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What are additives?

Additives are any natural or man-made substances added to food to improve the flavor, color, and texture of foods. Additives may also be added to foods to preserve them and help extend shelf life.

Are food additives healthy? 

Food additives are natural or synthetic substances added to food to improve the quality. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves and regulates food additives. Food additives are only added to food if they are considered safe for consumption in the doses manufacturers put into foods. 

Additives such as propyl gallate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidants added to prevent fats and oils in foods from becoming rancid. 

Additives such as chicory root fiber and oat fiber are added to improve nutritional value of foods. 

Additives such as lecithin, carrageenan, disodium phosphate, and gums are added to foods to improve texture and consistency of food. 

All food additives can be found on the Nutrition Facts label, listed under the ingredients list. 

What are food color additives? 

Food color additives are natural or synthetic pigments that add colors to food. 

Natural colors are derived from fruits, vegetables, animals, or minerals. For example a reddish-brown color can be extracted from dehydrated beets and a yellow-orange color can be extracted from vegetables high in beta-carotene. 

Synthetic pigments need to be certified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before manufacturers add them to foods. There are 9 certified synthetic color additives approved for use in the United States. All synthetic food color additives approved by the FDA are safe for consumption in the amounts provided. 

Are food color additives safe? 

Both natural and synthetic food color additives are considered generally safe for consumption. However, there is some controversy on synthetic food color additives. It is theorized that synthetic food color additives influence hyperactivity in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Therefore it is sometimes recommended for children with ADHD to avoid foods containing food color additives. However, the research surrounding this topic is inconclusive and such a restricted diet may be challenging to enforce with children. 

Although food color additives are considered generally safe, foods containing color additives may be avoided for other reasons. For example, foods and beverages containing color additives tend to also have added sugars. In general, all highly processed foods should be consumed in moderation. 

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Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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