What Types of Food Additives are There?

It's very difficult to completely avoid the intake of food additives. However, sometimes moderating their consumption can bring beneficial health effects. We'll tell you about the types of food additives that are most common in the food industry.
What Types of Food Additives are There?
Saúl Sánchez Arias

Written and verified by the nutritionist Saúl Sánchez Arias.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Food additives are a series of substances that the food industry uses to enhance the characteristics of food or to improve its conservation. Although most of them are safe for health, some of them generate discrepancies among experts. Before starting, it’s necessary to understand that there are different types of food additives, so they’re classified into groups.

Some are harmless to the body or even beneficial. This is the case of gelling agents. Others, however, are controversial because of their effects on the intestinal microbiota. In this case, we’re talking about sweeteners.

Types of food additives

We’ll review the main categories of food additives and their effects on human health.

1. Types of food additives: Preservatives

Preservatives are substances that manage to reduce the microbiological risk of foods, thus increasing their shelf life. Many of them are harmless to humans, as we don’t metabolize or absorb them at the intestinal level.

However, one of the most common types of food additives, nitrites, increase the incidence of some forms of cancer. Research that appeared in the journal Nutrients provides evidence for this claim.

The meat industry uses these preservatives, and they’re the main reason why experts discourage the consumption of processed red meat. This type of food has been associated with a worse state of health due, among other additives, to the presence of nitrites.

Different cuts of read meat.
Processed red meat contains nitrites, which are linked to medium-term health damage.

2. Aromatizers

Aromatizers are substances that are responsible, as their name suggests, for modifying or enhancing the smell of food. As a general rule, they’re harmless to health, beyond any intestinal disorder that you may experience due to overconsumption.

The most common in this type of situation would be diarrhea. However, in the long term, they’re not harmful or, at least, scientific literature has yet to provide any evidence of they’re being so.

3. Types of food additives: Dyes

These types of food additives are used to provide color. Certain colorants have been banned because of their relationship with the appearance of some types of cancer.

However, nowadays, the food industry uses a lot of pigments to provide flavors. Not only do these pigments not produce negative effects, but they also help prevent the development of diseases. A clear case would be the anthocyanins, responsible for the color of blueberries and capable of exerting an antioxidant effect. This, according to a study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

When reading food labels, it’s important to pay attention to the declaration of food additives. If natural colors (especially phytonutrients from plants) are used, then you shouldn’t consider the product to be harmful unless some other substance in its composition indicates otherwise.

4. Sweeteners

This group is the most controversial among nutrition experts. Sweeteners are substances with a sweetening capacity that substitute sugar. However, the jury’s still out regarding whether or not they’re much better than sugar itself. In this group, saccharine, stevia, sucralose, and aspartame stand out.

Some people claim that our bodies don’t metabolize many of these chemicals at the intestinal level. However, most studies show negative effects on intestinal microbiota. Indeed, the results can’t be directly extrapolated, but it’s also true that there are no long-term trials to confirm their safety.

You may also be interested: Can Artificial Sweeteners Fight Obesity?

5. Flavor enhancers

Among flavor enhancers are a series of food additives that improve the organoleptic characteristics of food products. One of the most important of these is monosodium glutamate, which is responsible for the recently identified umami taste and is present, above all, in oriental cuisine.

Many industrial products contain these types of food additives as they manage to improve the acceptance of foods and increase their palatability. They’re not, a priori, harmful to health. One should only be careful with excessive doses of salt.

6. Stabilizers, gelling agents, emulsifiers

These types of food additives are in charge of improving the texture of food. They don’t have negative effects on the human organism, but rather the opposite.

Some of the products that fall into this category have properties that stimulate the intestinal microbiota, improving its functions. This is the case, for example, of agar algae.

The regular consumption of this class of gelling agents achieves a fermentation at an intestinal level that promotes the growth of the bacteria that colonize the intestine. This process can improve the metabolism of nutrients, thus reducing the risk of obesity and metabolic diseases. Research published in the journal Gut Microbes provides evidence of the same.

Agar is a beneficial food additive.
Agar agar is an additive beneficial to health.

