Updated 19th September 2023

Your comprehensive guide to food additives

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The ingredients lists on packaged foods often contain unfamiliar, exotic-sounding names. 

So, in this guide, we’ll cover some of the most common food additives. We'll explain what they are, why manufacturers use them, and whether there are any health concerns.

We’ll also link to more detailed information if you'd like to dig deeper.

Although we can't describe every food additive — there are just so many — we’ll outline the most common ones.

A quick note for readers outside of Europe: In the following lists, we’ll include E-numbers.

These are additive codes that food producers in the European Union use. For instance, E621 is monosodium glutamate (MSG), and E414 is gum Arabic. 

OK, let’s start with something sweet.

Added (hidden) sugars

Consuming excess sugar is associated with an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease

As we become increasingly aware of the negative health effects of added sugar, many of us try to avoid it as much as possible. 

However, food companies know that sugar is a cheap way to make something taste delicious. Added sugar can also improve texture, shelf life, and other properties of food.

So, some manufacturers use less obvious names to hide added sugar in the ingredients list and make their products seem more healthy than they are. This makes avoiding sugar much more challenging.

Some alternative names for sugar include:

  • high fructose corn syrup

  • agave nectar (or syrup)

  • blackstrap molasses

  • buttered syrup

  • cane juice crystals

  • carob syrup

  • Florida crystals

  • fruit juice concentrate

  • rapadura

  • sorghum syrup

  • sucanat

  • barley malt

  • dextrin

  • dextrose

  • diastatic malt

  • ethyl maltol

  • maltodextrin

  • maltose

  • D-ribose

  • galactose

For a deeper dive, we have an article on added sugars and where they’re hidden. In it, we also discuss current dietary guidelines for added sugar.

Food colorings

Manufacturers add food colorings to make their products look more appealing. 

You’ll find colorings in a wide range of foods, including candies, cakes, condiments, drinks, dressings, and desserts.

Sometimes, colorings appear in more surprising goods, like canned peas, sausage casings, and fruit cocktails.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves all color additives before they’re used. Part of the process involves defining the maximum amount that’s allowed in food.

And in the E.U., the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) makes these decisions.

Currently, there are nine FDA-approved color additives. Here they are with their alternative names:

  • Food, drug, and cosmetic (FD&C) blue no. 1: Brilliant blue, acid blue 9, E133.

  • FD&C blue no. 2: Indigo carmine, E132.

  • FD&C green no. 3: Fast green FCF, food green 3, green 1724, solid green FCF, C.I. 42053, E143. This is banned in the E.U.

  • Orange B: This dye is also banned in the E.U.

  • Citrus red no. 2: C.I. solvent red 80, C.I. 12156. This, too, is banned in the E.U.

  • FD&C red no. 3: Erythrosine. 

  • FD&C red no. 40: Allura red, E129. 

  • FD&C yellow no. 5: Tartrazine, E102, C.I. 19140.

  • FD&C yellow no. 6: Sunset yellow, orange yellow S, C.I. 15985.

The following are approved for use by EFSA but banned in the U.S.:

  • quinoline yellow WS: E104

  • carmoisine: E122

  • ponceau 4R: E124

  • patent blue V: E131

  • green S: E142

  • brilliant black BN: E151

  • brown HT: E155

Often, these names don’t appear on packages. The FDA allows manufacturers to simply state “artificial colors” or “artificial color added.” 

We have a guide to the differences between food in the United Kingdom and the U.S. if you'd like to learn more.

The health effects of some food dyes have been questioned over the years, despite the approval of official food safety bodies.

For instance, in the 1970s, scientists found that blue no. 1 might exacerbate asthma symptoms in some susceptible people. 

Also in the 70s, research found links between artificial colors and additives and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

However, more thorough studies in the following years and updated analyses couldn’t identify a strong effect. 

With that said, some researchers believe that artificial colors may still influence children’s behavior, regardless of whether it's related to ADHD.

