What's in Our Food? Maybe Processing Aids, Maybe Not

RaduraAs a result of the mountain of bad publicity directed at products such as "glued" meat and "pink slime," consumers have been getting more concerned than ever about what ingredients may be hiding in their foods.  This may be the best (or worst) time to inform consumers about additional substances that may come in contact with the food they're about to consume. We're talking about processing aids. Because most processing aids are not listed on the product label, the average consumer is unaware of their existence. Learning that some foods you eat may be exposed to chemicals you aren't told about may make you a tad uncomfortable.  Therefore, we've provided some Q/As to tell you what processing aids are, how they differ from additives, and what problems they might present to particular groups of people.


What is a processing aid?


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser explains it this way:  "A processing aid has no functional role in the food product.  That is, it doesn't affect texture, flavor, shelf life, color, or nutrition. It is used in very minute quantities that would be difficult to measure. It may not even be present in the final product. The processing aid is important in the manufacturing of a food product from the standpoint of successful production. Examples are release aids (that prevent products from sticking to surfaces like molds, trays, conveyors, etc.) and anti-foams (that prevent juice and other liquid products from foaming during pumping, heating, cooling, mixing, and filling operations). Another example is the use of organic acid (lactic, acetic, or citric acid) as part of a livestock carcass wash." 


Here's the more formal government definition:


a. Substances that are added to a food during the processing of such food but are removed in some manner from the food before it is packaged in its finished form.


b. Substances that are added to a food during processing, are converted into constituents normally present inthe food, and do not significantly increase the amount of the constituents naturally found in food.


c. Substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in the processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.


What are some uses of processing aids?


They are organic acids in produce washes; dough strengtheners in frozen pancakes and waffles; enzymes commonly used in  the production of beer and cheese; bleaching, peeling, cooling, or freezing agents; catalysts (which lower the speed of a chemical reaction), biocides (to destroy substances that may affect food quality or create a risk to human health). For more details about these and other functions of processing aids, click here.


Dr. Allen points out that lubricating oil for equipment used to produce food would also be a processing aid. The oil must be food grade.


What processing aids do some consumers need to know about?

Consumers, who, for religious reasons, are on a strict kosher or halal diet, need to know about processing aids that are a violation of their diet. Dr. Joe Regenstein, a food scientist and expert on these diets, says this:  "Processing aids are an important part of what the rabbis and Muslim leaders need to check when they certify products.  A problem arises when consumers think they can determine what is kosher or halal by reading the labels.  If they don't want prohibited materials in their food, they need to use products that have a religious certification symbol, ideally from an agency that is identified." 


Strict vegetarians might want to avoid foods that had come in contact with the use of greases made with animal fat.  These are used on some equipment and sometimes as release agents in baking.  These fats would also be a problem for kosher and halal consumers, says Dr. Regenstein.   


Although radiation is a processing aid, because so many people want to avoid irradiated food, it must be identified with the international symbol called the radura (shown in the photo accompanying this article). 


According to the website Healthy Child, "Children may ingest sulfur dioxide in foods preserved with it. Sulfur dioxide and five of its sulfite relatives are approved for use as preservatives in foods such as dried fruits (except prunes and black raisins), canned fruits and
vegetables, applesauce, wines, vinegar, pickled foods, instant potatoes and dried vegetables. Sulfur dioxide can also be applied to table grapes as a post-harvest fungicide. In sensitive individuals (particularly asthmatics), ingestion of sulfur dioxide and sulfites in food can cause asthma attacks, skin rashes and upset stomach." 


Any use of the 8 most common allergens (nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, soy beans, wheat, fish, or shellfish.) must be identified if they might have come in contact with another food as a processing aid or additive. 


How do processing aids differ from food additives?


Food additives remain in and affect the final product--its taste, texture, color, etc. They are consumed, so they must be listed on the package label.  On the other hand, a processing aid has a function only in the production process and has no function in the finished food product. 


Sometimes the distinction between a processing aid and an additive can be fuzzy.  A particular product can be an additive in one product and a processing aid in another.  Here's an example of that from the website Food Safety News: Sodium silicoaluminate provides a technical effect as an anti-caking agent in a dry seasoning mix, so it is classified as an additive.  However, when this seasoning mix is used in making a meat sausage, the compound no longer provides a technical effect in the finished food, so it would be classified as a processing aid.


Why aren't processing aids listed on food labels?


Dr. Richard Raymond, former undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, told Food Safety News that, given the complexity of the modern food system, accounting for every input that goes into the average supermarket product would be a challenging and largely impractical undertaking. 


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen adds this answer: "A processing aid, if  it's in the product at all,  has to comprise, at most, a very small percentage of the product it's in  (well below 1%, perhaps as low as .01%).  In general, a processing aid doesn't create a health issue, but it may create an issue related to personal beliefs."

Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter points out that these chemicals are necessary to maintain the quality of the food.  As examples, she cites the use of ascorbic acid for color stability and a product derived from seaweed that's used to thicken ice cream. 


The FDA says that listing all processing aids that a food comes in contact with "might cause consumers to give undue attention" to information that would be meaningless to them.


Who decides whether a particular material is a processing aid or an additive?


The website Food Insight explains that processing aids can be approved by the FDA or USDA in one of the following ways:


1. It was approved by the FDA prior to 1958, and its safety has been established based upon its history of safe use or consumption.


2. It is a substance generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by a consensus of qualified experts.


3. For meat and poultry (regulated by the USDA), scientific data must be submitted to determine whether the ingredient in question meets the FDA definition of a processing aid.


Of course, food manufacturers and processors prefer to have various chemicals defined as processing aids rather than food additives because then they don't need to be listed on the package.




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


azaquar.com "Food Processing Aids"



fsis.usda.gov "FSIS Compliance Guide on the Determination of Processing Aids"


foodsafetynews.com “Processing Aids, Labeling and 'Pink Slime'"


foodinsight.org "Questions and Answers about Processing Aids Used in Modern Food Production"


healthychild.org “Chemical Encyclopedia: Sulfur Dioxide"

shelflifeadvice.com "Would You--Should You--Do You Eat Irradiated Food?"


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