Processing Aids Used in Modern Food Production

Q: What are processing aids?

A: Processing aids are substances that are approved by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  They are used in the production of a variety of foods – meat, poultry, produce, etc., and are not present in any significant amount in the finished product.  When present in such insignificant amounts in any finished product, they do not affect appearance or taste and most importantly they have no impact on public health. 

Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognize three situations in which a manufacturing substance is deemed to be a processing aid:

  1. When substances are added to a food during processing but subsequently removed before the food reaches its finished form;
  2. When substances are added to a food during processing and are ultimately converted into components that naturally occur in the food at insignificant levels that do not change the natural makeup of the finished product;
  3. When substances are added to a food during processing and remain in the food but are present at only an insignificant level and have no technical or functional effect in the finished food.

Q: What functions do processing aids perform in the food production process?

A: Processing aids may perform a number of functions in the food production process.  For example, some serve to enhance food safety by reducing potential contamination in food during processing (antimicrobials) or facilitating an easier removal of impurities (flocculents).  Some ease the processing of the food product as a flow agent or to prevent the food product from crystallizing in the processing conditions.  Still other functions that processing aids serve include a pH control agent, a catalyst, or a clarifying agent.

Q: What are examples of common processing aids and how are they used in the modern food production?

A: Some processing aids approved by FDA that are commonly used in food production include:

  • Fruit and vegetable washes (examples include organic acids and chlorine washes).
  • Decoloring agents (examples include dimethylamine epichlorohydrin copolymer, which is used as a decoloring agent in the refinement of sugar).
  • Strengthening agents in food (examples include sodium stearoyl lactylate, used to strengthen dough in frozen pancakes and waffles).
  • Joining agents and enzymes (examples include rennet, which helps milk join together to make cheese).

Processing aids approved by USDA for use in meat and poultry products are commonly used to reduce or kill foodborne pathogens.  They also:

  • Control pH (examples include ammonium hydroxide)
  • Control bacteria in chill water (examples include chlorine gas and ozone).
  • Wash products during the entire production process (examples include organic acids).
  • Remove feathers from poultry (examples include scalding agents).
  • Other antimicrobial agents used to reduce foodborne pathogens (examples include trisodium phosphate and ammonium hydroxide).

Q: Do processing aids remain in the food after the production process is complete?  If so, how much is in the finished food?
A: Processing aids sometimes remain after processing and are present in the finished food, but only at safe and insignificant levels.

Q: How do FDA and USDA ensure the safety of processing aids?
A: For safety purposes, processing aids are regulated in the same manner as any other substance added to food. For example, if a processing aid is to be used in  meat or poultry production, it must be approved by FDA and authorized by USDA, which means it must be one of the following:

  1. A food additive approved by FDA prior to 1958 and whose safety is established on its history of safe use and consumption; or
  2. A substance that is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by a consensus among qualified experts that the ingredient is safe for its intended use and for which scientific data and information about the safety and use of the ingredient is widely known and publicly available (through scientific articles, position papers, etc.).
  3. For meat and poultry products regulated by USDA, data must be submitted to USDA so that they can determine whether or not the additive in question meets the FDA definition of a processing aid.

Q:  Why are processing aids not declared on food labels?

A: Processing aids are not required to be declared in the ingredients list on the food label because, by definition, processing aids have no technical or functional effect in the finished food and because they are either not present or are present at only insignificant levels in the finished food.  This labeling exemption dates back to 1973.  According to the FDA:

… to require label declaration of all incidental additives \[including processing aids\] which may be present in a finished food product in nonfunctional trace amounts would be impracticable…. Furthermore, to require lengthy listings of such substances might cause consumers to give undue attention to the essentially meaningless compilations resulting in deception and unfair competition from competing products whose manufacturers fail to do as thorough a job of imagining all possible substances which may be present in some trace amount. 

Other Resources:

Compliance Guide on the Determination of Processing Aids (April 8, 2008)

Questions and Answers about Ammonium Hydroxide Use in Food Production (IFIC Resource)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Resources on Food Additives (FDA)