Processing Aids: What's Not on the Label, and Why?

You may already have trouble reading complicated food labels, but did you know there's an entire category of additives that don't ever make it into print?

Food labels

Certain information is intentionally omitted from food labels.

Photo by Fotolia/Art Allianz

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Reposted with permission from Food Safety News

Walk down the aisles of any grocery store and grab a product off the shelf. Chances are, the label of whatever you grabbed will contain at least a few ingredients whose names don’t exactly roll off the tongue. There’s everything from xanthan gum in salad dressing to tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios, not to mention calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid in mayonnaise.

But what if the label also included the citric acid wash that cleaned your apple, or the ammonium hydroxide used to control the pH of your ground beef? These are two examples of processing aids, substances used in the production of food but don’t have to be included in the ingredient list.

What parts of food production get labeled and which don’t, and why not?

There’s an entire category of substances used in food production that don’t ever make their way onto the label for a number of reasons. These substances are known as “incidental additives,” and they encompass everything from oil for fish filets to anti-caking agents for seasonings.

Processing aids are a subcategory of incidental additives. All processing aids are incidental additives, though not all incidental additives are processing aids.

Any substance is considered a processing aid and can be legally excluded from labels if it meets one of three criteria:

  1. It’s added to the food but later removed. Think of something like activated charcoal, which filters out impurities.
  2. It’s added to the food, but gets converted into a substance already present in the food. This could be something like a pH adjuster that converts to salt and doesn’t significantly add to the level of salt in the food.
  3. It’s added for a technical effect during processing but isn’t present at “significant” levels in the food. This could be a preservative added to an ingredient, like anti-caking agent sodium silicoaluminate in the seasoning of some sausages.
  4. One critical note is that any incidental ingredient that might affect the stability of the finished food (i.e. improve its shelf life), must be labeled, said Mark Itzkoff, food compliance lawyer for Washington, D.C.-based OFW Law. Any such substance, however insignificant, would be considered a preservative that would need to be labeled.

Processing aids are allowed in food production as long as each one falls within the guidelines of being “Generally Recognized as Safe,” a classification for ingredients often abbreviated as “GRAS.” The FDA and USDA rely on a consensus of qualified experts, via published peer-reviewed literature, to assess the safety of GRAS substances. The agencies lack the resources to perform the vetting process themselves.

“It’s a fairly intensive process,” Itzkoff said.

To get GRAS approval for a substance from the FDA, a food company needs to undertake a number of steps. They first need to determine what the consumer exposure would be to their product, which is usually done by an independent toxicology panel that reviews peer-reviewed literature on the substance.

“You can’t come up with a component and run your own tests and say, ‘OK, this is GRAS now,’” Itzkoff said. “That can only happen if there’s literature in peer-reviewed journals so that food safety experts and toxicologists can review and run confirmation studies.”

Once a company classifies a substance as GRAS, its subsequent food industry customers may further vet its safety and accept or reject that GRAS determination.

If companies wish to use a new processing aid on a USDA-regulated product such as meat or fish, they must submit a GRAS notification. A GRAS notification is optional for substances only meant for FDA-regulated products, but the majority of companies still submit them for transparency purposes, Itzkoff said.

Ultimately, the FDA and USDA don’t consider processing aids necessary to label because mentioning each nonfunctional component of the food production chain would be impractical and unhelpful information for consumers. Don’t be surprised to not find ‘dimethylamine epichlorohydrin copolymer’ listed on your bag of sugar anytime soon. By all legal definitions, it’s just as sweet without that on the label.

Photo by Fotolia/Art Allianz

7/3/2013 11:58:46 AM

At my website, wholegrainalice, I have an article about the chemicals added to white flour that do NOT need to be listed on the label.  After the bran and germ are removed from wheat grains, what’s left is mainly the starch in the endosperm.  Try making bread from corn starch and you’ll see why chemicals are added to flour to make it behave like flour again.  These chemicals give flour a bad taste and odor, so restaurants and baked goods hide this by adding a lot of salt, sugar, and fat.