Scientists are also looking into how our gut microbiomes might be involved in food dyes' relationship with health.

For instance, studies have shown that, although certain food colorants might not be classed as carcinogenic (cancer-causing), gut bacteria might break down these dyes into chemicals that are carcinogenic.

Overall, the evidence against food dyes has never been compelling enough.

But as the authors of one review explain, most of the research examines just one food colorant at a time.

Consuming many of these chemicals in combination over a lifetime may have a different effect.

Some products include pigments from natural sources. Here are some that the FDA have approved:

  • annatto extract: yellow

  • dehydrated beets: bluish-red to brown

  • caramel: yellow to tan

  • beta-carotene: yellow to orange

  • grape skin extract: red, green

We have an in-depth feature on food dyes if you’d like more details. It includes information about their links with hyperactivity, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and gut bacteria. 

We also have an interesting feature on how color influences the way we perceive food.

Flavorings: Natural and artificial

Flavorings and flavor enhancers are compounds that manufacturers add to make food taste better. 

The FDA differentiates between artificial and natural flavorings. The distinction is what you might expect:

  • Natural flavorings are derived from spices, plants, animal products, or other natural sources.

  • Artificial flavorings are not.

Although “natural” flavorings might sound more healthy, there’s no real difference between the two, in terms of health or safety. 

In some cases, food manufacturers can replicate natural flavorings precisely.

These clones of natural flavors are still referred to as “artificial” despite the fact that they are often identical to the natural version, and in some cases, more pure and better for the environment.

We won’t list all the flavorings that manufacturers use because they outnumber the stars in the sky. Well, almost. 

But in the U.S., manufacturers simply write “artificial flavorings” or “natural flavorings” on packaging.

And in the E.U., they just need to mention “flavorings,” not whether they’re natural or artificial.

This means that you have no idea which ones are in your food, how many are in there, or how much of each flavoring your food contains.

For more information, including flavorings’ possible links to cancer and obesity, read our extensive guide to natural and artificial flavorings.

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Flavor enhancers

Flavor enhancers don't necessarily have a flavor themselves. They enhance the overall flavor of a product. 

One of the most famous is MSG. There’s a lot to say about it, so it has its own section below. 

Here are some other common flavor enhancers with their alternative names:

  • Calcium inosinate: Calcium inosine-5′-monophosphate, E633.

  • Disodium guanylate: Sodium 5'-guanylate, disodium 5'-guanylate, E627.

  • Disodium inosinate: Disodium 5′-inosinate, sodium 5′-inosinate, disodium inosin 5′-monophosphate, inosine 5′-(disodium phosphate), sodium inosinate, E631.

  • Disodium ribonucleotides: E635.

  • Ethyl maltol: 2-ethyl-3-hydroxy-4-pyranone, 2-ethyl pyromeconic acid, 2-ethyl-3-hydroxy-4-pyrone.

  • Glycine: This doesn't go by other names.

  • Guanosine monophosphate: 5′-guanidylic acid, 5′-guanylic acid, E626.

  • Inosinic acid: IMP, hypoxanthine ribotide.

  • Maltol: Arixinic acid, palatone, veltol, E636.

  • Monopotassium glutamate: Potassium glutamate, glutamic acid, potassium salt, E622.

  • Potassium chloride: This also doesn't go by other names.

The FDA must sign off on flavorings and enhancers. And sometimes, it needs to update its list.

For instance, in 2018, the FDA removed six flavorings or enhancers from its "safe" list after studies showed that these caused cancer in animals:

  • benzophenone

  • ethyl acrylate

  • eugenyl methyl ether (methyl eugenol)

  • myrcene

  • pulegone

  • pyridine

By law, if studies show that an additive causes cancer in animals or humans — at any dosage — it must be removed from the safe list.

The FDA complied with the law but also stated that these compounds are safe at the levels currently in foods.

What’s the deal with MSG?

