Food Ingredients

As you work on developing your product, one of the keys to success is in knowing the various basic ingredients that are added to foods, as well as how they're used. Six groups of ingredients are commonly found in food products:

  • sweeteners;
  • starches;
  • fats and oils;
  • flavours;
  • spices; and
  • food additives.

Once you have read through this section, you should be able to answer the following questions about the food ingredients covered:

  • What forms does it come in?
  • When would I use it?

Note that for information about sources for any food ingredients, you can contact the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs at 1-888-466-2372.


The taste sensation of sweetness is one of the most highly regarded attributes of food substances. To most people, sweetness comes from sucrose, the white granular sweetener sold in the supermarket. To the food processor, however, sweetness can come from a number of different carbohydrate sources.

Commercially Available Sugar Products

You can choose from a wide variety of sugar products.

Sugar Beet/Cane Products

Products in this category include the following:

  • Dry granulated sugar: This type of sugar is commonly referred to as table sugar or sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide. It is composed of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose.
  • Sucrose is processed in a variety of granulations to fulfil different processing requirements. For example, fine granulated sugar is used for direct consumption, whereas powdered sugar may be used for confections and baking.

    Dry granulated sugar is packaged in large, multilayer paper bags. A moisture barrier layer must be present to slow the penetration of moisture and the release of water thatbe stored in dry areas. Generally, if the relative humidity of the air is less than 70 percent, little or no clumping will occur. You can also minimize clumping by rolling the bags every few days to prevent a hard mass from forming. causes clumping.

    The clumping of dry sugar is a common problem. To prevent it, bags of sugar should be stored in dry areas. Generally, if the relative humidity of the air is less than 70 percent, little or no clumping will occur. You can also minimize clumping by rolling the bags every few days to prevent a hard mass from forming.

    As a rule of thumb, as the size of granulation decreases, there is an increase in tendency for clumping because of the larger crystal surface area. In products such as icing and powdered sugars, about three percent cornstarch is added. The starch absorbs the moisture, which prevents the sugar from clumping.

  • Liquid sugar/sucrose: Liquid sugar is simply the melted form of refined granular sugar. The typical percentage of sucrose in liquid sugar is 66 to 68 percent, and the remaining 34 to 32 percent is water.
  • Invert liquid sugar: Invert sugar is made from sucrose by splitting the sucrose into its component parts, glucose and fructose. (Glucose is also referred to as "dextrose." Fructose is also referred to as "levulose."). Invert sugar is a liquid mixture of these component sugars. An equal ratio of glucose to fructose is always obtained during this process. Varying levels of invert sugar are available to food processors, ranging from 10 percent to 90 percent. As invert sugar has a higher sweetness level than sucrose, it is often more economical to use.
  • Molasses: Molasses is the "concentrated juice extracted from sugar-bearing plants, such as the viscous liquid produced in the refining of sugar." (Pancoast and Junk, 1980). Fancy is the term given to the highest grade of molasses, and blackstrap molasses is the final syrup obtained in the refining process.
  • Brown/yellow or golden sugar: The trade usually refers to brown sugars as soft sugars because they are typically used for their characteristic flavour. Brown sugar is a fine-grain sugar covered with a very thin layer of syrup, usually cane molasses. The grades are based on the degree of brown colour. The clumping of brown sugar is very problematic if it isn't stored properly. In low relative humidity conditions, loss of moisture causes the layer of syrup to become sticky. However, if it's stored in high relative humidity, the syrup is permitted to regain moisture. Ideally, brown sugars should be stored at a relative humidity of between 60 percent and 70 percent.
Corn Products

Corn sugars are classified as any carbohydrate obtained by the partial or complete breakdown of cornstarch. All corn sugars are processed to have a dextrose equivalent of greater than 20.

Maltodextrins are also obtained from the breakdown of cornstarch. However, they possess dextrose equivalents of less than 20.

It is important to define the widely used term "dextrose equivalent" (DE). This is the percent of reducing sugars in the syrup, calculated as dextrose (that is, glucose) on a dry weight basis. The simple way to remember this is that DE indicates what percentage of syrup is glucose.

  • Corn syrup: Corn syrup is produced from the starch of corn by a series of chemical reactions called hydrolysis. Corn syrup is a very viscous liquid that gains much of its sweetness from its high glucose content. Corn syrup is the only type of corn sugar sold at the retail level.
  • Glucose (dextrose) : Glucose is the product of the complete breakdown of starch. It is available to food processors in a liquid solution form or a crystalline sugar form.
  • In Canada and the United States, glucose syrup made from corn is referred to as corn syrup. This could create some confusion. Therefore, it's important that you request the proper ingredient from suppliers.
  • Corn syrup solids (CSS): These are the dried version of corn syrup, and may also be referred to as dried glucose solids. CSS are classified according to particle size, carbohydrate distribution and dextrose equivalent.
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS): This type of syrup is similar to invert sugar, but it doesn't have an equal ratio of glucose to fructose. HFCSs are classified according to their glucose-fructose ratio.
  • The trend in industry is to increase the amount of fructose with a corresponding decrease of glucose. This causes a syrup with a higher sweetness level, so that less syrup is required. However, this is often counterbalanced by the higher cost of processing.

