There’s been a scare in the mainstream media about GMOs, preservatives and additives to our food. If you search online, you see celebrities promoting their all-natural, organic diets, and let’s be honest: These celebrities have never looked better. If we see social media influencers and TV personalities looking and feeling great on an additive-free diets, why wouldn’t we follow suit?

Grocery stores all over the country advertise their all-natural, organic and clean foods too. They’re the experts in grocery, right? Shouldn’t we take their word that organic, clean and all-natural foods are better? Let’s take a closer look at food additives to see how they affect our health.

What are food additives?

 Food additives are ingredients added to foods. The FDA regulates every food additive. Food additives range from the addition of salt to the addition of a completely synthetic compound.

What are food additives used for?

Food additives have been used for centuries for a variety of reasons. Typically food additives serve a key role in how we taste, use or get nutrition from the food.


  • Preservation: Food additives can be used to extend the shelf life of foods. This allows the food to be packaged, transported and sold across the country when it would otherwise spoil. Common additives: salt, vinegar, alcohol, sugar, nitrites, BHA, BHT, citric acid, calcium propionate.
  • Quality control: Food additives are also used to enhance the flavor, color or consistency of the food. They are also used to improve the nutritional quality of the food. You may see “enriched” or “fortified” on the label. This means that a certain nutrient was added to give you more nutrition. Common additives: vitamin D, vitamin A, colorings.
  • Anti-caking agents: These types of food additives prevent powders and granulated foods from clumping. Especially when baking, you need to make sure your powdered sugar or flour sifts easily! Common additives: cornstarch, silicon dioxide, magnesium carbonate, magnesium silicate, iron ammonium citrate.
  • Emulsifiers: Emulsifiers are agents that help combine water and oil for cooking. Emulsifiers are used in products like mayonnaise for smoothness; otherwise the oil and water would separate into chunks. Yuck! Common additives: lecithin, honey, mustard, soy lecithin, monoglyceride, polyglycerol ester, sorbitan ester, palm oil, soybean oil.
  • Humectants: Humectants prevent excessive moisture from forming in a food item. Preventing moisture in certain food items is helpful for shelf life and inhibiting mold. Common additives: mannitol, sugar, salt, glycerin, honey, egg yolk, egg white, lactic acid.
  • pH control: Additives that are used to maintain pH levels can be found in things like brined or pickled foods. These are used for preservation and flavor. Alkaline additives are found in bread products to prevent an acidic flavor. Common additives: acetic acid, vinegar, citric acids, sodium lactacte, baking soda, sodium hydroxide.
  • Texture and cooking methods: Many food additives create well-known textures to the foods we love. They also are essential for certain cooking techniques that we rely on. Leavening, stabilizing, gelling and thickening are all created by food additives. Common additives: sorbitan monostearate, yeast, pectin, gelatin, carrageenan.
  • Prevention of foodborne illness: Food has the potential to spoil via mold, pest contamination, timing and other risks. Food additives are added to reduce the risk of moisture, bacterial growth and contamination to keep us healthy. Common additives: sodium nitrite, humectant-additives, preservation-additives.

Are food additives harmful?

Per the FDA, current food additives are safe to consume. Some food additives may cause distress to some people, however. Wondering if you have a food intolerance to a food additive? Your local registered dietitian can help guide you through understanding your specific food-related symptoms. Along with your registered dietitian, you can look into a food intolerance test and determine if it is appropriate for you. You can use the results as a starting point in identifying your tolerance of food additives.