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Facts on Food Additives



Have you ever wondered what carageenan, lecithin and xanthan gum are? These words are often in the ingredient list of pre-packaged foods and are called food additives. Many people try to limit eating foods with food additives. If you have questions about food additives and their role in the food supply, read on to get answers to commonly asked questions.





What is a food additive?

A food additive is any substance that is added to food in order to preserve it, maintain its quality or make it more appealing.


What are common types of food additives?

There are over 850 additives that are approved for use in Canada. Below are some examples of common food additives. 

Food Additive

Foods that may contain

the additive

Examples

Anti-caking agents:

allow powders to run freely

 

Salt, icing sugar and dried coffee crystals

Microcrystalline Cellulose

Silicon Dioxide

Tricalcium Phosphate

 

Colouring agents:

give foods a pleasing colour

 

Lollipops, pop, energy drinks, instant puddings and cake mixes

Citrus Red No. 2

Caramel

Tartrazine

 

Emulsifiers:

stop liquids from separating

 

Salad dressings, sauces and margarines

Lecithin

Mono- and diglycerides

Polysorbate

 

Gelling and thickening agents:

thicken foods to give texture and body

Instant puddings, yogurts, salad dressings, sauces and ice cream

Carageenan

Cellulose

Guar gum and Xanthan gum

 

Sweeteners:

sweeten food without adding calories

 

Diet pop, fat-reduced ice cream and sugar-free candies

Acesulfame-potassium

Aspartame

Mannitol, Sorbitol and Xylitol

 


Other food additives include antioxidants, anti-foaming agents, enzymes, firming agents, stabilizers, texture modifying agents and whipping agents. For a complete listing of food additives and their role in food manufacturing, view Health Canada’s Food Additive Dictionary.


Are food additives safe?

Health Canada checks food additives to make sure they are safe. Only additives that are approved can be used. These additives are thought to be safe in amounts that are usually eaten. Any new food additive is tested for safety before it is added to the approved list.


Do food additives make children hyperactive?

Some research says that certain preservatives like benzoic acid and food colourings like tartrazine may increase hyperactivity in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If your child has ADHD, keep a food diary. You can track what your child eats as well as his or her behaviour to see if food additives are causing symptoms. Preservatives like benzoic acid and food colourings should be avoided if they cause hyperactivity in a child with ADHD. However, not all children with ADHD react to food additives.


How can I limit food additives?

If you are concerned about food additives and would like to limit them, try the tips below:

  • Buy foods that are found around the outer edges of the grocery store. These foods are often fresh and unpackaged whole foods without additives.
  • Shop for foods like fresh vegetables and fruit, dried legumes, plain meats like lean chicken, beef, turkey and pork as well as milk, eggs and plain fresh or frozen fish.
  • Look for pre-packaged foods with few and simple ingredients like plain oatmeal, rice and pasta, plain grains like quinoa and buckwheat, pre-washed bagged salads and cut up vegetable and fruit trays.
  • Try some organic foods like organic cereal. Organic foods may still contain additives but often have less. 
  • Bake your own bread, cakes and muffins when you can.
  • Cook at home as often as you can with fresh ingredients! Try the delicious recipes available from EatRight Ontario.


A focus on preservatives

Preservatives are a type of food additive that are often used in pre-packaged foods. They prevent or delay food from spoiling due to bacteria, mould, enzymes or other substances. Common food additives include benzoic acid, calcium sorbate, propionic acid and sodium nitrite.

Preservatives are found in many different foods including:

  • ready-to-eat meals
  • frozen entrees
  • canned foods
  • bread
  • processed meat and
  • snack foods


How can I limit preservatives in particular?

When reading food packaging, look for the following claims. These claims are allowed as long as they are true and accurate. Keep in mind that other naturally occuring additives like salt or vinegar may still be present.

  • No preservatives
  • No preservatives added
  • No artificial preservatives
  • All natural ingredients

 


Take home message

Food additives are widely used in our food supply especially in pre-packaged foods like ready-to-eat meals, canned foods, frozen entrees, bread, processed meat and snack foods. They are used to preserve food, retain its nutrients and make food more appealing.

If you are trying to limit food additives, buy fresh, unpackaged foods, look for foods with a few simple ingredients, try organic foods and look for claims like “no preservatives.” Most importantly, cook and bake at home as often as you can!

If you have more questions or would like a handout about food additives, call an EatRight Ontario Registered Dietitian at 1-877-510-510-2 or send an email.  

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Dietitians of Canada acknowledges the financial support of EatRight Ontario by the Ontario government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.