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What do food additives do?

(May 2016)

Some food additives have more than one use. Food additives are listed in the statement of ingredients according to the most appropriate class name for the purpose of the food additive in that food. Examples of the most common class names are:

  • Acids/Acidity regulators/Alkalis help to maintain a constant acid level in food. This is important for taste, as well as to influence how other substances in the food function. For example, an acidified food can retard the growth of some micro-organisms.
  • Anti-caking agents reduce the tendency of individual food particles to adhere and improve flow characteristics. For example, seasoning with an added anti-caking agent flows freely and doesn't clump together.
  • Antioxidants retard or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods. For example, in fats and oils, rancid flavours can develop when they are exposed to oxygen. Antioxidants prevent this from happening.
  • Bulking agents contribute to the volume of the food, without contributing significantly to its available energy. For example, sugar often contributes to the volume of lollies, while some low-joule foods need bulking agents added to them to replace the bulk normally provided by sugar.
  • Colours add or restore colour to foods, e.g. icing mixture is coloured to make it more attractive on cakes.
  • Emulsifiers facilitate or maintain oil and water from separating into layers, e.g. emulsifiers may be used in margarine to prevent oil forming a layer on top of the margarine.
  • Firming agents/stabilisers maintain the uniform dispersion of substances in solid and semi-solid foods.
  • Flavour enhancers enhance the existing taste and/or odour of a food.
  • Foaming agents maintain the uniform dispersion of gases in aerated foods.
  • Gelling agents modify the texture of the food through gel formation.
  • Glazing agents impart a coating to the external surface of the food, e.g. a wax coating on fruit to improve its appearance.
  • Humectants reduce moisture loss in foods, e.g. glycerine may be added to icing to prevent it from drying out.
  • Preservatives retard or prevent the deterioration of food by micro-organisms, and thus prevent spoilage of foods.
  • Raising agents liberate gases, thereby increasing the volume of a food and are often used in baked goods.
  • Sweeteners replace the sweetness normal provided by sugars in foods without contributing significantly to their available energy.
  • Thickeners increase the viscosity of a food, e.g. a sauce might contain a thickener to give it the desired consistency.
Page last updated 6 December 2023