What are food additives, what are they used for and what are their effects on us? It is on this subject that we are going to talk about throughout this article.


  • Related article: "What is the difference between food and nutrition?"

Food additives: what are they and what are they for?

They receive the name of food additives to the set of substances which are not part of the food naturally and are added to them in order to add, enhance or modify any of its characteristics , without adding or removing any of the nutritional properties of the food in question.

Generally, the main objective of adding this type of product is to favor its conservation as long as possible, or to enhance the flavor. But it also has a sanitary sense, since food in poor condition can suffer alterations and breeding bacteria, fungi and other substances dangerous to health.


Although when we speak of food additives we generally think of synthesized products, the truth is that throughout history mankind has used salt, sugar or sulfur dioxide for this purpose. Or, even, it has generated procedures such as smoking that allows the preservation of food. But little by little new ones have been generated for the purpose of increase the time that food is preserved , enhance the aroma, appearance or taste or reduce the cost of manufacturing processes.

Its main types

When we talk about food additives, we are not talking about something homogeneous, but a series of elements that are added to food but in reality can be grouped into different types of food additives with different properties or objectives. Thus, we can find some of the following types of food additive.


1. Preservatives

Probably the best-known group of food additives and whose function makes the most sense, preservatives are those products that are used for the purpose of avoid deterioration of food due to the activity of microorganisms . Among them we can find sorbic or benzoic acid, but also controversial compounds such as nitrates in marinated and sausages.

2. Flavorings

Food additives are added as flavorings that are added in order to improve the aroma and flavor of food .

Generally, products of plant origin or products that imitate their aroma, including nuts, form part of this group. They are usually found in sweets, pastries, wines or cereals. Elements such as sugar could also be considered flavorings, although they do not receive such consideration at the legal level.

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3. Dyes

The dyes are a group of food additives, which can be natural or synthetic, whose main function is to improve the visual appearance of food. Thus, its use is aimed at giving more color to the product. We have an example in saffron or chlorophyll or in the case of synthetic erythrosine or tartrazine. However, it must be taken into account that Many of these products can contribute to generate some health problems .

4. Antioxidants

While many foods contain natural antioxidants, It is common to find that in many foods they are added synthetically in order to prevent food from rusting and getting bad, as well as getting bad look and taste.

The main objective is to prevent food fats from oxidizing and getting lost. They can be either elements that directly eliminate oxidizing substances from the food or substances that favor and potentiate the natural antioxidants already present in the food itself. An example is found in L-ascorbic acid , usually in fruit and in packed, lactic acid and citric acid.

5. Stabilizers, thickeners, gelling agents and emulsifiers

Although each of these names refers to a type of additive, they all share the fact that its use is based on altering the texture and composition of the food, allowing the generation of very varied products that are very different in the mouth despite have the same origin They allow us to give more consistency to a liquid food, as well as generate gels and emulsions . Now, most are not digestible per se. Examples of this are found in pectins or sorbitol.

6. Acidulants

Another type of food additive classified by the World Health Organization is acidulants. These products have as their main objective the regulate the level of acidity of the food, or change the taste of the product . It is typical of soft drinks, in which sulfates such as sodium or calcium are used.

7. Flavor Enhancers

We call flavor enhancers to that set of substances that allow to increase the perception of the flavor of the food in which they are added, in principle without the enhancer having its own flavor . The best known is L-glutamic acid, which in high concentrations is responsible for the umami flavor.

8. Sweeteners

Along with preservatives and dyes, sweeteners are the best known food additives, and perhaps those that are most used by the end consumer on a day-to-day basis, regardless of whether or not the chosen food carries it.

Sweeteners are a set of substances that are added to food in order to provide a sweeter flavor . Generally, these are products that have been created to replace the use of sugars, which is essential for people with certain diseases. Saccharin and aspartame are the best known, along with stevia (this part of a natural product) and glycyrrhine.

9. Modified starches

This type of additive is characterized by being based on the properties of the starch to elaborate additives with binding properties, that is to say that they are used to achieve unite and hold together two or more types of food that by themselves would not get mixed .

10. Enzyme preparations

This type of food additive is a preparation based on natural proteins that aims to generate biochemical reactions in food, trying to replace those procedures that would require the use of chemical substances to be performed. Typical of the preparation of cakes, fermented products or fruits . Also, it is possible that the preparation is not included in the final product that comes to the table.

Effects on health

As we have seen, food additives are considered useful products and are used in order to preserve or try to improve the final product, or reduce the cost of their production. But although we usually consume additives constantly, the truth is that many of them have been under investigation because in high proportions and with a habitual consumption it is possible that they favor the appearance of different health problems or even that they become directly toxic.

Among the different problems that can cause, we can find that some additives can generate allergic reactions in some people, as well as the possibility that they make more difficult the digestion of the food, problems of absorption, alterations of the excretion or can become difficult or destroy some beneficial components of the food to which they are added.

Also, in some cases they have been associated with difficulties in the transport of oxygen in blood , for teratogenic effects that may harm fetuses of pregnant women or even in some cases to an increase in the probability of suffering from cancer, as is the case, for example, with nitrates. It should also be borne in mind that some of them are known for short-term effects, but the data on possible long-term effects are unknown or not clear at all.

Despite this, it has to be said that there are several organizations that evaluate the level of toxicity of food additives and regulate their presence in foods in order to reduce and try to eliminate risks. Among other actions can regulate the levels of additives used, or in the case that one in particular is particularly dangerous to even prohibit their use. Even so, it may be useful to assess the type of elements that are part of the food we eat.

Bibliographic references:

  • Ibáñez, F.C .; Torre, P. and Irigoyen A. (2003). Food Additives. Public University of Navarra.
  • World Health Organization. (2018). Food Additives. WHO [Online]. Available at: //www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-additives.

Health effects of food additives (May 2021).


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