Here are just some of the chemicals added to white flour

Emulsifiers to strengthen dough, soften crumb, make the texture consistent, etc.

lecithin, sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL), glycerol monostearate, diglycerides, sucrose esters of fatty acids, monoglyceride and lecithin enriched in lysophospholipids, sucrose palmitate (sucrose ester), citrate ester of monoglyceride (citrate MG), polysorbate (polyoxyethylene sorbitan monostearate), carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), stearyl palmityl tartrate, sodium alginate, kappa carrageenan

Dough Conditioners (also known as dough improvers)

diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglyceride (DATEM), calcium stearoyl-2-lactylate, calcium carbonate, monocalcium phosphate

Oxidizing chemicals

Whitens and brightens bread color quickly, strengthens dough-gluten bonds to handle high-speed machinery, give volume.  In cake flour, chlorination helps get better results where more sugar is used than flour (Kent).  Germany and France only allow one oxidizing chemical: L-ascorbic acid.

Flour maturing (oxidant)

Azodicarbonamide   In the UK it’s believed it may cause asthma, and may cause allergic reactions in those allergic to azo compounds.

L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

   Bleaching (oxidant):    Benzoyl

   Chlorine, chlorine dioxide. Chlorine (gas) is always used to bleach cake flours and mixes.    Chlorine is not allowed in most European countries.

   Nitrogen peroxide. Discontinued everywhere but the USA and Australia.

acetone peroxide. Not permitted in the U.K.

   Dough Conditioners (oxidant, increases volume)

   Potassium Bromate. This chemical is known to cause cancer in animals. In California   there must be a warning label if this is in the baked goods (Weiss, Amendola).  It’s added to make the dough stronger and quickens mixing and fermentation. It isn’t allowed in Canada, Europe, Brazil, Peru, Nigeria, etc.

Calcium bromate, calcium iodate, calcium peroxide, calcium dioxide, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate, potassium persulfate, ammonium persulfate, potassium iodate

Reductants & enzymesreduce the mixing time so more baked goods can be produced.

            Reducing agents: L-cysteine, glutathione (GSH), bisulfite salts.

Enzymes: amylase, lipoxygenase, transglutaminase (strengthens dough)

Preservatives:  Calcium Propionate

BHA and BHT Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) may cause cancer 

Food colorings: Blue 1, Blue 2, Red 3, Green 3, Yellow 6. All of these are linked to cancer.

Center for Science in the Public Interest says Acesulfame-K, artificial colorings blue 1, red 3, yellow 6, and transfats in baked goods should be avoided because they are “Unsafe in amounts consumed or very poorly tested and not worth any risk.”  .

One or more of: increase dough yield, resiliency, improve texture and shelf life, thicken, gel, stabilize: xanthan gum, guar gum, gum arabic, locust bean gum, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC), high ester pectin

Leavening agents: calcium phosphate

Mold inhibitors: salts of propionic acid


Amendola, Joseph, et. al.  2002. Understanding baking: the art and science of baking.  John Wile & Sons.

Figoni, Paula. 2007. Chapter 5. Flour and Dough Additives and Treatments. John Wiley and Sons.

GAO. Feb 2010. United States Government Accountability Office. Report to Congressional Requesters.

Kent, Norman Leslie, et. al. 1994. Technology of cereals: an introduction for students of food science and agriculture. Woodhead Publishing

Smith, J. Scott, et. al. 2004. Food processing: principles and applications. Wiley-Blackwell.

Tenbergen, Klaus. Nov 1999. Culinary Connection

Wartman, Kristin. 27 Apr 2011.

Weiser, H. 2003. The use of redox agents. German Research Centre of Food Chemistry, Germany. Woodhead Publishing Limited.

Weiss, Jean. ( Jean Weiss. MSN Health and Fitness.