Food Additives

This section provides information on food additives and their regulation in Canada.

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What is a food additive?

A food additive is any chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage and either becomes a part of the food or affects its characteristics for the purpose of achieving a particular technical effect.

Substances that are used in food to maintain its nutritive quality, enhance its keeping quality, make it attractive or to aid in its processing, packaging or storage are all considered to be food additives. However, some substances that aid in the processing of food, under certain conditions, are considered to be food processing aids, not food additives. Further information in this regard is available in the Food Processing Aids webpage and in the "Policy for Differentiating Food Additives and Processing Aids".

Examples of food additives include colouring agents that give foods an appetizing appearance, anticaking agents that keep powders such as salt free-running, preservatives that prevent or delay undesirable spoilage in food, and certain sweeteners that are used to sweeten foods without appreciably adding to the caloric value of the foods.

Under the Food and Drug Regulations, food additives do not include:

  • food ingredients such as salt, sugar, starch;
  • vitamins, minerals, amino acidsFootnote 1;
  • spices, seasonings, flavouring preparations;
  • agricultural chemicals;
  • veterinary drugs; or
  • food packaging materials.

How are food additives regulated?

Food additives are regulated in Canada under the Food and Drug Regulations and associated Marketing Authorizations (MAs). All permitted food additives and their conditions of use are listed in the Lists of Permitted Food Additives.

If the Lists do not allow for a particular use of a food additive, the manufacturer is required to file a food additive submission in accordance with Section B.16.002 of the Food and Drug Regulations before that food additive can be used in foods sold in Canada. The submission must contain detailed information about the additive, its proposed use, the results of safety tests, and information on the effectiveness of the food additive for its intended use.

Scientists from Health Canada's Food Directorate, Health Products and Food Branch, conduct a detailed and rigorous pre-market evaluation of the submission that focuses on safety. The evaluation considers the toxicological aspects of the proposed use of the additive, as well as relevant microbiological and/or nutritional factors. Food additives must be of suitable quality, must be effective for their intended purpose, and, when used according to the Lists, must not pose a hazard to the health of the consumer.

The Food and Drug Regulations (the Regulations) require that food additives must meet certain standards for identity and purity in order for the additive to be considered food-grade. These standards, or specifications, were updated in the Regulations on December 14, 2016, in part to replace specifications that were set out in the Regulations for certain food colours with more up-to-date and internationally recognised specifications. Food additives, including most food colours, must meet the specifications of either the Food Chemicals Codex (FCC) or of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). The two food colours Ponceau SX and Citrus Red No. 2, for which there are no FCC or JECFA specifications, must continue to meet specifications set out in the Regulations.

The FCC is a compendium of quality standards for ingredients, including food additives, published by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. JECFA is an international expert scientific committee that is administered jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

For many years, synthetic colours were required to undergo lot-by-lot certification in order to verify that each lot met their specifications before they could be sold for use in food in Canada. A colour “lot” refers to a particular quantity of colour that was produced at the same time and under the same conditions. No other food additives are required to be certified. On December, 14, 2016, this certification requirement was removed. However, as with all food additives, all food colours are still legally required to meet their respective specifications.

The Bureau of Chemical Safety within Health Canada's Food Directorate coordinates the assessment of food additive submissions.

Food colour labelling

Food colours are regulated in Canada as food additives.

Like all food additives, when food colours are added to pre-packaged foods, they must be declared by common name in the list of ingredients. For many years, manufacturers have had the option of simply using the word “colour” as the common name for declaring added food colours. However, on December 14, 2016, Health Canada changed the Food and Drug Regulations in order to remove the option of using the word “colour”. This means that added food colours will have to be declared by their specific common name. Manufacturers have been given a five year transition period for changing food labels. After the transition period, all ingredient lists on food labels will need to comply with the updated regulations.

More information on Health Canada’s work to update food colour labelling requirements is available below.

Specific Topics on Food Additives

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