Making life taste better


Food colours

Many natural food colours degrade over time or when they are heated. This is one of the main reasons why colour ingredients are needed.

The colour of our food is an intrinsic part of its appeal. Colours contribute to the taste sensation, whether they are the bright colours we associate with many fruit and vegetables, or the lurid reds and yellows common in Indian dishes. Grey colours give the impression that a food will be tasteless, or even spoiled.

Colour is one of the many facets that food manufacturers have to consider when they Many natural food colours degrade over time or when they are heated. This is one of the main reasons why colour ingredients are needed.are creating food products. Many natural food colours degrade over time or when they are heated, and they need to ensure that the products remain attractive and look edible throughout their life on the shelf. This is one of the main reasons why colour ingredients are needed.

There are three main categories of food colourings: natural colours, browning colours, and artificial colours. The current trend in the market is towards a greater use of natural colours.

Natural colours

Natural colours are extracted and purified directly from nature. The most important natural colours are chlorophyll, carotenoids and flavonoids, which include anthocyanins.

Chlorophyll (E140) is the green pigment present in most plants, and is a vital part of the photosynthesis process by which they get their energy. It is extracted commercially from crops such as alfalfa and grass.

beta-Carotene (E160a) and the other carotenes are yellow-orange pigments found in fruit and vegetables like carrots, mango, papaya and squash. beta-Carotene can be extracted commercially from carrots or palm oil, but is mainly produced synthetically, and is converted into vitamin A in the body. It is also an antioxidant, and may have a beneficial effect in reducing the risk of some cancers and heart disease.

Annatto (E160b) is extracted from the achiote tree, which grows in the American tropics. Its colour derives from the two carotenoids, the fat-soluble bixin, which is red, and water-soluble norbixin, which share its E-number. It is used as an orange food colouring in products such as cheese, butter, custard powder and smoked fish. Annatto is unusual among natural food colourings as it has been associated with asthma-type side-effects, which are more commonly attributed to synthetic colours.

Lycopene (E160d) is a another carotenoid. The dark red chemical can be extracted from tomatoes, and is also present in a variety of other red and yellow fruit, as well as being produced synthetically using microorganisms. It is another strong antioxidant, and may help protect the body against degenerative diseases.

Lutein (E161b), another carotenoid which occurs naturally in maize and marigolds, has an orange-red colour. Its primary use as a food colorant is in chicken feed, where it gives a darker yellow yolk, and also yellower chicken skin. It is also believed to be important in eye health.

Anthocyanins (E163) are a group of water-soluble pigments whose colour varies from red to purple. They are widespread throughout the plant kingdom, and are responsible for the red and purple colours of fruit and vegetables such as blackcurrants, red grapes, aubergines and beetroot. However, they are prone to decomposing and losing their characteristic colour on heating, and in acidic conditions.

Browning colours

Browning colours are produced during cooking and processing.

Caramel (E150) is the most familiar browning colour. It is made by the caramelisation of sugars, and the colour ranges from yellow through to dark brown depending on the degree of caramelisation and how it was prepared. It is one of the oldest food colourings, and is used in many different products such as gravy browning, breads and bakery products, chocolates and sweets, and soft drinks such as colas.

Artificial colours

Artificial colours have been used to colour foods for more than a century. They tend to have stronger colours than natural colorants, and most are azo dyes. Over the years, some have been banned from food use, starting with the dye butter yellow, or dimethylazobenzene, which was found to cause cancer in rats and was withdrawn in 1937. Several azo dyes are still used in food, and all have been extensively tested.

A number of artificial food colours have been implicated in causing hyperactivity in children. As a result, several of these are being phased out on a voluntary basis in the UK. Click here for more information on additives and hyperactivity.

Brilliant blue (E133) is a reddish-blue substance that can be used to colour food blue. It can be combined with yellow colours, notably tartrazine, to make food more green. It appears in products such as ice cream, confectionery, soft drinks and tinned peas.

Tartrazine (E102) has gained something of a bad reputation in recent years, with suspicions that it causes hyperactivity and exacerbates asthma. It is a bright yellow colour. Products that can contain tartrazine include sweets, soft drinks and soups.