7. Modified starches

Starches stand out because they’re used in bakery products to provide better elastic qualities to food and dough. They consist of a mixture of polysaccharides, which makes them carbohydrates. In and of themselves, they’re not harmful to the body.

For sedentary individuals, an excessive intake of dietary carbohydrates isn’t beneficial. This isn’t the case for athletes, who must satisfy their carbohydrate requirements to replenish the glycogen reserves they use during exercise.

However, subjecting modified starches to high temperatures generates several toxic waste products, such as acrylamide. Research has shown that these are harmful to health.

8. Acidulants

The food industry also uses acidulants to enhance the taste of food. Sodium sulfate and potassium sulfate are the most important. They don’t cause undesirable effects in the body, as long as you don’t exceed the stipulated doses.

Otherwise, they could generate a significant laxative symptom. This happens, for example, when a person consumes an excessive amount of candies or chewing gum.

9. With enzymes

Enzymes are typical of foods for people with intolerances or products generated by the dietary supplement industry. The most common case is that of lactose-intolerant patients, as the presence of the enzyme lactase helps them metabolize this sugar.

It’s also common to find protein isolates or concentrates with digestive enzymes to improve the digestion of nutrients and prevent the formation of gas. Enzymes are not harmful to health and experts consider their use to be safe.

10. Antioxidants

Antioxidants are food additives that block or delay the oxidation of foods, thus increasing their shelf life. This function is performed, for example, by ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Its use prevents the rancidity of fruits, such as avocado or apple. What’s more, its inclusion in the diet has a positive impact on the functioning of the immune system. In fact, increasing vitamin C intake has been shown to reduce the duration of colds.

General functions of food additives

Now, we’re going to comment on the main functions of additives, so that you can understand why their use is so frequent.

They preserve the nutritional value of foods

Many of the substances that the food industry uses are intended to preserve the nutritional value of products. In this way, avoiding oxidation produces greater conservation of vitamins, by reducing their contact with oxygen.

They preserve the healthiness of the food

Preservatives manage to increase the shelf life of food, thus improving its conservation and reducing the risk of contamination with microorganisms. In this way, they protect our health by reducing the risk of intoxication.

They provide the pH balance in foods and supply fermentation

Many of the food additives that the food industry uses manage to guarantee the acid-base balance of products, thus achieving better conservation of them. Also, gelling agents or stabilizers can lead to more efficient fermentation, giving added value to foods thanks to the proliferation of beneficial bacteria.

They add more color and flavor to the food

This is one of the reasons why the food industry uses additives. The fact that they improve the organoleptic characteristics of food manages to significantly increase sales. And this, in turn, generates a positive impact on companies. However, it’s necessary to ensure that this doesn’t constitute a risk to human health… Something that’s doesn’t always occur.

They improve the texture and consistency of food

You’ve probably wondered why the texture of ultra-processed products is always perfect and different from that of homemade products. It is, without a doubt, due to the presence of food additives in their composition.

This kind of substance manages to compact the ingredients and give the mixtures a greater sponginess or gumminess, which affects your experience when tasting them.

A tray of salame meats with many types of food additives
The ultraprocessed ones have a particular appearance due to the food additives that enhance colors and textures.

Side effects of food additives

Although food additives have a framework of application and a specific purpose, they’re not always safe for your health. Especially in the case of excessive consumption, as they generate a series of side effects. This is why it’s not advisable to ingest them in large quantities.

It’s important to be careful with preservatives such as nitrites and artificial sweeteners. The latter’s capable of generating modifications in the populations of bacteria that live in the intestine, which impacts the metabolism of nutrients and digestion.

Food additives: They’re almost always present

It’s important to note that food additives are present in almost any diet today. Avoiding their consumption is difficult and, perhaps, doing so wouldn’t even be advisable if it were possible. It’s important to moderate their intake, although not always in the same way.

Remember that the basis of a healthy diet is variety and the predominance of fresh products as opposed to ultra-processed ones. Also, it must be balanced from the caloric point of view to prevent weight gain.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.