    In Canada, HFCS is called "glucose-fructose" in the ingredient statement. The proportion of glucose to fructose affects the terminology.

  • Fructose: Fructose has the highest sweetness level of any commercial sugar. Therefore, only a small amount is usually required in food. It is available as a solution or a crystalline powder.
  • Maltodextrin: Maltodextrins in a strict sense shouldn't be considered sweeteners, because they possess little sweetness. However, they are often used to control sweetness. As mentioned earlier, maltodextrins are obtained from starch that has been processed to have a DE of less than 20. They are sold as a dry white powder that can be reconstituted in water. They are classified by their DE value and their bulk densities. Because they possess a large volume in comparison to their weight, they are often used as fillers.

Food processors generally use two types of honey: white and golden. Golden honey imparts more flavour and, as the name implies, is a golden yellow colour. White honey is less sweet and possesses little colour. Golden honey is less expensive than white honey.

Artificial Sweeteners

Two choices of artificial sweeteners are available:

  • Aspartame: This artificial sweetener, with the brand name Nutrasweet®, was approved by Health Canada in 1981. It is a dipeptide, composed of two amino acids, that possesses a sweetness value 160 to 200 times that of sugar. Because aspartame isn't heat stable, its applications are limited. A recent development, however-encapsulated aspartame-does have applications now in baking. One remaining difficulty with aspartame is that it can't be consumed by people with phenylketonuria, a genetic condition where the amino acid phenylalanine can't be broken down by the body.
  • Sucralose: This non-nutritive artificial sweetener, more commonly known as Splenda®, was approved by Health Canada in 1991. Sucralose is a synthetic form of sucrose that contributes no calories and is 600 times as sweet as sugar. Since sucralose is more stable at high temperatures, it can be used in bakery and cooked product applications.

Functions of Sugars

Sugars have the following functions:

  • Sweetness: Not all sugars impart the same level of sweetness. When establishing the sweetness level of your food product, you need to consider the relative sweetness of the sugar. A value of 100 has been arbitrarily assigned to sucrose, which is used as the benchmark. All other sugars are given a value depending on their relative sweetness to sucrose. For example, fructose has been assigned a value of 170, which means fructose is 1.7 times as sweet as sucrose. The Relative Sweetness chart below lists the sweetness values of some of the commercial sugars available. Use such a system only as a guideline. Note that sugars shouldn't be substituted directly based on values given, without experimentation.
Relative Sweetness
Sweetener Relative Sweetness To Sucrose
HFCS 42% fructose 100
HFCS 55% fructose 100-110
42DE corn syrup 40-45
54 DE corn syrup 50-55
Molasses 75
Fructose 150-170
Lactose 40
Glucose (dextrose) 70-80
Honey 97
Sucrose 100
Adapted from: Pancoast and Junk (1980)

  • Humectancy: This is the ability of an ingredient to resist a change in moisture content. With respect to sugars, humectancy is related to the water activity of sugar solutions. Thus, adding some sugars to a food product will reduce water activity.
  • Preservation: The growth of some microorganisms is inhibited by high sugar concentration.
  • Fermentable carbohydrate: Some sugars are used by yeast to produce either carbon dioxide or alcohol. This is beneficial in products such as dough and wine.
  • Browning: Reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) take part in a browning reaction with amino acids in the absence of water. This reaction is known as "maillard browning." The reaction forms pigments that exhibit a brown colour. Maillard browning is evident in toast, baked goods and certain cooked meat products.
  • Bulking agent: Some sugars that possess a low sweetness level can be used to add volume to a food product without overpowering the flavour of the product. For example, low-calorie table sweeteners made from artificial sweeteners use maltodextrins as a filler.
  • Hygroscopicity: Some dry sugars readily absorb moisture. This is a negative property, because it causes clumping. Some sugars, however, have a very low capacity to absorb moisture. These sugars are used in products where moisture absorption is undesirable.

