Summer Staple – Anti-Caking Agents

With summer humidity in full swing, let’s take a look at a group of ingredients that help keep our foods fresh; anti-caking agents.

Summer humidity isn’t the only need for anti-caking agents, these compounds help keep our cheese, salt, sugar, flour, and more clump-free and usable.

What are anti-caking agents?

Anti-caking agents are ingredients added in small amounts to foods, cosmetics, and more to prevent products from clumping and binding together.

There are many different anti-caking ingredients with GRAS status on the market. Manufactures choose the anti-caking agent to use based on product and consumer expectation. For example, consumers expect salt to flow freely from salt shakers. Anti-caking agents allow salt to free-flow without clumping.

Why do we need anti-caking agents, and how do they work?

There are many foods and products that readily absorb water or oils. The absorption of this water or oil can cause products to clump together and in some cases, become unusable. This is especially true for cake mixes, flour, sugar, table salt, and many other granular food products as they are crystalline structures. When these crystalline structures absorb water or oils, they can create a liquid bridge that forms into a crystal bridge. This crystal bridge binds the food product together making it difficult to use.

You may have noticed that some restaurants add rice to the salt in their salt shaker or maybe you’ve seen people add rice to brown sugar. This is a low-tech way of adding additional clumping protection to foods because the rice absorbs excess moisture and protects the foods from the above clumping process.

Manufacturers add anti-caking agents in small amounts to products they want to keep free-flowing. These anti-caking agents coat individual particles thus separating the particles from each other, so a crystal bridge does not form and cause clumping.

What are anti-caking agents and are they labeled?

There are many anti-caking agents that work with a number of foods and food formulations. For example, sodium aluminosilicate is used in sugar, salt, non-dairy creamers and more to absorb moisture, microcrystalline cellulose (a.k.a., powdered cellulose) keeps our shredded cheese from clumping, and calcium silicate prevents salts, seasonings and dry mixes from caking.

There are many more anti-caking agents that keep our foods clump-free and easy to use. You can check out the full list of anti-caking agents in our everyday foods and products on the FDA’s website. Additionally, you can search to see which products contain specific anti-caking agents on the USDA’s FoodData Central database.

Due to the extremely small amounts of GRAS anti-caking agents added to foods, anti-caking ingredients are not always added to the ingredient list on food labels. This is permitted under current FDA food guidelines because anti-caking agents do not typically impact the shelf-life of a product and are added in such small amounts that the law permits omitting it from the label.

Are they safe?

The current state-of-the-science supports anti-caking agents’ GRAS status, making these ingredients safe as long as they are used within the outlined guidelines. As with any ingredient we cover, if we receive new information that may change the safety status of an anti-caking ingredient, we will update our information.

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