If it weren’t for artificial intense sweeteners, the only way to satisfy a sweet tooth would be with natural sugars such as sucrose, fructose and maltose, which are full of calories and contribute to tooth decay.

The modern desire to eat sweet foods that don’t make you fat has led to the development of a variety of low calorie intense sweeteners that are much sweeter than sucrose, and only need to be used in tiny amounts to satisfy the taste buds. They aren’t a modern invention – the first, saccharin, was first produced back in 1878.

If it weren’t for artificial intense sweeteners, the only way to satisfy a sweet tooth would be with natural sugars such as sucrose, fructose and maltose, which are full of calories and contribute to tooth decay.

Most food products use blends of sweeteners. Regulations limit the maximum use levels for If it weren’t for artificial intense sweeteners, the only way to satisfy a sweet tooth would be with natural sugars such as sucrose, fructose and maltose, which are full of calories and contribute to tooth decay.individual high-intensity sweeteners, and each has its own unique taste profile, such as metallic, bitter, lingering or delayed onset. Synergistic effects also mean that the mixture can often give an even more intense sweetness than the individual components alone.

However, these ingredients can only replace the sweetness of sugar, and not its bulk, so in products like cakes and jams, something else is needed if sugar is going to be replaced. This is where bulk sweeteners come in. These are derivatives of sugars, and while they are not as sweet as sucrose, they have fewer calories as the body metabolises them differently. They do not raise glucose levels in the blood, and so can be consumed by diabetics. However, many can have a laxative effect when consumed in large quantities.

Low-calorie and diabetic foods frequently contain a combination of both intense and bulk sweeteners, with the former producing the sweetness and the latter the texture that consumers expect.

Bulk sweeteners

Erythritol (E968) is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, which is made commercially by the fermentation of glucose, and was only approved for food use in Europe in 2006. It is about two-thirds as sweet as sucrose, but has almost no calories. As it is absorbed before it reaches the colon, it does not have the laxative effects of some other bulk sweeteners – instead, it is excreted unchanged in the urine. It is also tooth-friendly as it does not contribute to tooth decay

Isomalt (E954) is a sugar alcohol with similar physical properties to sucrose, but it is tooth-friendly and has half the calories. It is becoming increasingly popular in confectionery products such as hard candies, but like many bulk sweeteners it can have a laxative effect.

Lactitol (E966) is a bulk sweetener that is about 40% as sweet as sucrose. It is common in bakery products because of its heat stability, and it is also found in confectionery, chocolate and ice cream.

Maltitol (E965) has about three-quarters of the sweetness of sugar, but about half of its calories, and it does not promote tooth decay. However, it can have a laxative effect. It is particularly common in confectionery products like hard candies, chewing gum and ice cream.

Sorbitol (E420) is the oldest of the bulk sweeteners. It is commonly found in diet food and drink products, as well as confectionery such as mints and sugar-free gum. It is found in rowan berries, but as a food ingredient it is made by chemically modifying glucose.

Xylitol (E967) is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol was first commercially extracted from birch trees. It has about two-thirds of the calories of sugar, and does not cause tooth decay. It is found in a wide range of confectionery products, but sometimes has a laxative effect.

Intense sweeteners

Acesulfame K (E950) is about 200 times more sweet than sucrose. Invented in Germany in 1967, it leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste in the mouth, which means it is rarely used alone as a sweetener. Unlike some other intense sweeteners, it is heat-stable during cooking. Common uses include bakery products, and soft drinks, where it is usually blended with other sweeteners, and as a sweetener for hot beverages.

Aspartame (E951) is a sweetener that was invented in the US in 1965, and contains two amino acids joined together by a chemical bond. It is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose, but as it breaks down on heating it is not suitable for baking applications, although it can be added to hot foods before serving, such as hot drinks, stewed fruit or porridge. It is commonly found in soft drinks and confectionery products. People with the rare condition phenylketonuria cannot metabolise one of its constituent amino acids, phenylalanine, and so must try to avoid it. This is why product labels have to state ‘contains a source of phenylalanine’ if aspartame is an ingredient.

Cyclamate (E952) is about 30 times more sweet than sugar, and it is usually used in combination with other sweeteners.