Fats and Oils

The difference between a fat and an oil is its state at room temperature. That is, a fat is solid at room temperature, whereas an oil is liquid. Today, consumer diet and health concerns have forced food processors to choose very carefully the fats and oils they include in their food products. Fat provides twice as many calories per gram as either carbohydrate or protein, and contributes to health problems if consumed in excess. Unfortunately, certain foods can't retain characteristic properties without fat. Knowledge of the properties of fats and oils will help you reduce the level of fat, hopefully without sacrificing quality.

Functions of Fats and Oils

Fats and oils have four functions:

  • Palatability: contributes characteristic flavours and aromas, and aids in colour development.
  • Satiety: makes you feel full
  • Texture: contributes to tenderness and flakiness, mouth-feel.
  • Cooking medium: can be heated above the temperature of boiling water, resulting in an alternative method of food preparation.
Types of Oil

Most oils purchased by food processors and consumers alike have been refined. That is, they have been previously processed to remove odour, colour and other impurities.

Adding hydrogen to the double bonds of fatty acids makes them saturated. This changes the properties of oils, because increasing the level of saturation increases an oil's melting point. As a result, the oil becomes more stable and more solid at room temperature. That is, it is converted to a solid fat. This process is used in manufacturing margarine and shortening.

Common Food Oils

Some of the common oils available to food processors include:

  • Soybean oil: This is a low-cost, highly unsaturated vegetable oil. It is very unstable even after typical refining processes. That's why it must be hydrogenated slightly for use in salad dressings and mayonnaise.

    Partially hydrogenated soybean oil is the most abundant oil used in shortenings and margarines. It isn't used for frying because of its instability.

  • Cottonseed oil: With the advent of the more cheaply produced canola and soybean oils, cottonseed oil has lost its popularity. Because cottonseed oil has many of the same properties as soybean oil, its extra cost isn't warranted in certain applications.
  • However, unlike soybean oil, cottonseed oil can be used in frying applications. During frying, it is often combined with other oils, because its characteristic nutty notes are used to mask the off-notes of other oils.
  • Canola oil: Today, canola oil is the most commonly used oil by food processors and households alike. It is a result of a Canadian 20-year breeding program of rapeseed. Canola oil is very similar to soybean oil with respect to its uses in salad dressings, shortenings and margarines, and cooking applications. Canola oil contains moderate levels of polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, and is one of the lowest in saturated fats available commercially.
  • Corn oil: The production of corn oil is limited by the demand for cornstarch products. It is primarily used in the unhydrogenated liquid form and sold to consumers. With the promotion of polyunsaturated oils, it has been included in margarines, although it has no functional advantages over soybean oil.
  • Palm oil: Palm oil is sold at room temperature. This means it can be used as a shortening without hydrogenation. Its use is mainly a factor of cost and availability. Palm oil may be further processed, where one fraction obtained is used as a cooking oil and the other is used for margarines.
  • Sunflower oil: The characteristic flavour of sunflower oil, together with its good stability, makes it a very popular oil throughout the world. It is used in a wide variety of applications and is sold for a moderate cost.
  • Safflower oil: This oil gained its popularity with the increase in demand for polyunsaturated fats. Safflower oil is typically used in specialty mayonnaise and salad dressings, where a polyunsaturated claim is very important. The high level of unsaturation causes safflower oil to be very unstable in frying conditions, so it is rarely used in households.
  • Peanut oil: Although peanut oil is more costly than other frying oils, it is often used among snack and fast-food processors because of the roasted-peanut notes it gives to food products. That's why frying is one of peanut oil's primary food applications.
  • Olive oil: originated from Mediterranean countries, although it is also grown now in California. In North America, olive oil is considered a gourmet item because it is highly flavoured and more expensive than other oils. Olive oil is typically used for dressings and frying. "Virgin" olive oil is simply the oil pressed from the olive. It is sold in three grades: "extra," "fine" and "ordinary," depending on the free fatty acid content of each. "Pure" olive oil is either a blend of virgin and refined oils or simply refined olive oil. "Blended" olive oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and a second-grade oil, and "industrial" olive oil has been stripped and deodorized to be a bland oil.
  • Coconut oil: This oil is liquid at room temperature. However, just below room temperature it becomes solid. This happens because coconut oil is very high in saturated fats. This property makes it ideal for snack foods and confections. Coconut oil is an excellent frying oil for nuts and snack foods that require a long shelf life because of its stability. Because it doesn't feel greasy in the mouth, it is also used for coatings and lubricants in confectionery products. Coconut oil's limitation is that it easily forms a soapy flavour because of rancidity. Due to consumer demands for unsaturated fats, coconut oil is being omitted in many foods by processors.
  • Palm kernel oil: This oil is highly saturated and, as a result, is even more solid than coconut oil at room temperature. Like coconut oil, it is often used in confections. Palm kernel oil is also being phased out of food products due to consumer demand for healthier fats in food.
  • Fish oils: These are mainly used by manufacturers of shortening and margarine in Canada and Europe. Because of their nutritional profile, there has been a renewed interest in fish oils. They are highly polyunsaturated, and they possess omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to help reduce heart disease.

