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ARCHIVED - Food Additive Dictionary

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This is an electronic version of the Food Additive Pocket Dictionary Health Canada had produced for a few years until its last version in 1996. This electronic version is updated up to April 21, 2006 and will be updated on a regular basis. This is an attempt to provide general information to the public and is NOT a legal document. The official food additive provisions may be found in Division 16 of the Food and Drug Regulations.

A food additive is any chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage and either becomes a part of the food or affects its characteristics for the purpose of achieving a particular technical effect. For example, substances that are used to enhance the appearance, texture, or keeping qualities of a food or serve as essential aids in the processing of food are all considered to be food additives.Footnote 1

Nevertheless, under the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations, food additives do not include:

  • food ingredients such as salt, sugar, starch
  • vitamins, minerals, amino acidsFootnote 2
  • spices, seasonings, flavouring preparations
  • agricultural chemicals
  • veterinary drugs
  • food packaging materials

These items are covered by specific sections of the Food and Drug Regulations and by the Food and Drugs Act. Section 4(a) of the Act states that "No person shall sell an article of food that has in or on it any poisonous or harmful substance".

A word about safety

Only food additives listed in the Tables of Division 16 in the Food and Drug Regulations are permitted to be used in food. 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.

How to use this dictionary

This dictionary has been developed to help you become familiar with the chemical names of food additives and the reasons for their addition to foods. The practice of adding substances to food to prevent spoilage, enhance appearance, or change texture is not new. The difference between food technology today and in the past is that we now have some understanding of how food additives work. The functions of the various food additives are described in "What Additives Do".

To find out what additives do in your food, follow these simple directions:

  1. Look for the list of ingredients on any food labelFootnote 3. Food additives, along with other ingredients, are listed on most prepackaged food products. Food additives are substances usually present at very low levels in foods. Therefore, you will generally find food additives towards the end of the list, as items appear in descending order of proportion or as a percentage of the prepackaged product.
  2. Check whether the substance you think is a food additive is included in the alphabetical listing of all food additives permitted for use in Canada. If it is on the list, then it is considered a food additive under Canadian legislation and will perform one or more of the functions in food indicated by the corresponding code(s).
  3. Refer back to "What Additives Do" for an explanation of each function.

If the substance is not listed in the dictionary, then it is not a food additive. The legal definition of a food additive excludes common ingredients such as sugar and salt, vitamins, flavours, etc. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), for example, is commonly thought to be a food additive but is actually a flavour enhancer and is therefore not included in this dictionary.

What additives do

In general, food additives are used in food to:

  • maintain its nutritive quality
  • enhance its keeping quality
  • make it attractive
  • aid in its processing, packaging or storage.


Footnote 1

Some substances that aid in the processing of food, under certain conditions, are considered to be food processing aids, not food additives.

Return to footnote 1 referrer

Footnote 2

Some nutrients may occasionally function as food additives. For example, ascorbic acid contributes vitamin C to foods and also acts as an antioxidant; dicalcium phosphate has several food additive functions but is added to products, such as infant cereals, because of its mineral content.

Return to footnote 2 referrer

Footnote 3

NOTE: A few of the food additives listed in this dictionary are not required to be listed by name on food labels. The names of specific food colours, for example, are not indicated on food labels since manufacturers may use the term "colour".

Return to footnote 3 referrer