Saccharin (E954) has been used as an intense sweetener for more than a century, and is 300-400 times sweeter than sugar. It is commonly used in carbonated drinks in combination with aspartame. There have been concerns that it might cause cancer over the years, but these health scares have been dismissed.

Sucralose (E955) is the newest of the intense sweeteners and is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. It is made by replacing three of the alcohol groups in sucrose with chlorine atoms, which dramatically increases its sweetness. It is heat-stable so can be used in bakery products. It is becoming increasingly popular in products from soft drinks to confectionery to hot beverages.

Preservatives in food

Preservatives work by killing the micro organism or preventing it from growing

Humans have always found ways to preserve their food to stop it spoiling before it can be eaten. Many of the bacteria and moulds that grow on food can be dangerous. Salmonella, listeria and botulism are familiar forms of food poisoning caused by bacteria, and one of the most infamous food poisoning incidents in history resulted from the growth of the ergot fungus on rye bread, which caused hallucinations. All of these problems can be reduced by using additives.

Preservatives work by killing the microorganism, or preventing it from growing. If the food Preservatives work by killing the micro organism or preventing it from growingis too acidic, too salty, or even too sweet for the microorganism to thrive, then this will slow down or even stop spoilage.

The earliest methods included using salt and smoke. Salt draws water out of the food and any microorganisms in it by osmosis, which prevents the microorganisms from growing. The chemicals introduced during smoking make it more difficult for moulds and bacteria to grow, and can also prevent rancidity. Vinegar, sugar and honey have also been used to preserve foods for centuries. One of the most widely used preservatives today, sulfur dioxide, has actually been in use since the Middle Ages!

Another advantage of preservatives is that we don’t have to shop every day because the food we buy lasts for longer. Not only does this save us precious time, but it also saves fuel as we don’t drive to the supermarket as frequently.

Many modern preservatives are actually simple molecules, and many are derived from nature. Examples include:

Benzoate preservatives

Benzoic acid is a naturally occurring organic acid, which is found in many different fruits, often at levels far higher than would be allowed as a food additive! (the Scandinavian cloudberry – pictured above – actually contains 50 times the legal limit!)  It is used to prevent the growth of yeasts, moulds and some bacteria in acidic foods such as fruit juices, carbonated drinks and pickles, and is used either as the free acid (E210), or as its sodium (E211), potassium (E212) or calcium (E213) salt. It has been suggested that a benzoate-free diet may help selected patients with persistent asthma, but this approach has not been evaluated in published controlled trials.[ref]

Reference: D D Metcalfe, et al. Food allergy : Adverse reactions to foods and food additives, 3rd edition, Blackwell Publishing, JM Fahrenholz, Adverse reactions to benzoates and parabens, pp369-376.

Sulfite preservatives

Sulfur dioxide gas, or related sulfite and metabisulfite compounds, are very important preservatives that have been used for thousands of years. It is used as a preservative in wine, where it prevents bacterial spoilage and oxidation. If the wine has a sulfur dioxide concentration below 10ppm (parts per million), then the label need not say that it contains sulfites – the legal limit is more than 10 times this. It is also used to preserve dried fruits.

It is clear that these preservatives aggravate symptoms in about 4% of asthmatics [ref] and in a handful of cases, this can be severe. Steroid-dependent asthmatics are twice as likely to be affected.

Reference: Bush R.K. et al Prevalence of sensitivity to sulfiting agents in asthmatic patients.  Am J Ned 1986; 81 (5): 816 – 820

As a result of these problems, the permitted levels of sulfur dioxide (E220) and its salts (E221 – 224) have been reduced in recent years; in red wine, for example, the permitted level is now about a third the amount that was allowed a century ago. Sulfites remain one of the most important additives, and they are even permitted in organic foods.

Other Preservatives

Nisin (E234) is a peptide which is made by the bacterium Lactococcus lactis, which is manufactured by growing it on substances such as milk. It is a broad-spectrum antibiotic which stops a number of bacteria from growing on dairy products and Preservatives work by killing the microorganism or preventing it from growingmeats, including listeria.