Unfortunately, fish oils must be slightly or partially hydrogenated (increasing the amount of saturates), otherwise they emit strong fishy odours.

Storing Oils

Store oils in a dark place to avoid oxidative rancidity. If they are kept at room temperature, they may have a shelf life of several weeks before they become rancid. If you store them at refrigerator temperatures, they will have a longer shelf life, but will become solid. Generally, the same is true for hydrogenated oils. It's also important that lids are fastened securely to prevent air from entering, which also promotes oxidative rancidity.

Types of Fat

You also have several fats from which to choose.

Your Fat Choices

Fats available to food processors include:

  • Cocoa butter: This is a major commercial vegetable butter. It is unique because it melts sharply at 37°C, which is body temperature. It is cocoa butter that gives the silky mouth-feel to chocolate. Imitation chocolates that use other vegetable oils can't mimic the way chocolate with cocoa butter melts in the mouth. Because of this unique property, cocoa butter is very expensive.
  • Lard and tallow: Lard and tallow are both meat fats prepared by rendering pork and beef, respectively. Rendering involves heating solid animal fat to a liquid for fat removal. Both are 100 percent fat, consisting mainly of saturated fatty acids. They are solid at room temperature.
  • Shortening: Shortening, other than butter or lard, is defined by the Food and Drug Act and Regulations as a semi-solid food prepared from fats, oils or a combination of fats and oils. Shortening may be processed by hydrogenation and may contain any of a wide range of ingredients, including stearyl monoglyceridyl, certain preservatives and others. Emulsifiers, for instance, may be added to shortenings used for bakery applications to promote small, evenly distributed air pockets and retard staling. You can buy shortening in the solid, fluid or powdered form depending on the application.
  • Butter: Butter is made from milk fat (that is, cream). It contains about 83 percent fat and 16 percent water. Salt may also be added for flavour and preservation. Although butter is an expensive form of solid fat, it is often used because of its pleasing colour and flavour. Other butter fat products include powdered butter, whipped butter and butter oil.
  • Margarine: Margarine is made from either a single source of vegetable oil or a blend of vegetable oils. It may be hydrogenated to become a spreadable solid fat at room temperature. Margarine differs from shortening in that it contains only 80 percent oil. The remaining 20 percent is water and possibly colour, flavour, vitamins A and D, and emulsifying agents.
Storing Fats

Fats that are used quite regularly can be kept at room temperature for ease of use. Generally, however, fat should be stored at refrigerator temperature to retard hydrolytic rancidity. Fats should also be tightly covered to prevent them from picking up neighbouring flavours and odours.

Selecting the Proper Fat or Oil For Your Food Application

Fats and oils can often be substituted for one another. Therefore, the first decision you must make is whether a solid fat or a liquid oil is best suited for your particular application. Then you must weigh the pros and cons of each type of fat or oil with respect to nutrition, functionality, flavour, shelf-life and cost. Answering the following questions will help sort out which fats or oils are best for your application: 1. Do you specifically need a liquid fat for a salad dressing or for frying applications? 2. Do you need a solid fat to create flakes in your product? 3. Is there enough fat or oil in your product to affect the overall flavour of the product? Is it a positive or negative flavour? 4. Is your ingredient line aimed at being health conscious? 5. What is the expected shelf life of your product? 6. At what temperature will your product be stored? 7. Do you foresee a need for an antioxidant?

Food Starches

Starch is found in plant cells as microscopic granules. It is extracted from plants and used in food products as a thickening and gelling agent. Starch is a large constituent of some plants, especially cereal grains. This is evident when we cook pasta, rice or oatmeal, as they swell and double or even triple in volume.

Functions of Starch

Starch has two functions-thickening and gelling.


Two things must be present in order for starch to swell and thicken a food product: water and heat. By adding heat, water is able to penetrate the starch granule and swelling occurs. The temperature range over which gelling occurs is called the gelatinization range. This range is characteristic for each starch. It is important to heat a starch for a short period at or beyond its gelatinization temperature to remove the flavour of the starch. A few types of modified starches are available that don't require heat for swelling. These are referred to as cold water soluble starches. When water is absorbed by the starch granule in a starch mixture, less water is available to make the mixture fluid. Generally, starch will swell until no more water is available. It is by this means that starches are capable of thickening food products. Note that acids break down the starch molecule, causing them to have less thickening power. A modified starch is required for acidic food products to enhance thickening.


