We know which fruit and vegetables are safe to eat thanks to a process of trial and error by our ancestors – if they made them ill, or even poisoned them, then they learned not to eat them.
The new food ingredients and additives that are introduced today don’t get as far as that – the regulatory authorities ensure that they are widely tested before they are allowed to be used in food products.
It is certainly not the case that new chemicals are added to food without being adequately tested. Quite the opposite – fully tested new additives whose chemical composition and purity are known are added to foods about which we know relatively little! Foods have never been subject to these formal testing programmes; rather, the fact that they have been eaten without problems in the past is taken as a guarantee of safety.
Additives can only be used in food if they have been fully tested, shown to be safe, and placed on an official list showing which foods they can be used in. Sometimes, an upper limit of the amount that can be used is included. Very occasionally, after an additive has been used for some time it can become clear that it might cause health concerns, in which case it will be withdrawn. In the EU, even if there is no evidence of problems, all additives must now be reassessed every 10 years.
Find out more about how food additives are tested.
Learn how our food additives are assessed for safety.
Once an additive is shown to be safe, EU legislation is required for its authorisation in food (a process called food approval). How does that work?