Propionic acid (E280) is a simple acid, closely related to vinegar. It is often used in bread manufacture, where it is more effective than vinegar. Curiously, even though it is an additive, vinegar doesn’t have an E number as it’s a traditional preservative. This doesn’t make it any more or less safe!

Sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrite (E249) are important preservatives for fish and meat products as they inhibits the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes botulism. There is some concern about the way they are used, as nitrites form cancer-causing nitrosamines during cooking. It is likely that the body neutralises nitrosamines, but processed meats preserved with nitrites now also include vitamins C and E, antioxidants which prevent the formation of nitrosamines.

Sorbic acid (E200) is very widely used to prevent the growth of moulds and yeasts in products like wine, dairy products such as cheese, meats and seafood, baked goods and various fruit and vegetable products. The acid is found naturally in several plants.

Gelling agents, thickeners & stabilisers

The texture of food is important for the look and feel of food, and also for digestion. Thickening and stabilising agents are gums that work with emulsifiers to maintain the texture of food, and create texture in water-based products that would otherwise be runny.

Ingredients such as flour, cornflour and arrowroot have been used for thickening sauces for centuries. In jam, pectin is used to thicken the fruit juices. Pectin is naturally present in fruit, but many fruits don’t contain enough to make the jam set so extra is added.

Natural sources predominate – many thickeners are derived from plants and seaweeds. Others are made by the chemical modification of natural cellulose, and some, such as xanthan gum, are even made by fermentation.

Thickeners and stabilisers tend to be both odourless and tasteless. The gums are polysaccharides – polymers made up of sugar molecules. The majority of these polysaccharides have few or no calories, but many function as fibre in the digestive system. This eases bowel function, and some are used as bulk laxatives.

Most of these gums can form gels at room temperature, and (rather like non-drip paint) they lose their thickness when they are stirred. This makes mixing easier during the production process as they become runny, and then when the mixing stops, they thicken up again.

Some of the most important thickeners and stabilisers are:

Agars (E406) are partly sulfated polysaccharides that were first discovered in Japan in the 17th century which are extracted from two different species of red algae. They have a very high gel strength, and when dissolved in water the gelation process is reversible at 85°C. They are used in jellies, bakery products, sauces, fillings and meat products.

Alginates (E400-404) are salts of alginic acid, a viscous gum formed by the cell walls of brown algae. Food uses include thickening fruit drinks, soups and sauces, and as a gelling agent in jellies and bakery fillings. They are also an important component of several indigestion remedies.

Carrageenans (E407) are sulfated polysaccharides extracted from several species of red seaweed. They are used to thicken dairy products such as ice cream and milk shakes and water-based jellies. They are also components of various processed meat products.

Gum Arabic (E414) is made from the sap of the acacia tree and is a mixture of saccharides and glycoproteins (proteins with attached sugar molecules). Commercially, most is extracted from trees in countries south of the Sahara desert in Africa, and the biggest producers are Chad, Nigeria and Sudan. Food uses include hard jelly sweets and soft drinks.

Guar gum (E412) is extracted from guar beans, which predominantly grow in India. It is a type of water-soluble polysaccharide called a galactomannan, where the polymer chain is made up of galactose sugar units, with mannose sugars attached to it. Uses include baked goods and bakery fillings, thickening dairy products like yoghurt and milk, and as a stabiliser in sauces and dressings. It is also used in meat products.

Locust bean gum (E410), also known as carob bean gum, is (like guar gum) a galactomannan polysaccharide, and is extracted from the seeds of the carob tree. It is water soluble, and is used as a thickener and stabiliser in a variety of products, including sauces, salad dressings, fruit fillings and ice creams.

Pectin (E440) is a gelling agent that is usually extracted from dried citrus peel or the solids that remain when the juice is pressed from apples. It is a polysaccharide made by plant cell walls, and as well as being used to help jams and jellies to set, it is used as a stabiliser in milk drinks and fruit juices.

Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose (E466), or sodium CMC, is a water-soluble semi-synthetic thickener, made by reacting cellulose with an acetic acid derivative. It is used in a variety of products such as breads and cakes, ice creams, and milk and fruit drinks.