Some starches have the ability to form gels. A gel is a three-dimensional network that is able to trap water. It is easily recognizable, because gels are mouldable and they take the shape of the container. A gel increases the rigidity of the starch mixture and, therefore, a food product. A starch must first be heated, swollen and allowed to cool before any type of gel can be developed. Only after cooling will a gel form. Note that when a gel stands it becomes weaker as a result of trapped water being released. This can create many problems in food products. For example, consumers will reject a pudding that is sitting in fluid.

Types of Starches

There are two kinds of starches-natural starches and those that are modified.

Natural Starches
The type of starch you use in a food application determines:

  • whether a gel will or will not be formed; and
  • the strength of the gel, if formed.

Starch from root plants, such as potato and tapioca, are termed waxy starches. They don't form gels, so they're used mainly for thickening. On the other hand, starches from cereal grains, such as corn, wheat and rice, do form gels in food products.

Modified Starches

Modified starches are chemically altered to change and improve the properties of natural starches. The following modified starches are available for food processing:

  • Parboiled/pregelatinized starch: This is cold-water soluble, so it rehydrates very quickly in water. Generally, this type of starch is used as a thickening and binding agent in food applications, such as instant pudding and pie fillings.
  • Acid-modified starch (thin-boiling starch): When this starch is cooled, a rubbery gel is formed. This type of starch is used mainly in candy manufacture, and is the principal starch used for gummy bear-type candies.
  • Cross-linked starches: These starches have an increased stability to heat, agitation and shear. However, they are used mainly because of their functionality at low pHs and their excellent freeze-thaw stability. Their applications include baby foods, cream corn and fruit pie fillings.
  • Starch derivatives: These starches are treated in such a way as to cause a decrease in gelatinization temperature and tendency to separate.
What Type of Starch Do You Need?

Before you begin contacting suppliers to determine which starch will best suit your needs, you must answer the following questions. Suppliers will likely ask these in order to provide you with the most suitable starch for your application. 1. Are water and heat available in your food application? 2. Up to what temperature will your product be heated? 3. Do you require the starch to be cold-water soluble? 4. Do you want thickening only? 5. Does your product require a gel to be formed? 6. Do you require a freeze/thaw stable starch? 7. What is the pH of your product?


The flavour industry was derived from the fragrance and pharmaceutical industry only 150 years ago. Although it is relatively new, analytical techniques have made it possible to identify flavour components in food products down to the parts-per-trillion level. As a result, a huge array of flavours is available to food processors for various applications including confectionery, savoury, baked goods, snack foods and beverages.

Working with Flavours

When you're working with flavours, accuracy and mixing method are vitally important if you want to produce a consistent, reproducible, homogeneous product. Because flavours are highly concentrated, many are dispersed in a solvent such as propylene glycol or alcohol. Usually, the flavour portion of a food product doesn't exceed two percent. It's also important to note that some flavours contain natural or artificial colours that could be transferred to food products. This may be desirable or undesirable, depending on the application.


There is a wide range in cost among flavours. Some can be purchased for as low as $3 a kilogram, while others can cost more than $40 a kilogram. Cost usually depends on the following:

  • the form in which the flavour is ordered (liquid, powder);
  • whether it is natural or artificial;
  • the cost of the raw material from which it is derived;
  • the flavour house from which it is ordered; and
  • the amount you use in your formula.
Common Flavour Forms

In Canada, natural, naturally fortified and artificial flavours can be added to most food products. There is no restriction on the level of flavour allowable in foods. It is up to you to exercise safe usage levels. Natural flavour is made entirely of materials derived from the named source of the material. For example, "natural apple flavour" must by law contain only apple extracts. Naturally fortified flavour (W.O.N.F.) is made entirely of natural material. Fifty-one percent must be from the named flavour and the rest must be from other natural sources. (W.O.N.F. is an acronym used in the industry that stands for With Other Natural Flavours.) Artificial or imitation flavour is made entirely or partly of substances that are synthetically produced.

Flavours in Liquid Form

Liquid flavours include the following:

  • Essential oil: an aromatic oily liquid derived from the most flavourful part of the plant.
  • Folded oil: an essential oil that has been concentrated. For example, a four-fold oil has had its original volume reduced four times. It is important to note that the flavour character is not the same as the original because the ratio of its components is distorted.
  • Isolate:raw material isolated from its natural source (for example, vanillin from vanilla).
  • Extract: material separated from a liquid or solid by a solvent.
  • Oleoresin: solvent-free extract from spices and plants.
  • Juice: liquid obtained by expressing fruit.
  • Concentrate: fruit juice that has been concentrated by removing water.
Flavours in Solid Form

Flavours are available as powders in two forms:

  • Plated: A liquid or solid material is dispersed on a dry carrier such as salt.
  • Spray dried: A liquid is atomized into fine droplets and then dried.
Herbs and Spices

Technically, herbs and spices are considered to be flavours because they impart flavour to food. More information about herbs and spices can be found in the next section of this part of the guide.

