The role of additives in our food

The diet of human beings is very varied, especially in modern societies where an incredible number of food products are available through supermarkets, restaurants, cafes, etc. If we take some typical food products of the kind readily available in the marketplace and eaten in their millions each day, we can explore the role of ingredients and additives.

The packaged food products sold in supermarkets and other retail outlets must list the ingredients and additives that they contain. UK food law requires that if a product contains two or more ingredients, then they must all be listed in the order of weight, with the main ingredient first.

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The ingredients of a cheeseburger are:

Burger bun

Wheat flour – Flour contains starch (complex carbohydrates) and gluten protein. Starch is a polysaccharide made up of glucose molecules. The starch and gluten absorb water and hydrate, with the gluten forming a protein matrix in dough. The starch provides a substrate for fermentation by yeast.
Yeast – A microorganism of the Kingdom Fungi capable, among other things, of fermenting sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol. Starch is broken down by yeast and fermented to produce carbon dioxide which creates numerous cells within the bread dough and causes the dough to rise.
Salt – Ordinary table salt known by its chemical name of sodium chloride. Salt helps to tighten the gluten structure of dough, increasing the dough strength and helping to retain the carbon dioxide so important to the dough volume.
Water – Yes, ordinary tap water! Water is essential to the hydration of flour which is a low water activity, long shelf-life product. It brings to life the yeast and facilitates the chemical reactions that occur as bread dough proves.
 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids These are a class of emulsifiers used in a variety of food products.Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids improve loaf volume and create a softer crumb in the manufacture of bread products.
 Ascorbic acid Also known as vitamin C, this functions as a reducing agent in some food applications.Ascorbic acid weakens the gluten structure in bread, reducing dough elasticity and reducing working and proving time.


Ground Beef – Made from the muscle of beef, it can be ground or minced and contains protein, fat and water. By chopping it finely it can be formed into the classic burger shape. The burger is obviously the central component of a beef burger. When cooked, the meat proteins gel and bind together the particles of meat, creating a food that has a pleasing, succulent texture.
Salt – Table salt again A small amount of salt can be added to ground beef in the preparation of burgers. It causes the salt soluble meat proteins to dissolve, which then gel on cooking, helping to hold the burger in one piece.


Cheddar cheese – Mild or medium cheddar cheese manufactured using a standard  process. Cheddar cheese provides casein and milk fat that give processed cheese body and texture. It also provides clean lactic acid flavour notes.
Emmental cheese – The famous Swiss cheese with holes made using the standard process. Emmental cheese also provides casein and milk fat. It also provides the rich fruity flavour notes for which Emmental cheese is famous.
Salt – Table salt with the chemical formula NaCl. Salt adds flavour to the processed cheese ad acts as a preservative.
 Disodium phosphate – An inorganic phosphate with the chemical formula Na2HPO4.Acts as a buffering agent helping to control the pH of the processed cheese mix.
 Tripotassium phosphate – An inorganic phosphate with the chemical formula Na3PO4.Helps to promote the melting of Cheddar and Emmental cheeses when heated during the manufacture of processed cheese as well as the emulsification of ingredients.
 Trisodium citrate – A citrate with the chemical formula is Na3C6H5O7.Helps the melting of Cheddar and Emmental, and contributes to the flavour of the processed cheese.
 Enzyme modified cheese flavour – A flavouring material made from reacting cheese curd with selected proteolytic and lipolytic enzymes.Used to give processed cheese a flavour boost and compensate for the low flavour qualities of the Cheddar and Emmental cheeses.


Tomatoes – Starches in tomatoes are converted to fructose as they ripen, making them sweeter. Lycopene, a carotenoid pigment in tomatoes, give the fruit its red colour. Adds sweetness and an attractive colour to the hamburger.


Ingredients Additives Function
Pickles – Fruits such as gherkins and cucumber are immersed in a brine solution and lactic acid bacteria colonize the fruit converting sugars to lactic acid. The pH is lowered to below pH 4 at which point there is enough lactic acid to preserve the product. Adds flavour from the fruit and lactic acid as well as texture to the hamburger.


Tomatoes – Main constituent of ketchup Provide body, flavour and colour.
Sugar – Table sugar or sucrose Sweetens and provides osmotic pressure which aids preservation.
Spirit vinegar – Flavourless vinegar made by fermenting sugars to alcohol and conversion to acetic acid. Lowers pH which aids preservation and imparts sharp, acid flavour.
Salt – Table salt with the chemical formula NaCl. Contributes to preservation and provides flavour
Spices – Mixed spices according to manufacturer’s recipe. Provides flavour.
Onion powder – Dehydrated and powdered onion. Provides flavour.
Garlic powder – Dehydrated and powdered garlic. Provides flavour.


Soybean oil – Main constituent and a key component of oil-in-water emulsion or colloidal dispersion of oil in the water phase. Provides body, colour and flavour.
Water Solvent for water soluble components and continuous phase of the emulsion.
Whole eggs and egg yolks – Rich source of the natural emulsifier, lecithin. Provides emulsifier required for producing a stable emulsion. Also adds water.
Vinegar – Malt or wine vinegar made by fermenting barley or grape sugars to alcohol and conversion to acetic acid. Aids preservation by reducing pH and adds sharp, acid flavour.
Salt – Table salt with the chemical formula NaCl. Contributes to preservation and provides flavour.
Sugar – Table sugar or sucrose. Sweetens and provides osmotic pressure which aids preservation.


Water Solvent for water soluble ingredients and basis of the mustard paste.
Mustard seeds – Seeds are milled to make mustard flour. Mustard contains an enzyme, myrosinase, and glucosilonates. Mixing in water causes the enzyme to convert the glucosilonates to various isothyocyanate compounds, commonly termed mustard oil. This is the source of mustard aroma and flavour. Provides sharp, hot flavour, aroma and body.
Vinegar – Malt or wine vinegar made by fermenting barley or grape sugars to alcohol and conversion to acetic acid. Aids preservation by reducing pH and adds sharp, acid flavour.
Sugar – Table sugar or sucrose.  
Salt – Table salt with the chemical formula NaCl.  
Vegetable oil – May be one of a number of unspecified vegetable oils e.g. sunflower, maize, etc. Provides texture/mouthfeel and flavour. Helps to disperse oil soluble flavour components from the mustard seed.
Spices – Mixed spices according to manufacturer’s recipe. Provides flavour.
 Xanthan gum – A polysaccharide secreted by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. Used widely in foods to modify viscosity and rheological properties.Used as a thickener and to stablise water preventing separation, technically known as syneresis.
 Potassium metabisulphite – A white crystalline powder with the chemical formula K2S2O5 thereby containing sulpher. Liberates a pungent sulpherous odour.Used for its antioxidant and disinfection properties.
 Flavouring – May be nature identical or synthetic flavoursBoosts flavour profile of the product.
 Colouring (beta-carotene) – A compound that has a bright orange/yellow colour as found in carrots. Converted to vitamin A by the human body.Give the product an appealing yellow colour.