MSG enhances the flavor of food by stimulating your taste receptors — it dials up the savory experience.

Manufacturers commonly add it to a range of foods, including canned vegetables, soups, processed meats, chips, frozen meals, and fast foods.

Colloquially, MSG has been linked to symptoms such as headaches, tingling limbs, and a racing heart. However, scientists have found no evidence of this association.

MSG and other forms of glutamate appear in different guises on ingredients lists. These include:

  • hydrolyzed protein

  • autolyzed yeast

  • monosodium salt

  • monohydrate

  • monosodium glutamate monohydrate

  • sodium 2-aminopentanedioate

  • monosodium L-glutamate monohydrate

  • sodium glutamate monohydrate

  • UNII-W81N5U6R6U

  • L-glutamic acid

  • monosodium salt

  • monohydrate

  • flavor enhancer E621

It’s also worth noting that glutamate occurs naturally in many foods, including cheeses, mushrooms, seaweed, peas, broccoli, and walnuts. 

If you'd like to know more about how this additive got its bad name, we have a fascinating article on the convoluted drama surrounding MSG.

Preservatives

Preservatives help preserve foods. They increase shelf life and protect against microbes and temperature changes. 

Some examples of food preservatives include:

  • Benzoic acid (E210): This is an antimicrobial agent.

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole, E320): This antioxidant stops food from going rancid.

  • BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene, E321): This antioxidant slows changes to food's texture, color, and flavor.

  • Calcium propionate (calcium dipropionate, E282): This inhibits mold in baked goods and other products.

  • Citric acid (E330): This is another antimicrobial agent.

  • Natamycin or pimaricin (E235): This is an antifungal agent.

  • Nitrites and nitrates: Some examples are sodium nitrate (E251) and sodium nitrite (E250). These have antibacterial properties, and manufacturers add them to meats, particularly cured meats. We have more information on their links to cancer here.

  • Sodium benzoate (E211): This is also antimicrobial.

  • Sodium erythorbate (E316): This helps cured meats keep their color and flavor.

  • Sorbate compounds: Some examples include sorbic acid, sodium sorbate, potassium sorbate, and calcium sorbate (E200–203). They prevent the growth of yeasts and mold. 

  • Sulfite compounds: These include sulfur dioxide (E220), potassium metabisulfite (E224), potassium bisulfite (E228), potassium sulfite (E225), sodium bisulfite (E222), sodium metabisulfite (E223), and sodium sulfite (E221). They have antibacterial properties.

Some experts have questioned the safety of some preservatives. 

But the FDA and other global food safety organizations consider them safe when used in line with their guidance.

For a more extensive list, read our feature on food preservatives and health, which includes some of the controversies related to these compounds. 

Next, we’ll cover acidifiers and related compounds, followed by antioxidants.

Some of these compounds are also classed as preservatives because they stop food from going bad.

Acidifiers and neutralizing agents

These compounds alter how acidic a food is. They might appear on labels as acidity regulators, acidifiers, buffers, neutralizing agents, or food acids.

They can change the taste of food — more acidic foods tend to taste sour, while alkaline foods taste more bitter.

Acidifiers also help prevent bacteria from ruining food. For instance, companies often acidify cucumbers, artichokes, cauliflower, peppers, and fish to stop them from being invaded by toxin-producing bacteria called Clostridium botulinum.

Some acidity regulators and acidifiers also act as stabilizers, which we’ll cover further down. And some help emulsifiers and antioxidants work better or make sure foods retain their color for longer.

Here are some examples of acidity regulators and acidifiers:

  • Acetic acid (E260): This is the main component of vinegar. It's used in margarine, butter, curry powder, processed cheeses, and cooking oils.

  • Adipic acid (E355): This naturally occurs in beets, but manufacturers synthesize it industrially. It's used in baking powders, and it adds flavor.

  • Aluminum ammonium sulfate (E523): This is used in baking powders, and it stabilizes colors.