Starch (E1401–1451), in its various forms, is one of the most common thickeners in food products. These polysaccharides are isolated from a number of different crops, including wheat, corn, rice, potatoes and cassava. Numerous starch derivatives are also available where the properties have been chemically modified. Unlike many other gums, they are not water-soluble, but the molecules do enter their lattice-like structures, and so they thicken up when mixed with water. Many different types of foods contain starch ingredients, from sauces and pie fillings to sweets and puddings.

Xanthan gum (E415) is made by the fermentation of glucose or sucrose with the microorganism Xanthomonas campestris. It is commonly found in sauces and salad dressings, where it acts as a stabiliser and helps prevent the emulsion from separating.


Coffee has more than 800 different aromachemicals.

One of the most important qualities of our food is the flavour – it has to taste good. All flavours are a subtle mix of the five basic tastes – salt, sweet, bitter, sour and savoury – combined with the aromas that the foods give off, which are a crucial part of the way foods taste.

From a regulatory point of view, the flavourings that are used in food are Coffee has more than 800 different aromachemicals. grouped into those that are natural, and those that are man-made. Natural flavourings are obtained from natural sources, whereas the man-made ones may be synthetic versions of exactly the same chemicals that are found in nature, such as vanillin, whilst others may not be found in nature, such as ethyl vanillin. Some food flavourings rely on just one major component, but most are a mixture of many different aromachemicals.

It’s not just processed foods that contain a cocktail of flavourings – most natural foodstuffs contain very many different aromachemicals, which all contribute to the complex flavour. Tarragon essential oil, for example, has nearly 80 components, and coffee more than 800. Yet some flavours are down to just a handful, such as vanilla, where the chemical vanillin is the major ingredient.

Other characteristic flavours are created during cooking or fermentation, and many of the chemicals responsible have been identified. For example, the browning reaction that gives the characteristic caramel flavour to fried onions, pork crackling and even gravy is a chemical reaction between proteins and carbohydrates. Variations on this reaction produce many of the most delicious flavours. Allylpyrazine gives a roasted nut flavour; methoxypyrazines taste of earthy vegetables; 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine has a green pepper flavour; and acetylpyrazines taste of popcorn.

Emulsifiers in food

Ice cream is another food that would not exist were it not for emulsifiers.

Oil and water don’t mix but they do form emulsions – and these are crucial to the consistency of a number of foodstuffs. Nature is good at making emulsions, and the classic example is milk, where a complex mixture of fat droplets are suspended in an aqueous solution.

Emulsifiers are the chemicals that make emulsions happen. Nature uses proteins and phospholipids, and many emulsifiers used in modern food production are based on these natural substances.

Ice cream is another food that would not exist were it not for emulsifiers.An emulsifier is a molecule in which one end likes to be in an oily environment and the other in a water environment. To make an oil-in-water emulsion, such as mayonnaise, droplets of oil molecules are surrounded by the oil-loving end of the emulsifier molecules. This leaves the water-loving ends on the outside of the droplet, and so they sit happily in water, giving a homogeneous liquid rather than an unappealing mixture of water and oily droplets. In mayonnaise, the emulsifier is the phospholipids present in egg yolks – they are such successful emulsifiers that as much as 80% oil can be dispersed in the aqueous phase.

Ice cream is another food that would not exist were it not for emulsifiers. It is both a foam and an emulsion, and its texture results from the ice crystals and unfrozen water it contains. But it’s not just creamy products where emulsifiers are crucial – bread and other baked products, where solid particles are dispersed in an airy foam, are enhanced by emulsifiers.

The emulsifiers that are used commercially come from both natural and synthetic sources. They include:

Lecithins (E322) are mixtures of phospholipids such as phosphatidyl choline and phosphatidylethanolamine, and are usually extracted from sources such as egg yolk and soybeans. The precise composition of the phospholipids depends on the source. Uses include salad dressings, baked goods and chocolate.

Esters of monoglycerides of fatty acids (E472a-f) are made from natural fatty acids, glycerol and an organic acid such as acetic, citric, lactic or tartaric. The fatty acids are usually from a vegetable source, though animal fats can be used. Products that use them include ice cream, cakes and crisps.

Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) are semi-synthetic emulsifiers made from glycerol and natural fatty acids, which can be from either plant or animal sources. They are used in products like breads, cakes and margarines.