Flavour Enhancers

Flavour enhancers are compounds that increase the taste of any flavour-inherent or added-that is present in food products. These compounds themselves don't have any taste or aroma; they just enhance others. Flavour enhancers are often used in soups, stock cubes and meat products. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavour enhancer that has seen some controversy in the past few years. It is estimated that less than five percent of the population experiences an allergic reaction when MSG is ingested. However, many processors are eliminating it from their food products in order to protect their customers.

Storing Flavours

Flavours can be quite costly, so it's important to maintain their integrity for as long as possible by storing them properly. They should be tightly sealed and stored in full containers. Even a little headspace can cause flavour deterioration through oxidation. When you order flavours, be sure to get storage directions from the flavour house, because each flavour reacts differently to different conditions. Some flavours, when exposed to too cold conditions, precipitate or crystallize. Others, when exposed to too warm conditions, may lose flavour, oxidize or change colour. Generally, as a flavour ages it will lose its flavour intensity and possibly darken in colour.

Sourcing Food Flavours

Answering these questions will aid you in your search for the perfect flavour,

1. Make a list of descriptors to describe the flavour you wish to impart to your product. (For example, for vanilla ice cream: creamy, sweet, subtle, aromatic, little vanillin notes). 2. What type of flavour do you require? Natural, Artificial, Liquid, Powder 3. Do you wish to have a flavour that contributes colour to your product? Yes, No, Doesn't matter 4. What is your estimation of flavour cost in your product? per unit 5. At what stage in your process will your flavour be added? At very beginning, At very end, Before heating, After heating 6. Does your flavour need to be heat stable? If yes, what is the maximum temperature your product would undergo during manufacturing? Celsius, Fahrenheit

Herbs, Spices and Seasonings

A spice is any root, bud, seed or bark derived from a plant grown in a tropical zone that is used to season foods. A herb comes from a seed plant that has no woody tissue and is grown in a temperate zone. Both herbs and spices vary in colour and flavour from crop to crop. The word "spice" is commonly used to refer to any vegetable substance that flavours food. For example, basil is a herb, but it is often grouped under the spice category. In this section, "spices" will refer to both spices and herbs. Spice combinations and levels used in pre-packaged foods typically stem from consumer trends. For example, 15 to 20 years ago there were very few, if any, salsas on the retail shelves. Today, however, consumers can choose from a wide variety of flavour combinations to best suit their particular taste and intensity of preference. As a food processor, you must be careful, especially when marketing to the mass population, that the majority of your market prefers the level of spice you use. Cultural impacts have been very influential in sparking the idea for new food products in recent years, and we can expect an increase in ethnic foods in the future. This gives you many opportunities to experiment with various spice blends.

Functions of Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices have the following functions:

  • Flavour: The flavouring portion of spices is found in their volatile essential oils and their non-volatile oleoresins.
  • Appearance: Spices make foods appealing by adding a colour contrast to products.
  • Antioxidant: Some spices retard the oxidation of fats in certain food. An example is rosemary in sausages.
  • Preservative: Certain spices-for example, mustard, cinnamon and cloves-contain antimicrobial compounds that retard or inhibit the growth of moulds, yeasts or bacteria.
  • Medicinal properties: It is believed that some spices impart beneficial health aspects when they are eaten.
Forms of Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are available in the following forms:

  • Dehydrated: Water is removed to increase the stability and shelf life of the plant component. The most common dehydrated spices are onion and garlic powders.
  • Ground: Spices are often milled into different sizes, ranging from cracked and coarse ground to table ground, fine ground and pulverized. Ground spices offer the advantage of being easy to handle and weigh accurately. It is generally true that the finer the grind, the quicker the flavour is detected in a food product. However, it's also true that the finer the grind, the shorter the shelf life of the spice, because the flavour is lost more quickly. When choosing the grind size, consider the spice visibility and uniformity of the flavour you want. A larger size of grind will add contrast to foods, but the product won't have an equal intensity of flavour throughout. Ground spices have the following drawbacks-—
    • loss of flavour during grinding;
    • variable flavour strength;
    • microbial contamination;
    • easily adulterated;
    • flavour loss during storage;
    • poor distribution of flavour in liquid products; and
    • bulk handling that's dusty.

 Some ingredient suppliers have devised a way to standardize the  intensity level of ground spices. When you are sourcing ground  spices for your product, be sure to ask the supplier if a  standardization system is in place.