  • Aluminum potassium sulfate (kalinite or E522): This is a mineral in baking powders.

  • Aluminum sodium sulfate (E521): This is also in baking powders.

  • Ammonium bicarbonate (E503): This is used in cakes and cookies.

  • Calcium acetate (E263): This prevents microbes from invading. It's also used to thicken puddings, cake mixtures, and pie fillings.

  • Calcium orthophosphate (E341): This is used in baking powders and as a bread enhancer.

  • Citric acid (E330): This occurs naturally in citrus fruits. It boosts the activity of antioxidants, adds to foods’ aroma, influences the consistency of marmalades, and stops fruit from going brown.

  • Fumaric acid (E297): This occurs widely in nature. It's used in fruit drinks, breads, pie fillings, wine, poultry, jelly, and jello.

  • Hydrochloric acid (E 507): This is a component of stomach acid. It's used in sauces, canned goods, and vegetable juices.

  • Lactic acid (E270): This is produced by certain bacteria during fermentation. It's used in milk, cheese, meat, sauces, salads, and drinks.

  • Magnesium carbonate (E504): This stops cookies from going moldy.

  • Malic acid (E296): This is used in vegetables, pulses, tinned fruits and jelly, jello, and frozen vegetables. It adds a tart or sour taste.

  • Sodium acid pyrophosphate (E450): This is used in baking powders.

  • Sodium hydroxide (E524): This prevents mold.

  • Tartaric acid (E334): This occurs naturally in many fruits. It's used in candies, baked goods, jelly, juices, and wine.

In large doses, some acids certainly can damage your health. But they’re present in such small amounts in food that they’re not a concern.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants prevent oxidization. This is a reaction that occurs when something is exposed to oxygen.

When fat gets oxidized, for instance, it turns rancid. Also, certain vitamins and amino acids can be destroyed by contact with oxygen. Antioxidants slow down this process.  

Some antioxidants naturally occur, like vitamin C (ascorbic acid or E300). Manufacturers often add vitamin C to products for this reason. 

Another example is tocopherols (E306–E309). These members of the vitamin E family are found in nuts, sunflower seeds, soy, and maize shoots.

Food producers use them to protect margarine, vegetable oils, and cocoa products.

Although vitamin C and tocopherols occur naturally, manufacturers tend to synthesize them to produce identical versions.

Here are some more antioxidants:

  • Sodium ascorbate (E301): This is a form of vitamin C used in soda, jelly, condensed milk, and sausages.

  • Calcium ascorbate (E302): As above.

  • Ascorbyl palmitate (E304): This is another form of vitamin C. It's used in chicken broth and sausages.

  • Propyl gallate (E310): This is man-made, and it's used to produce fats and oils, such as frying oils and fats, as well as seasonings, powdered soups, and chewing gum.

  • Octyl gallate (E311): As above.

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA, E320): This is also man-made, and it's used in candies, processed cheeses, raisins, peanut butters, and powdered soups. BHA and BHT are also in the list of preservatives that we mentioned earlier.

  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT, E321): As above.

Overall, there seems to be little concern about the health effects of these compounds at the low levels that they’re found in food. 

However, some scientists are worried about links between BHA and cancer, which we explore in our article on preservatives.

Vitamins and minerals

These days, in a bid to make nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods appear more healthy, manufacturers often add vitamins and minerals. 

For people who eat a relatively healthy, diverse diet, these additions aren’t necessary. They are, putting it bluntly, a smokescreen.

The additions allow food companies to make health claims about cereals, snacks, and savory foods that would otherwise be devoid of nutritional benefits.

With that said, some fortified foods can benefit the population.

For instance, in the 1990s, the U.S. government made it law that all cereal grain products must contain folic acid. 

This change significantly reduced the number of neural tube defects, serious conditions that affect a developing baby’s brain, spine, or spinal cord.