Anti-caking agents

Anti-caking agents are used to prevent powdery and granular food products from absorbing water and clumping together

Many powdery and granular food products have a tendency to absorb water and clump together. Whether it’s table salt, icing sugar, non-dairy creamer, instant soup or even grated parmesan cheese, if the ingredients don’t flow freely then they are difficult to use. Salt cellars wouldn’t dispense salt, drink vending machines would block up, and the parmesan wouldn’t spread evenly across the plate.

Anti-caking agents are used to prevent this problem. Many are natural products such as talc and bentonite, Anti-caking agents are used to prevent powdery and granular food products from absorbing water and clumping togetherand others are manufactured from natural sources, such as silicon dioxide and several silicates. They don’t modify the food itself – they just make it less ‘sticky’, often by soaking up water.

Bentonite (E558) is a naturally occurring porous volcanic clay, which is used as an anticaking agent. It is also used to remove proteins from white wine, which would otherwise make it go cloudy.

Calcium silicate (E552) is made from chalk, limestone or diatomaceous earth, and is commonly used as an anticaking agent in dry products.

Silicon dioxide (E551) is common in nature – it is the main component of sand. It is used to improve the flow of dry products, and also to absorb water.

Sodium aluminosilicate (E554) is a synthetic mixture of sodium, aluminium and silicon oxides which is used as an anticaking agent.

Talc (E533b) is a natural mineral, which is made from hydrated magnesium silicate. It can be used in many different food products to prevent clumping.

Acidulants in food

Acidulants are an essential ingredient in sharp, zesty food products. These acids are what give fruit its characteristic tang, and most of those that are added to food products are common in nature. For example, citric acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons, malic acid is found in apples, and tartaric acid in grapes.
They are important in products such as jams, where the acidity of the fruit determines how it will set. Acids also have preservative and antioxidant properties.

Common acids used in food products include:

Citric acid (E330) is by far the most widely used acid in food products. It was originally extracted from citrus fruits, but now most is made by the fermentation of molasses and other sugar sources. More than half of all citric acid in foods is used in beverages.

Lactic acid (E270) is produced in the body during metabolism and exercise. It is commonly found in sour milk products like yoghurt. It is used to regulate acidity in processed food products, and it also acts as an antioxidant and a preservative.

Malic acid (E296) is often found in unripe fruit. Common food uses include as a flavouring in sour confectionery.

Phosphoric acid (E338) is a chemical that is responsible for the tangy taste of cola drinks. Although it is a synthetic chemical, phosphoric acid derivatives are widely found in nature.

Tartaric acid (E334) occurs in fruits such as grapes and bananas. It is commonly used in sour-tasting sweets, and also as an antioxidant.

Flavour enhancers

Monosodium Glutamate (E621), known as MSG, is added to processed foods, especially soups, sauces and sausages.

Flavour enhancers are used to bring out the flavour in a wide range of foods without adding a flavour of their own.  For example, monosodium glutamate (E621), known as MSG, is added to processed foods, especially soups, sauces and sausages.

Flavour enhancers are also used in a wide range of other foods including savoury snacks, Monosodium Glutamate (E621), known as MSG, is added to processed foods, especially soups, sauces and sausages.prepared meals and condiments. Salt, although not classed as a food additive, is the most widely used flavour enhancer.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of the naturally occurring amino acid glutamic acid.  This amino acid is one of the most abundant in nature, being an important component of all proteins.  Monosodium glutamate, has been used as a seasoning or flavour enhancer, since it was first isolated from seaweed more than a century ago and is now recognised as the most pure example of umami or savoury taste.  The body treats glutamate in exactly the same way whether it comes from the food we eat or from seasoning.

MSG not only adds a umami character to food but can also be used to reduce the salt content. For the latest information about the science about glutamate and umami taste. It was suspected by some people of being the cause of ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’, where people suffer a hot flushing reaction after eating food containing MSG. However, tests on people who claim to be susceptible have never been able to confirm that there is a link, as this scientific review explains.


Oxidation is a real problem for food products. Oxidation, for example, causes raw apples and potatoes go brown, but this can prevented in the kitchen by adding lemon juice. It’s very effective because lemon juice contains a very strong antioxidant – ascorbic acid or vitamin C (E300). By preventing or slowing down the oxidation process in foods, waste through spoilage is reduced.

