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Being familiar with the vocabulary of food additives can help you navigate the grocery store shelves more easily. Here are some categories of food additives to look for.
Acid: Fulfills a multitude of functions—intensifies flavor, provides sour taste, controls microorganism growth, coagulates proteins (needed for cheese formation), reduces rancidity or breakdown of the product due to oxygen exposure. Examples: citric acid, lactic acid.
Alkali: Reduces acidity of a food to enhance flavor, change functional properties, and prevent microorganism growth. Examples: ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate.
Anti-caking agent: Prevents particles, powders, or granular ingredients from clumping and sticking together. Example: aluminum sodium salt.
Anti-foaming agent: Prevents unwanted foaming in foods during processing. Example: polydimethylsiloxane.
Antimicrobial: Prevents the growth of harmful microorganisms. Example: potassium metabisulfite.
Antioxidant: Increases shelf life of foods by protecting them from degradation through exposure to oxygen; may be natural or artificial in origin; may have health benefits. Examples: Vitamin E (tocopherols), BHT.
Artificial sweetener: Often referred to as “synthetic” or “non-nutritive” sweeteners. Sweetens foods intensely (sometimes hundreds or thousands times as sweet as white sugar); often used for diabetic food products because it does not impact blood sugar levels. Many do not contain calories. Side effects related to ingestion include headaches, mood swings, blurred vision, weight gain, skin rashes, and behavioral changes. Examples: sucralose (Splenda®), aspartame (NutraSweet®).
Buffer: Controls pH (acidity or alkalinity) within a product. Example: potassium citrate.
Bulking agent: Adds mass to a food without significantly
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changing its nutritional qualities. Example: carboxymethylcellulose.
Chelating agent: Binds metals to prevent them from reacting with other food ingredients like fats. Example: EDTA.
Color stabilizer: Retains or intensifies the natural color and brightness of a food item. Example: calcium phosphate.
Dough conditioner: Assists in the appearance or function of baked products. Examples: calcium stearoyl lactylate, mono- and diglycerides.
Emulsifier: Allows two or more immiscible (non-mixing) substances (such as fats and water) to come together in a medium (“emulsion”). Example: lecithin.
Fat: Macronutrient used for energy (9 calories per gram) and for key functions in the body. Has a slippery, creamy feel in the mouth; comes in solid and liquid forms. May be naturally-occurring or synthesized. Example: palmitic acid, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Fat substitute: Chemically synthesized compound made to mimic the sensory properties of fat (creamy, smooth, slippery) without the same amount of calories as fat. Examples: Salatrim®, olestra (Olean®).
Fiber: A non-digestible carbohydrate that can be “soluble” or “insoluble” in water, giving it beneficial health
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properties such as slowing the release of glucose into the blood stream and improving the motility of the gastrointestinal tract. Examples: inulin, psyllium.
Firming agent: Keeps texture of fruits and vegetables firm. Example: tetrasodium phosphate.
Flavoring agent: Gives flavor to a product that may or may not have been lost in processing. May be natural or artificially synthesized. Example: calcium chloride.
Flavor, artificial: Imparts a specific aroma or taste to a food that is not naturally present; synthetically derived. Example: isoamyl acetate.
Flavor, natural: Imparts a specific aroma or taste to a food; from natural, non-adulterated sources. Example: vanillin.
Flavor enhancer: Intensifies the inherent flavor of a food; from natural or chemically derived sources. Example: hydrolyzed vegetable protein.
Food coloring: Adds color to a food depleted of its natural color due to processing or to enhance the presentation of food. May be naturally obtained or synthetically derived. In the U.S., FD&C numbers (indicating that they can be used in “Food, Drug & Cosmetics”) are assigned to individual synthetic colorings. Several synthetic colorings have been thought to be toxic and associated with cancer, attention deficit disorders, and general allergic reactions. Examples: FD&C Red No. 40, caramel color.
Gelling agent: Provides texture in a food by assisting in gel formation. Select stabilizers and thickeners can be considered gelling agents. Example: gelatin.
Glazing agent: Coats a food to protect it or give it a glossy appearance. Example: beeswax.
Humectant: Provides or helps retain moisture in a food. Example: corn syrup.
Leavening agent: Increases the volume in foods through its ability to manufacture carbon dioxide gas. Example: ammonium bicarbonate.
Nutrient: May be a “macronutrient” (protein, carbohydrate, or fat) or a “micronutrient” (vitamin, mineral) added to a food through the process of enrichment (replacing nutritional value lost in food processing) or fortification (enhancing nutritional value over and above what would naturally be found in the food). Examples: Vitamin A, fat.
Preservative: Increases shelf life of food by reducing its susceptibility to spoilage by microorganisms. Example: calcium propionate.
Stabilizer: Provides foods with a stronger texture by ensuring a uniform dispersion of immiscible (non-mixing) substances. Example: pectin.
Sweetener: Imparts a sweet taste to foods. May include artificial and natural sweeteners (including sugar alcohols and stevia). Example: corn syrup.
Texturizer: Assists a food in achieving desired consistency or texture. Example: casein.
Thickener: Increases viscosity without interfering with the food's other properties. Example: alginate made from seaweed.
Whipping agent: Used to increase and hold volume in foods. Example: sodium stearoyl lactylate
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