The ingredient list of some processed foods can be downright shocking. Even if you can pronounce them, certain ingredients may have you stumped as to their origin. What’s more, you may still be unaware why they’ve been added to your food. Knowing more about these ingredients is only half the battle. What you do with the information is up to you.

Food and Color Additives

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a “Food additive” is defined as any substance used to provide a technical effect in foods. Those technical effects include improving or maintaining “safety and freshness, nutritional value, taste, texture, and appearance.” Just the same, color additives are meant to offset color loss, correct natural variations in color, enhance color and add color to colorless foods. Here are a few familiar additives explained.

Xanthan Gum

Original Source: Fermented corn, wheat, or soy using a bacteria known as Xanthomonas campestris.

It has been referred to as a fat replacer, emulsifier, and thickener and is meant to add texture. Though less than half a percent of the finished product in many cases, the highest levels of xanthan gum are found in milk desserts, milk-based beverages, and cheese; processed meat products, and baked goods.


Original Source: Wood pulp

Various forms of cellulose, powder, gum, or crystalline, are used as food additives and are regarded by the FDA as safe for human consumption which sets no limit on the amount that can be used in food products, except meat which has a content limit of no more than 3.5%. Depending on the type used, cellulose can maintain moisture and consistency as well as add firmness. It’s common in foods marked as high fiber or reduced fat and has the added bonus of extending the shelf life of processed foods. Cellulose is commonly used in bread, crackers, ice cream, and baked goods. It is reportedly being used more and more as a filler to offset increasing prices of sugar, flour, and oil as this statement from Dow Wolff Cellulosics, a food manufacturer, mentions. FYI, even organic processed foods may have cellulose in them.

Propylene Glycol

Original Source: Petroleum, a by-product of gasoline manufacture

According to a public health statement released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), propylene glycol is used to absorb extra water and maintain moisture in certain medicines, cosmetics, or food products making it good as a preservative. It is a solvent for food colors and flavors as well. You may find the ingredient in cake mixes, salad dressings, soft drinks, popcorn, food colorings, fat-free ice cream and sour cream.


Original Source: Collagen derived from the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of livestock. There are plant-derived gelatin products that are labeled as such.

Gelatin is used as a preservative and stabilizer in food. Edible gelatin is prized for its “melt-in-the-mouth” characteristics according to an in-depth explanation of gelatin in the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America’s 2012 Gelatin Handbook states. You may find it in beverages such as wine, beer, and fruit juices, as well as yogurt, pre-packaged frozen meals, ready-to-eat cereals, sour cream and other dairy products, in addition to candy and other jellied desserts.

Carmine or Cochineal Extract

Original Source: The dried bodies of a small female insect known as Dactylopius coccus

Cochineal extract, also known as carmine, crimson lake, or Natural Red 4, is a pigment that comes from tiny white insects that turn red when crushed. The insects’ bodies are collected off cactus, dried and then ground into a powder. Some regular products that use cochineal extract include candies, beauty products, juice drinks, baked goods, ice cream, fruit filling, puddings, and yogurt. While its use as a colorant dates back hundreds of years, some are weary of its use because of the threat of allergic reactions. In response to this, the FDA began requiring all food and cosmetic products list the ingredient by name, rather than as ‘natural color’ as it had been referred to prior to the 2009 rule change.

Annatto Extract

Original Source: Annatto seed or achiote extracted with food-grade acids, chemicals or oils.

This food coloring is used to make normally white cheese a deep yellow or orange hue. It’s also used in butter and margarine, as well as dairy beverage mixes, snacks, seasonings, baking mixes and confections. Like carmine, it has been linked to allergic reactions. Irritable bowel syndrome has also been linked to consuming Annatto extract by a report in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. Like cellulose, some organic foods may include annatto extract. Food color manufacturer D.D. Williamson recently created a certified organic version in powder and liquid form.

To search for more information about food and color additives go to the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe Substances Database.
*Calorie Count 2012