Many antioxidants occur naturally in fruit and vegetables, many of which are flavonoid compounds such as quercetin in onions and apples, and epigallocatechin in tea. The health benefits of these antioxidants are becoming clear, and many scientific studies have been carried out on them. Oxidation can damage DNA leading to cancer, and can change polyunsaturated-fatty acids into forms that contribute to heart attacks and strokes. Increasing the consumption of antioxidants can have a preventative effect against cancer and heart disease, although it’s not clear yet which are the most effective.

Unsaturated fats are particularly vulnerable to oxidation, and this causes them to turn rancid. These are some examples of antioxidant food additives:

Ascorbic acid (E300), or vitamin C, is found in many different fruits. It is also commonly used as a flour improver.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (E320) is a synthetic antioxidant which works by stabilising free radicals.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (E321) or BHT is another synthetic antioxidant. It works in the same way as butylated hydroxyanisole, but has caused controversy, as it has produced adverse effects in dogs. However, it also has anticancer effects.

Propyl gallate (E310) is a synthetic antioxidant. Its main food use is in products that contain oils and fats.

Tocopherols (E306) are natural antioxidants which are forms of vitamin E. The most important sources are vegetable oils such as palm, corn, sunflower, soybean and olive.

Soft drinks giants change manufacturing process to avoid ‘unfounded health warning’

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are changing how they make an ingredient in their drinks to avoid being legally obliged to put a cancer warning label on the bottle which they say is ‘scientifically unfounded’.

The new recipe for caramel colouring in the drinks has less 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) – a chemical that California has added to its list of carcinogens.

However, Coca-Cola says there is no health risk to justify the change – but that it is doing so to ensure to ensure its products ‘would not be subject to the requirement of a scientifically unfounded warning’.

The caramel colour in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe, Coca-Cola said in a statement.

Indeed, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reaffirmed the safety of caramel colouring back in March 2011 – following a
comprehensive review of the scientific literature – saying that the presence of 4-MEI in caramel colouring is not a health concern.

The chemical has been linked to cancer in mice and rats, according to one study, but there is no evidence that it poses a health risk to humans, says the American Beverage Association, which represents the wider industry.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims a person would need to drink more than 1,000 cans of Coke or Pepsi a day to take in the same dose of the chemical that was given to the animals in the lab test.

“Both EFSA and regulatory authorities around the world say caramel colouring is safe for use in food and drink,” says an FAIA spokesman.

“Just last November, Health Canada said that 4-MEI does ‘not represent a risk’ to consumers. Also, the FDA has approved caramel as a colour additive and lists it as ‘a generally recognised as safe’ food ingredient.”

Food allergy myths

An online tool aimed at dispelling myths about food allergy and intolerance has been launched on the NHS Choices website, with
the help of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The tool, developed in conjunction with FSA allergy experts, looks at common misconceptions about food allergies and intolerances and sorts the facts from fiction. It tackles topics including:-

• the differences between allergies and intolerances
• whether you can ‘outgrow’ allergies and intolerances
• the use of home-test kits
• whether allergies and intolerances can be cured

This myth-buster tool provides information in an easy-to-use format and I challenge everyone to have a go on it and see how much they really know about allergy, says Sue Hattersley, head of the FSA’s Allergy Branch.

A number of surveys have found that 20%-30% of people claim to have a food allergy. However, an FSA report in 2008 estimated that only 5-8% of children and 1-2% of adults really do have a food allergy.

The allergy tool can be found here.

Use of food additives ‘safer and more transparent’ thanks to new legislation.

Safer and more transparent use.

The use of additives in food will soon become even safer and more transparent thanks to legislation adopted by the European Commission.

“This represents a landmark in our efforts to strengthen food safety in the EU,” says Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli (pictured). “The adoption of two regulations on additives will further empower citizens and industry alike as they will make it easier for everyone concerned to know exactly what additives are allowed in foodstuffs.”