  • Sterilized: Spice houses began sterilizing spices to overcome problems of contamination of food products with "unclean" whole or ground spices. The process involves exposing the ground spices to ethylene oxide gas to reduce the bacterial load. It's important to note that bacteria is only reduced, not totally eliminated. One application for sterilized spices is processed meat products.
  • Blends/seasonings: A spice blend, or seasoning, is made up of two or more different spices, for example curry or chili spice.
  • Essential oils: An essential spice oil is the extract obtained from a particular spice. You can purchase essential oils in liquid or dry form. The advantage of using this type of spice is that:
    • a standard flavour and intensity are obtained;
    • the oil is free from micro-organisms;
    • the oil is stable under proper storage conditions; and
    • the oil doesn't add colour to food products.

    The main drawback in using this type of spice is that many spice oils lack components that are present in fresh ground spices, resulting in an incomplete flavour.

  • Oleoresins: Oleoresins are different from essential spice oils in that they possess all the flavouring ingredients of a particular spice. An oleoresin is an extremely concentrated, viscous extract prepared from freshly ground spices. Oleoresins are free from bacteria, and they may be standardized to a desired degree of flavour strength. Because oleoresins are highly concentrated liquids, they are somewhat difficult to weigh out in small quantities and incorporate into food products, especially dry mixes. To overcome this problem, you can buy them dispersed in a solvent.
  • Dispersed spices: A dispersed spice is one in which flavour components are extracted from spices and dispersed onto a soluble carrier (for example, salt or whey powder). This makes the spice more soluble in food products and rids it of microbial contamination. Ideally, these spices will possess the same flavour strength as freshly ground spices, so they can be substituted directly. You would need to do further product testing, however, to ensure appropriate substitution and usage levels.
Storing Herbs and Spices

Most spices should be stored in cool, dry conditions. However, the conditions may vary depending on the processes the spices have undergone. Whole, ground and liquid spices all require different conditions for proper storage. If spices are improperly stored, they could lose their flavour and aroma, and they could pick up water and turn mouldy. It's best to contact a spice house for specifics on the appropriate storage conditions for each product.

Outside Blending Suppliers

Very few manufacturers today blend their own spices. Most food processors buy from suppliers that specialize in blending seasonings. You'll find that using these suppliers is very economical and can often be cheaper than buying individual spices. When you're sourcing seasonings from such suppliers, you can opt to:

  • purchase one of the supplier's standard spice formulas;
  • purchase a standard formula that is slightly modified to meet particular flavour requirements; or
  • develop a "custom blend" that the supplier will blend for your sole use.

Some suppliers will also pack the spice blend in convenient pre-weighed, "unitized" measures to make it easy to use during processing. Because a single spice can be purchased from various parts of the world, spice houses have the challenge of providing spices to their customers that are consistent in flavour and intensity from month to month and from year to year. This is often a difficult task, so it's important that you evaluate the quality of the supplier. That is, consider the supplier's reliability, hygiene record, manufacturing capacity and level of quality control.

Food Additives

A food additive is any food-grade component that is added to food during preparation, processing or packaging in order to improve its quality. Food additives may be natural compounds derived from plants or animals or they may be derived from inorganic compounds found in nature, or even synthesized in laboratories.

Food Additive Control

The Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada is responsible for controlling food additives. You can't sell a food containing a food additive other than those listed in the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, Part B, Division 16. These regulations also outline the levels allowable in specific foods. The safety of all food additives is reviewed before they are accepted. The additives must also demonstrate their usefulness. Some additives, such as citric acid, have multiple prescribed purposes and can be used in a wide variety of foods. However, other additives, such as TBHQ, are very restricted in their use. In all cases, you should have the food additive reviewed to ensure that it is permitted in the food, is permitted for the prescribed function in that food and is present at a level within anyThese are used to lengthen the storage life of food products by slowing the growth of micro-organisms. By doing this, they reduce spoilage and lower the chance of food poisoning. Like all other food additives, the use of preservatives is regulated by the Food and Drug Act and Regulations. This specifies the foods in which certain preservatives may be used, along with their permitted usage levels. Some examples of preservatives prescribed limits.

The Food Additive Controversy

Consumers are becoming more skeptical of any foreign food substance in their food products. This is usually because they are unaware of the technological reasons for adding these substances. Many consumers are also unaware that not all compounds with "chemical" sounding names are synthetic food additives. For example, the food gum carrageenan is a naturally derived product from seaweed. Some food additives have received more public attention than others due to their questionable health concerns. Sodium nitrite and MSG are just two examples.