The following list includes some vitamins and minerals that manufacturers might add to fortified foods

It’s important to note that these compounds certainly are important for health, but they’re widely available in whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds:

  • beta-carotene

  • calcium

  • copper

  • chromium

  • folate

  • iron, which is also called ferrous sulfate

  • magnesium

  • manganese

  • molybdenum

  • potassium

  • selenium

  • vitamin A

  • vitamin E or tocopherols

  • vitamin K

  • vitamin C: also called ascorbic acid

  • vitamin D

  • zinc

Amino acids — the building blocks of protein — are also common additions. Examples include L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-leucine, and L-methionine.

Manufacturers commonly add B vitamins, too, including pantothenic acid, biotin, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, niacinamide, and folate or folic acid. 

Food stabilizers

In short, food stabilizers help ensure that a food product remains as the manufacturer intended.

For instance, they might stop chopped fruit from dropping to the bottom of jelly or prevent salad dressings from separating.

Emulsifiers are a common type of food stabilizer. They stop sauces, creams, and other foods from splitting into oily and watery sections.

For more information about how they work and their potential health effects, ZOE has a comprehensive guide to emulsifiers. It looks at how they might impact your gut microbiome and contribute to IBD.

Here are some common stabilizers:

  • Carrageen: This is also called E407, and it's derived from red algae.

  • Cellulose: There's a range of cellulose derivatives (E461–E469). They're often derived from wood or cotton.   

  • Gelatin: Also called gelatine, this is often derived from animal collagen. It can appear on packaging as collagen hydrolysate, gelatine hydrolysate, hydrolyzed collagen, hydrolyzed gelatine, and collagen peptides. 

  • Pectin: This carbohydrate is mainly extracted from citrus fruits. 

  • Starch: This is derived from the seeds, tubers, and roots of plants. 

  • Alginate: This is also called algin, and it's a carbohydrate derived from brown algae.

  • Agar: This is also called agar-agar, and it's another carbohydrate derived from red algae.

  • Xanthan gum: Manufacturers produce this product by fermenting simple sugars with a particular species of bacteria.

  • Locust bean gum: Also called carob gum, carob bean gum, carobin, and E410, this product is extracted from the seeds of the carob tree.

  • Guar gum: Extracted from guar beans, this carbohydrate is also called E412.

  • Gum Arabic: This compound, which is derived from hardened tree sap, is also called gum sudani, acacia gum, Arabic gum, gum acacia, acacia, Senegal gum, Indian gum, and E414.

The FDA and other health bodies consider all of the above ingredients safe for consumption at the levels found in foods. 

However, it's worth mentioning some research into xanthan gum, which is in a wide range of foods.

It only appeared in our diet a few decades ago, but a study published in April 2022 shows that xanthan gum has already impacted our gut microbiome.

The scientists found that although our gut enzymes cannot digest xanthan gum, one species of gut bacteria has evolved to break it down.

And another bacteria can break down the smaller fragments left by the first bacteria.

In other words, the widespread use of this chemical has set up a new food chain in your gut microbiome. 

When it was first introduced into our diets, xanthan gum simply traveled through our guts untouched. Now, our gut microbiome breaks it down into simple sugars.

This may not negatively impact our health. However, as the study's authors suggest, scientists should revisit other food additives that are currently considered inert.

Our gut bacteria may have evolved to break them down into who-knows-what chemicals in our gut. 

What does it all mean?

At ZOE, we run the largest scientific study on human nutrition. We believe that wherever possible, you should focus on eating whole foods, especially foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and pulses.

It’s also worth remembering that although the ingredients above are safe in small amounts, no one knows the effects of consuming tens of these ingredients every day throughout a lifespan.

Maybe it’s fine, but perhaps it isn’t. That’s why we recommend reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods whenever possible — because that’s where many of these ingredients are hiding.

Even if food additives aren’t a huge issue, if you swap ultra-processed foods for whole foods, you’ll boost your intake of plant compounds, which will likely benefit your health.

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