The two regulations establish two new lists. The first concerns additives in food and will come into force in June 2013. This list will allow consumers to easily identify which additives are authorised in a particular foodstuff. The second list relates to additives in food ingredients, and will apply 20 days after its publication in the EU’s Official Journal.

Transparency is one major benefit of the new legislation as the new list makes it obvious that in some food categories the authorised additives are very limited or not allowed at all. This is the case, for instance, for unflavoured yogurt, butter, compote, pasta, simple bread, honey, water and fruit juice. In other categories, usually those concerning highly processed foodstuffs – such as confectionery, snacks, sauces and flavoured drinks – a large number of additives are authorised.

“Any initiative that helps educate and enlighten consumers is to be welcomed,” says an FAIA spokesman.

This legislation does just that, while helping to reinforce the message that authorised additives are not only safe but also play a key role in food safety.

Global additives market on the up

Global sales of food and drink additives reached £17.3 billion last year, according to a new report.

The best performing sectors include enzymes, acidulants and hydrocolloids, says Leatherhead Food Research’s report The Global Food Additives Market, with a growing demand for low fat, salt and sugar products – as well as functional health benefit products – driving demand for a host of additives including emulsifiers, hydrocolloids, sweeteners, vitamins and minerals, soya ingredients, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, prebiotics and plant stanol esters.

The report also says that while the global additives market has not been immune to the effects of the global economic downturn, a period of modest growth is forecast for the world food additives market over the next few years.

Some of the better performing sectors are likely to include natural flavours and colours, food hydrocolloids, enzymes and functional food ingredients.

Salt in bread


A third of breads contain more salt than recommended under guidelines being introduced next year, according to campaign
group CASH (Campaign for Action on Salt and Health).

The figures came after the Department of Health announced that bread accounts for more salt in our diet than any other food, making up almost a fifth of our daily intake. However, manufacturers said many loaves with the lowest salt levels were supermarket brands, which were the most popular.


Despite salt levels in bread being reported to have fallen by about a third over the past decade, bread manufacturers are under mounting pressure to cut down further. However, in reducing salt levels further, manufacturers are faced with numerous technical challenges.

Firstly, salt influences the production process by improving the dough handling properties and also helps control yeast activity during fermentation. In addition, it influences the sensory properties of bread and is directly linked to consumer acceptance. For these reasons, it would be difficult to completely eliminate salt from the recipe. The main challenge in making low salt bread is that is becomes sticky and is less easy to process with lowering salt levels, meaning that there is a potential for the dough to stop processing lines, leading to down time and wastage.

Salt also plays a major role in achieving the flavour of the bread and, of course, on product shelf life. Products with reduced salt may require balancing of the flavours to achieve an acceptable product.

* Take the bread health scare with a pinch of salt…

Chemist in the kitchen

A page from our first website!

If you want to know more about how food additives tie in with the chemistry that goes on in the kitchen, a downloadable booklet entitled ‘In the mix’ is accessible from the home page, or from the image on this page.

Chemicals have always been welcome in the kitchen: sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid etc.

Every cook is a chemist. The first chemical laboratories, back in the Middle Ages, were glorified kitchens, and many chemical processes derive from techniques of cooking. The vital technique of distillation was perfected in the course of man’s search for intoxicating drinks. And far from being dehumanizing, such chemical processes have an ancient magic and glamour, as the great Italian writer Primo Levi pointed out (he was also a chemist):-

Distilling is beautiful.

‘First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to invisible (vapour) invisible, and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is obtained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.’

Every kitchen contains a battery of chemical reagents, each with their specific chemical purpose; e.g. sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid, sodium chloride; and also substances, such as milk and eggs, that are not usually thought of as chemicals but which actually miracle reagents that chemists would still be incapable of creating if they didn’t already exist.

In many cases, ingredients that sound like chemicals are derived from natural products: lecithin from soya is similar to egg lecithin, acetic acid comes from vinegar, Vitamin C is the active ingredient of lemon juice, and so on. The principle of using additives is something that every cook, high or low, uses every time they prepare a meal. To understand the processes of making sauces, meringues, bread and cakes, of marinading, tenderising and caramelising is to become a food chemist, and it greatly enhances the pleasure of cooking to see it from a chemical point of view. Cooking is chemistry in action, with the added benefit that you can eat the results.