Why Use Food Additives

Many people feel that the use of food additives stemmed from the need to satisfy consumer demands. To some extent this is true; clumped salt, green oranges, fat pockets on bologna and grainy ice cream are all unacceptable to consumers. But what has likely had a greater impact on food additive usage is the discovery that, in many cases, functionality can be attained by innovative food ingredients at lower costs. There is often a cost advantage in using a food additive over a traditional food ingredient. You have the responsibility to ensure that an additive's functionality imparts the best possible quality at the lowest possible cost.

Some Common Food Additives

Many food additives are available for food processors.


These are used to lengthen the storage life of food products by slowing the growth of micro-organisms. By doing this, they reduce spoilage and lower the chance of food poisoning. Like all other food additives, the use of preservatives is regulated by the Food and Drug Act and Regulations. This specifies the foods in which certain preservatives may be used, along with their permitted usage levels. Some examples of preservatives and their applications include:

  • benzoic acid: prepared mustard
  • sulphite: potato flakes
  • sodium nitrite: frankfurters

Antioxidants prevent oxidative rancidity in fats and oils. They act by tying up oxygen so it is unavailable for oxidative reactions. Both natural and artificial antioxidants are available to food processors. Of the following examples, the first two can be found in nature or synthetically derived, while the third can only be synthetically derived.

Antioxidant Nutrient Source Example of Use
L-ascorbic acid Vitamin C Canned applesauce
Tocopherols Vitamin E Vegetable oil
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) Not applicable Dry breakfast cereal packaging

Thickeners and Gelling Agents

A thickener increases the viscosity of a food product, whereas a gelling agent imparts a jelly-like consistency to food. Some thickeners can also form a gel under appropriate conditions. Many types of thickeners and gelling agents are available to food processors. However, their behaviour in different applications varies greatly. Some examples of gelling agents and their applications include:

  • acacia gum: beer, salad dressings, ice cream
  • pectin: jam, milk, salad dressings
  • gelatin: jelly desserts, relishes, skim milk

Food manufacturers often use hydrocolloids-referred to as gums-to thicken or texturize their food products. Many gums are available, including carrageenan, alginate, locust bean gum, xanthan gum and guar gum. When you're choosing a gum for a particular application, you need to consider the following:

  • solubility;
  • viscosity and texture effects with respect to concentration, time and temperature;
  • stability to pH, temperature and shearing;
  • effect on taste;
  • regulatory status; and
  • cost.

Although it's helpful to know the properties of the gum, only by experimenting with it can you determine the proper gum and level for a certain application.

Stabilizers and Emulsifiers

An emulsion is a mixture of two immiscible liquids-that is, two liquids that can't be mixed. For example, a salad oil is an emulsion of oil and vinegar. Other examples include mayonnaise, margarine, ice cream and frankfurters. Emulsifiers help to make an even distribution of one immiscible liquid in the other. Stabilizers help to maintain an emulsion; they are generally gums. Examples of emulsifiers and their uses include:

  • mono and di-glycerides: chocolate
  • lecithin: margarine

Colours are added to foods to make them more attractive to consumers or to restore natural colour that was lost during processing. Because colour is used simply for aesthetic purposes, there is a controversy surrounding their use. Also, some colours have been banned for use in Canada because of detrimental side effects. Natural, inorganic and synthetic food colours are available to food processors. Examples of colours permitted in Canada and some of their uses include:

  • annato : cheese
  • caramel : ketchup
  • allura red (known as Red #40 in the U.S.): candy, fruit juice beverages

Flavours enhance the taste of pre-packaged food products. Natural or artificial flavours are available to food processors. (For more information, see the earlier discussion under "Food Flavours.")

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners replace sugar in reduced-calorie or diabetic foods. There are generally two types of sweeteners, one being caloric and the other non-caloric. (For more information, see the earlier discussion under "Sweeteners.")

Leavening Agents

Leavening agents are used in baked goods to get more volume and an airy structure. Examples of leavening agents and their uses include:

  • yeast: bread
  • sodium bicarbonate: cake
Flour Improvers and Dough Conditioners

These compounds speed up the leavening process and improve the texture of bread. For years potassium bromate was the main dough conditioner used in bread. However, based on public health concerns, it was withdrawn as a permitted food additive in 1995. Bromate has been replaced with sodium stearoy l-2 lactylate in most commercial applications.


Anticoagulants decrease the moisture absorbency of dry powders. As a result, they can prevent clumping and improve flowability. Some examples of anticoagulants and their uses include:

  • silicon dioxide: icing sugar
  • calcium stearate: salt
Anti-foaming Agents

These compounds are used industrially to prevent foam formation during processing. Examples and uses include:

  • dimethylpolysiloxane: lemonade
  • mono and di-glycerides: jam

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For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 30 August 2005
Last Reviewed: 12 July 2011