Food Additives

According to Health Canada a food additive is any chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage. A food additive either becomes a part of the food or affects its characteristics for achieving a particular effect. For instance, substances that are used to enhance the appearance, texture, or to keep qualities of a food are considered food additives. 

Food additives are regulated in Canada under the Food and Drug Regulations . All permitted food additives and their conditions of use are listed in the tables of Division 16 of these Regulations. The use of an additive will not be allowed if it is considered to constitute a hazard to health in the amounts which would be present in food.
Food additives under division 16 of the Food and Drug Regulations include the following sections:  

Anticaking Agents

Anticaking agents keep powders such as tea, coffee, sugar, salt etc. flowing freely by preventing agglomeration and formation of lumps. For example, milk powder would turn into a solid chunk during damp weather without an anticaking agent.  

Bleaching, Maturing and Dough Conditioning Agents

  • Bleaching agents are used for whitening flour to obtain a product of consistent quality and colour. They also  improve flour's baking characteristics (maturing and conditioning).
  • Dough conditioners modify the strength of the flour. They improve dough handling properties and reduce mixing time, providing better texture, volume, and crumb evenness in bakery products.

Colouring Agents

Colouring agents simulate a colour that is perceived by the consumer as natural and also provide food products an appetizing appearance. Factors such as processing, storage and seasonal variation can result in unattractive or unfamiliar colour. For example, fruits are sometimes dyed to cover natural variations in colour.  

Emulsifying, Gelling, Stabilizing and Thickening Agents

  • Emulsifying agents are used i n the formation of stable oil-and-water or oil-and-vinegar mixtures. They permit the dispersion of small globules of one liquid in another. For instance, oil droplets dispersed in a vinegar solution of a salad dressing.
  • Gelling agents thicken and stabilize foods by providing texture through the formation of a gel. Some stabilizers and thickening agents are gelling agents.
  • Stabilizers keep suspended food particles from separating and settling down to the bottom, such as chocolate in chocolate milk.
  • Thickening agents adjust the consistency of processed products. They increase food viscosity without substantially modifying other food properties. 

Food Enzymes

Enzymes promote desirable chemical reactions in food. They can break down specific materials into simpler components or cause changes. For instance Carbohydrases break down complex sugars, like starch, into simpler sugars (glucose). 

Firming Agents

Firming agents prevent the softening of processed fruits, vegetables and fish, especially during the process of canning in which they receive a severe heat treatment. They are also used to give firmness to the curd of certain types of cheeses. 

Glazing and Polishing Agents

Glazing and polishing agents give a protective, coating or polishing surface to food products, particularly used on confectionery and on some vegetables and fruits. In some cases, they offer protection from spoiling.  Glazing and polishing agents are mostly based on waxes. 

Miscellaneous Additives

Miscellaneous food additives include propellants, fillers, whipping agents, conditioning agents, anticoagulants, antifoaming agents, humectants, aerating agents, etc.   


Sweeteners are substances used to sweeten foods other than conventional nutritive sweeteners such as sucrose or glucose. They often sweeten with a minimum contribution to a food's caloric value.

pH Adjusting Agents, Acid-Reacting Materials and Water Correcting Agents

These agents maintain the acid-alkali balance (pH) of foods at a desired level, which can affect microbiological quality, cooking results, flavour and texture.  Acids are also required to release carbon dioxide from leavening agents which make baked products light and fluffy.   

Class I, II, III and IV Preservatives

Preservatives are used to prevent or delay undesirable spoilage in food, caused by microbial growth or enzymatic and chemical actions. For instance, antimicrobial agents prevent the growth of moulds, yeast, or bacteria in foods. Some preservatives, such as acetic acid and citric acid are permitted according to good manufacturing practice. Other preservatives, like sulfurous acid and sulfites can cause serious problems in some asthmatic individuals and regulations permit their use only in low levels. Nitrite and nitrate salts (used in meat curing) have been determined to be cancer-causing agents and only minimal levels are permitted.   

Sequestering Agents

Sequestering agents can combine with metallic elements (especially copper and iron) in food. They prevent metallic elements from taking part in reactions leading to colour or flavour deterioration. For example, the addition of a sequestrant to certain canned food prevents darkening of the product. Metallic elements in the canning water are bound by the additive and are unavailable for other reactions. Sequestering agents improve the quality, color, and stability of canned products. 

Starch Modifying Agents

Starch modifying agents alter starch to enable it to withstand heat processing and freezing. Starch can then maintain the appearance and consistency of foods such as mixes, sauces, and custards.  

Yeast Foods

Yeast foods are agents that serve as nutrients for yeasts during fermentation. Yeast foods serve as a food for the yeast in the preparation of an inoculum. An inoculum is a highly concentrated suspension of yeast to be added to malt mashes for beer-making or to bread dough for leavening purposes.  

Carrier or Extraction Solvents

Carrier or extraction solvents act as vehicles and diluents for food additives and flavours to facilitate their introduction to food or to enable the extraction of substances from food. For example, they are used to extract fats and oils from oil seeds (defatting) and to dissolve oil-soluble dyes and flavourings.

For more information, email the CVO/Food Safety Knowledge Centre or call 204-795-8418 in Winnipeg.