What Is Calcium Chloride Used for in Food?

If healthy eating habits are your goal, you're wise to read labels and monitor additives used in factory-made foods that dominate your grocery store aisles. Unlike some common villains such as sodium nitrite, olestra, saccharin and plain old salt, the additive calcium chloride generally does not pose a threat to your health. In fact, it can even give you a post-workout boost when used in certain drinks.

A large bowl of calcium chloride. (Image: Sveta615/iStock/Getty Images)

Identification

Calcium chloride is somewhat similar structurally to table salt but contains calcium instead of sodium. If you live in a snow-prone area, you most likely see the substance every winter in the form of the salt sprinkled on the streets and sidewalks to prevent snow and ice buildup. This use stems from calcium chloride's hygroscopic nature, meaning it absorbs water and then dissolves into it. It has an extremely salty taste. In food, it generally acts as a preservative that helps soft foods maintain their shape but also is used in the preparation of a few specific food items.

Function

Calcium chloride serves as a firming agent in prepared foods, including canned fruits and vegetables and tofu. These firming properties also help in the production of cheese, according to calcium chloride manufacturer Muby Chemicals. It makes the curds larger and firmer in store-bought milk, and a single teaspoon of calcium chloride solution can treat 2 gallons of milk. Other uses include as an additive to pickle brine, which gives it the salty taste without loading it with sodium, and as an ingredient in sports drinks.

Effects

Both the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have recognized calcium chloride as a safe food additive. The FDA reports that a review of it and other calcium compounds found in food "provides no evidence that suggests possible untoward effects" at the levels at which manufacturers use it. Calcium chloride's material safety data sheet lists it as a "low toxicity chemical." Unlike potassium chloride, however, you cannot use it as a salt substitute, as its hygroscopic effects would cause intestinal problems and abdominal pain if you ingested it in large amounts.

Benefits

While most of calcium chloride's food uses are for preservative and texture purposes, it does provide health benefits in one use: sports drinks. In these, calcium chloride is one of several ingredients that act as electrolytes, ions that conduct electrical activity and help your body maintain fluid balance as well as proper muscle and nerve functions, according to the American Council on Exercise. As an electrolyte, calcium helps maintain bone health and prevent muscle spasms, and chloride helps keep your heartbeat regular. The ACE recommends drinking a sports drink with electrolytes before exercise sessions lasting longer than an hour.

Considerations

Even though calcium chloride is not a substance you need to monitor closely for health reasons -- it's the sodium, not the chloride, in table salt that leads to high blood pressure -- it still might impact your cooking. For example, when making a tomato sauce, the Food Network recommends avoiding diced canned tomatoes with calcium chloride added as a firming agent. The substance will prevent the tomatoes from breaking down during preparation, leading to a lumpier sauce.

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