All you Need to Know About Food Additives

Dyes, aromas and antioxidants are all food additives. Do you know what they're used for and how good or bad they are for your health?
All you Need to Know About Food Additives

Last update: 09 October, 2019

Throughout history, humans have designed methods to preserve food for longer periods of time using preservatives such as salt.  However, nowadays, the food industry uses food additives not only to extend shelf life but also for many different reasons.

What are food additives?

A food additive is any substance that’s intentionally added to food and beverages in minimal quantities. It may be used to modify organoleptic characteristics or for technical reasons when it comes to manufacturing, transforming, preparing, treating, packaging, transporting and storing foods. According to the CAE  the body that regulated additives in Spain– additives can only be used if:

  • There is a manifest need and it represents an obvious improvement.
  • If proof demonstrates that the additive is harmless.
  • If they reach purity standards.
  • They must be identifiable by simple analytic methods.

The use of additives is prohibited if there’s the possibility that it can have the same effect as other methods. In addition, they are prohibited if they can deceive the consumer by masking the true quality of the food or if they decrease nutritional value.

Thanks to the rigorous controls, food additives are typically safe. The labeling of these substances is regulated by the European Union in Europe.

Functions of food additives

The following are the main functions of food additives:

  • Ensure safety and health.
  • Increase product stability.
  • Make possible the availability of carbon oxide-free foods.
  • Ensure or maintain the nutritional value of foods.
  • Boost consumer acceptance.
  • Assist in the manufacture, transformation, preparation, transport, and storage of food.
  • Provide homogeneity.
Junk food

Why use food additives?

The food industry enjoys benefits as they improve shelf life.

When it comes to perishables, they’re able to slow down or curb adverse reactions that decrease the safety and nutritional value of food. In addition, they also improve the sensory characteristics of certain foods, making them more palatable.

Types of food additives

In general, additives can be classified depending on the functions that they perform. The following are a few examples of classifications:

  • Those that prevent biological chemical alterations. Antioxidants and preservatives.
  • Stabilizing substances of physical characteristics such as emulsifiers, thickeners, gelling agents, de-foamers, anti-caking agents, moisturizers and pH regulators.
  • Additives that correct plastic qualities, such as bread improvers, wine-making correctors and ripening agents.
  • Organoleptic character modifiers, such as dyes, flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, and aromas.

Categories of food additives


Dyes can be of natural or artificial origin. Their sole purpose is to dye food, that is, to give it an attractive color that it naturally lacks.


These additives prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi, and yeast, as a result, their use may be justified. However, we should keep in mind that preservatives should never be used as a remedy to the risks of neglected industrial treatments or to mask poor quality raw materials.


They prevent the oxidation of fats that may occur due to heat, light or metals. In order words, they prevent the formation of toxic compounds and in addition, they prevent the appearance of odors and strange flavors. They are usually used in margarine, pastries, bread, and melted cheeses.

Examples of antioxidants include tocopherols and vitamin E which are harmless and others such as butylhydroxytoluene (BHT) which has not been proven to be risk-free.

Milk and cheese

Stabilizers and emulsifiers

They are used to improve the texture of products or to thicken, stabilize and to prevent grouping and liquefying. Sometimes they may have a deceptive effect: for example, they are used to give a creaminess to mayonnaise instead of emulsifying it with eggs to make the product cheaper. They are also used to replace the fat in margarine.


Its sweetening power is much more intense than that of sugar, therefore, it can have the same effect with less quantity used. This also reduces the number of calories in the end product.

In principle, the law only allows them to be used in foods without added sugar or in products that are advertised as “low energy”. This is intended to prevent them from being used as cheap sugar substitutes.

Flavor enhances

Flavor enhancers can be a bit deceptive, they are used to increase the taste of products that are tasteless due to the lack of certain ingredients. In other words, they mask the lack of real taste of products.

Although this should be considered inadmissible, they are used quite frequently, especially in soups and broths. They can also be used in meat products and sausages. Flavor enhancers such as glutamates can cause reactions in sensitive people.


Aromas are perhaps the most used additives in the food industry and, for some strange reason, manufacturers are exempt from identifying them by codes.

In many cases, only the manufacturers know the composition of their aromas. There are natural, artificial and ‘identical to natural aromas’. The latter has a chemical composition that makes them equal to natural aromas.

The fact that they are ‘natural’ doesn’t imply that they’re harmless. There are some aromas that are derived from plants that are considered carcinogenic and strictly prohibited. Anyway, don’t be alarmed, they’re used in very small quantities.

Additive-free products

In Spain, certain foods can’t contain additives. These include:

  • Milk
  • Dried pasta
  • Nuts
  • Virgin vegetable oil
  • Mineral and spring water
  • Natural yogurt
  • Certain types of rice
  • Eggs
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Fresh mushrooms
  • Acidic cream
  • Cereals
  • Seeds
  • Honey
  • Coffee powder
  • Kefir without fruit
  • Cereal flakes
  • Fresh potatoes
  • Fresh fruit
  • Legumes

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that there are websites like this one where you can check to find the toxicity of different kinds of additives. The sites can be a valuable source of information to find out what’s in your food.

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  • Real Decreto 3177/1983, de 16 de noviembre, por el que se aprueba la reglamentación técnico sanitario de aditivos alimentarios. BOE núm. 310, de 28 de diciembre de 1983.
  • Real Decreto 1339/1988, de 28 de octubre, por el que se modifica la Reglamentación Técnico-Sanitaria de Aditivos Alimentarios, aprobada por el Real Decreto 3177/1983, de 16 de noviembre. BOE núm. 270, de 10 de noviembre de 1988.
  • Real Decreto 1111/1991, de 12 de julio, por el que se modifica la Reglamentación Técnico-Sanitaria de Aditivos Alimentarios, aprobada por el Real Decreto 3177/1983, de 16 de noviembre, y modificada por el Real Decreto 1339/1988, de28 de octubre