What is a Processing Aid?

February 2017


Processing aids are substances or additives of natural or synthetic origin used in the production of foods. They are commonly used in a wide variety of products including bakery, confectionery, jams, jellies, meat and produce. The Food and Drug Administration or United States Department of Agriculture must approve processing aids prior to commercial use. They are considered extremely safe and are used in small volumes and do not alter the taste or appearance of the finished product.

The objective of this fact sheet is to describe the purpose and use of processing aids in the food industry.

Purpose of Processing Aids

The primary purpose of a processing aid is to facilitate the manufacturing of a food product. Processing aids are used for variety of reasons:

1. Improve product quality and consistency.

2. Enhance nutrition.

3. Help maintain product wholesomeness.

4. Enhance shelf life.

5. Help packing and transportation.

An incomplete list of process aids and their purposes is given in Table 1.

Examples of Processing Aids

Processing aids can include everything from food contact lubricants (Al-Mazeedi et al., 2013) used on equipment and pans to antimicrobials used in the final wash of produce to enhance shelf life and promote food safety (Hricova et al., 2008). Other examples include foaming agent, pH regulator and anti-caking agent. Table 1 gives examples of processing aids, food products they are used in and their purpose.

Table 1. Examples and functions of processing aids (Sources: Food Insight 2013; FDA 2017) incomplete list in alphabetical order according to product.

No.Food ProductsProcessing AidPurpose
1Apple juiceGelatin with gumsHelps to eliminate suspended particles
2Baked goods and baking mixesAgar-agarVegan substitute for gelatin that helps the gelling of mixes
4BreadPhospholipaseIncrease volume and prolongs softness
5CheeseRennetSeparates curd and whey
6Chill waterOzoneAntimicrobial
7DoughXylanaseIncreases flexibility
8Fish and meat (seafood)SaltDecrease water activity
to improve shelf life
9Frozen dough (e.g. waffles and pancakes)Sodium sterol lactylateStrengthens dough
10Fruit and vegetable washesChlorine organic acid washesAntimicrobial
11Liquid nitrogenBBQ sauceImproves stability of plastic container
12MeatAmmonium hydroxideAntimicrobial
13Products transported on conveyorsOil or syntheticLubricant
14SugarDimethylamine epichlorohydrin copolymerDecoloring agent helps
in clarification of sugar

Criteria for Processing Aids

The criteria stipulated to qualify for a processing aid by the FDA are listed in Table 2. In the United States, the Food Safety Inspection Service determines if a substance meets the criteria for a processing aid. Canada does not have a regulatory definition of a food-processing aid; however, food additives require pre-clearance by the Canadian minister of health (Health Canada Food and Nutrition, 2014).

Table 2. FDA / United States Guidelines for Processing Aids (adapted from Magazine et al., 2016)

CriteriaNo technical effect on final food product
IngredientsNo pre-approval process by FDA “Food Quality” under 21CFR Independent Evaluations + GRAS, EAFUS, FCC
LevelUsed at level to obtain needed effect. Some chemicals may have specified max allowable levels. Trace levels may be present in final food.
Process ComplianceGood Manufacturing Practice

Ethics of Using Processing Aids

Assuming processing aids are safe, ethical use is a top concern. Mehpam (2011) suggested three crucial ethical questions regarding food additives: (1) consumer sovereignty to act on informed judgments, (2) risk of harm to the consumer and (3) the effects on laboratory animals during testing. The answers to these questions may guide the ethical use of processing aids. Each concerned manufacturer and consumer should identify and explore the ethical issues associated with processing aids.

Ethical use of processing aids also may center around personal beliefs. Consumers on strict diets such as kosher, halal or vegetarian could have particular concerns about processing aids. For example, a vegetarian might want to avoid foods that have contacted processing aids made from animal fat (Tiersky 2012).

Future of Processing Aids

Owing to the advantages of using processing aids, they are not likely to be eliminated; however, continuous improvements in processing methods and equipment may make them obsolete. Improvements in the formulation and application of processing aids also might make them more effective and more ethical for their intended use. Finally, companies may opt to select more ethical processing aids or include them in their ingredient list.

Adding a processing aid to barbecue sauce

Nitrogen gas used as a processing aid in a barbecue sauce plant.

Food Safety

Processing aids are not required to be listed on the label, but some trace amounts of the material may remain in the product. Also, some processing aids are converted to normal constituents of the food but must not significantly increase the original amount. In any case, a processing aid is required to be “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). This means the overwhelming evidence considered by industry, academia and independent experts agrees the processing aid is safe for consumers.


Food-processing aids are important to the production of safe, quality foods. They perform valuable functions making them indispensable in many applications. Use of processing aids should be evaluated from the standpoint of food safety, ethics and efficiency (in that order) before use.


Al-Mazeedi HM, Regenstein JM, Riaz MN. 2013. The issue of undeclared ingredients in halal and kosher food production: A focus on processing aids. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf 12:228–233. doi: 10.1111/1541-4337.12002

Andrews, James. 2013. Processing Aids: What’s Not on the Label, and why? Food Safety News. Available at: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/06/processing-aids-whats-not-on-the-label-and-why/#.WFlSH2eV5mM. Accessed 2016 December 20.

Ethel Tiersky. 2012. What’s in Our Food? Maybe Processing Aids, Maybe Not. Shelf life advise. Available at: http://shelflifeadvice.com/content/whats-our-food-maybe-processing-aids-maybe-not. Accessed 2016 Sept 15.

Food and Drug Administration. 2017. Indirect additives used in food contact substances. Available at: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fdcc/?set=IndirectAdditives. Accessed 2017 Jan 04.

Food insight. 2013. Processing aids used in modern food production. Available at: http://www.foodinsight.org/Questions_and_Anwers_about_Processing_Aids_Used_in_Modern_Food_Production. Accessed 2016 December 20.

Health Canada Food and Nutrition. 2014. Policy for differentiating food additives and processing aids. Available at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/pubs/policy_fa-pa-eng.php. Accessed 2016 Sept 15.

Hricova D. Stephen R, Zweifel C .2008. Electrolyzed water and its application in the food industry. Journal of Food Protection. 71(9):1934-47.

Magazine F, Biege JH, Fuentes O, Keyes E. Additives and processing aids evolving requirements for food safety. Available at: http://assbt-proceedings.org/ASSBT2011Proceedings/Factory/Magazine.pdf. Accessed 2016 Sept 15.

Mepham, B. 2011. Food additives: an ethical evaluation. British Medical Bulletin, Oxford University Press. 99:  7-23. DOI:  10.1093/bmb/Idr024.

USDA. 2008. What is the definition of Processing Aid? Available at: http://askfsis.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/946/~/what-is-the-definition-of-a-processing-aid%3F. Accessed 2016 December 20.


Praveen Yerramsetti
Food Science Doctoral Student

Tim Bowser
Food Process Engineer


DASNR Extension Research CASNR
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