For centuries, ingredients in food have served a variety of useful functions. Our ancestors used salt to preserve meats and fish, added herbs and spices to improve the flavor of foods, preserved fruit with sugar, and pickled vegetables in vinegar solutions. Many ingredients help ensure the availability of flavorful, nutritious, safe, convenient, and affordable foods that meet consumer expectations year-round.
Ingredients are added to foods for a variety of functions, such as:
- Maintain or Improve Safety and Freshness: Preservatives slow product spoilage caused by mold, air, bacteria, fungi or yeast. In addition to maintaining the quality of the food, they help control contamination that can cause foodborne illness, including life-threatening botulism. One group of preservatives -- antioxidants -- prevents fats and oils and the foods containing them from becoming rancid or developing an off-flavor. They also prevent cut fresh fruits such as apples from turning brown when exposed to air.
- Improve or Maintain Nutritional Value: Nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are added to many foods to make up for those lacking in a person's diet or lost in processing, or to enhance the nutritional quality of a food.
- Improve Taste and Texture: Spices, natural and artificial flavors, and sweeteners are added to enhance the taste of foods. Emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners give foods the texture and consistency consumers expect. Leavening agents allow baked goods to rise during baking. Some additives help control the acidity and alkalinity of foods, while other ingredients help maintain the taste and appeal of foods with reduced fat content.
In general, all ingredients must be declared on food labels, unless there is an exemption. Food manufacturers are responsible for marketing safe foods, including ensuring the safety and regulatory status of the ingredients they use in foods before they are available to consumers. The FDA evaluates and regulates ingredients added to food to help ensure they are used safely.
The safety of food additives and ingredients that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) must be supported by science that demonstrates its use meets the FDA’s safety standard. Specifically, the information must demonstrate that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when an ingredient is proposed or intended for use in food. Because of inherent limitations of science, the FDA can never be absolutely certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any ingredient.
The FDA has several programs as part of its oversight over food ingredients and to aid the food industry in complying with the law. As part of the FDA’s programs, the food industry provides information about an ingredient’s safety in the appropriate submission to the agency.
Our scientists continue to keep up to date as new research is published and to evaluate whether the new information changes our position on the safety of a food ingredient. When we identify new data and information that indicates that the use of an authorized substance is no longer safe, we take action, which may include revoking authorizations for certain uses and informing consumers.
Learn more about how the FDA regulates food additives and uses of ingredients that are GRAS, on Understanding How the FDA Regulates Food Additives and GRAS Ingredients.
The FDA has web pages about specific ingredients, products, or public health initiatives of interest:
The FDA Monitors Reports or Problems Related to Food Products
If you think that you experienced an adverse reaction to a food, including an ingredient, you can report the reaction to the FDA. To report a problem to the FDA:
- Call an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator if you wish to speak directly to a person about your problem.
- Complete an electronic Voluntary MedWatch form online.
- Complete a paper Voluntary MedWatch form that can be mailed to FDA.
If you are a member of the food industry who needs to submit a Reportable Food Registry report when there is a reasonable probability that an article of food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, please visit the Reportable Food Registry page.
For More Information:
- Understanding How the FDA Regulates Food Additives and GRAS Ingredients
- Types of Food Ingredients
- Learn about Certain Ingredients that are Major Food Allergens
Color Additives, Food Packaging, and Irradiation:
- Color Additives Information for Consumers
- Food Packaging and Other Substances that Come into Contact with Food Information for Consumers
- Food Irradiation: What You Need to Know
- Irradiation of Food & Packaging