Most people can find the answer to their questions in this section…but just in case you can’t, you have the opportunity to ask a member of the FAIA, with industry-wide connections, and get a personal response via email. If the question is asked enough, we’ll add the question and the answer to this section of the site.
WHY FOOD ADDITIVES
Additives are substances added during the processing of food, and in very small quantities, to help maintain the quality of the finished product. Some examples:
- preservatives to prevent food from spoiling through the growth of bacteria
- antioxidants to prevent the fats in food from going rancid
- emulsifiers, stabilisers and gelling agents to maintain the consistency and texture of food
- sweeteners, flavourings, and acidulants to maintain or enhance the taste of food.
No. Additives are only used where necessary and many processed foods do not need them. For example, preservatives are not necessary in canned foods, because canning is itself a method of food preservation. The high temperatures involved in the canning process are sufficient to kill any harmful microorganisms that might be present.
The food manufacturer will select the additive that best meets consumer expectations for the product, as well as the requirements of the manufacturing process. For example, some preservatives work better in more acidic foods, whilst others are more effective in less acidic foods. Some antioxidants are effective in animal fats, others in vegetable oils and fats. Some gelling agents produce a soft gel or jelly, others a firmer gel.
The appearance of E numbers on food labels is a comparatively recent legal requirement going back to the 1980s, and at the time it led many people to believe that the additives themselves were a new invention. In fact, although E numbers are comparatively new, food additives have been in use for as long as food has been processed. Most have been around for at least 50 years.
No. Food which has been processed under poor hygiene conditions can never be made safe by adding additives. Enforcement of food law in this country is tight and weeds out the unscrupulous operator, just as regulations about additives and the levels at which they can be used are controlled by EC Directives.
Colour is only added to food to meet consumer demand and as a result, some products now contain less colour than they did a few years ago. Manufacturers have tended to move towards those having natural origin where practical. Some foods such as canned peas or blackcurrants, which lose their naturally present colour during processing, would look most unappetising without a little added colour.
E NUMBERS & SAFETY
“E” Numbers are simply the code numbers used to identify the food additives that have been shown to be safe and authorised for use in the European Union. Some additives have long chemical names and the driving force behind the idea was the need for a system of identification that was the same in all languages and easy to fit on a food label.
A list of additives authorised for use in the EU can be found on our home page. Alternatively, click here.)
Blocks of numbers have been allocated to specific groups of additives. For example, colours are all in the sequence Elxx, (eg El20 Cochineal), preservatives are all E2xx ( eg E211 sodium benzoate), and so on. It’s a common myth that the numerical value of the E number is in some way related to its safety. The simple truth is that the numbers relate to the additive category (colour, preservative, etc).
The assessment procedure is very stringent. All additives must be shown to be safe before they can be used in food. The safety evidence is carefully scrutinised by an independent committee of scientists and medical experts. This used to be carried out by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) but, more recently, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been made responsible. The approval process takes into account any tests which have been conducted on the additive and, where gaps exist in the knowledge, further tests have to be carried out.
The approval process for additives is designed to ensure that they are completely safe in all respects before approval. The thorough testing procedures carried out are designed to identify any potentially harmful effects but are especially stringent when it comes to looking for carcinogenic potential. Even after approval, additives are subject to continuous review.
The very detailed scientific investigations carried out on additives prior to their approval take account of the fact that they will be consumed repeatedly over the long term. This is one of the reasons why additives are continuously monitored and reviewed after first being approved for use.
REGULATION & CONTROL
Yes. There are EU-wide regulations that list the additives which have been tested and shown to be safe for use in food. These regulations list the foods in which each permitted additive is allowed, and its level of use.
The European Commission draws up a first draft, but the final decision is taken jointly by elected representatives of all EU member states and members of the European Parliament.
The testing regimes used for additives take into account differences in body weight, as well as consumption by the more vulnerable members of society; not just children but also the elderly and those weakened by disease.
Babies need special diets. Their digestive systems are especially sensitive and baby foods are specially formulated for the purpose. The need for additives in baby foods and infant foods is, in any case, very limited and the regulations controlling their use very strict.
NATURAL vs ARTIFICIAL
Artificial additives are neither better nor worse than natural additives as far as safety is concerned. They are all subject to the same approvals system. They are all safe and provide a benefit, either by making food safer to eat or by improving food quality and enjoyment.
No. Labelling doesn’t have to differentiate between additives of different origins, but the important thing to remember is that all food additives, whether natural or artificial, have been assessed for safety.
Yes but everything in the world, including the human body, is made up of chemicals. The issue is whether additives are safe and whether they serve a useful purpose. All additives are stringently safety tested and are only used where they are needed to help keep food safe or improve its quality.
A large number of additives do occur naturally, for example, ascorbic acid or vitamin C (E300), beetroot red (E162), citric acid (E330) and pectin (E440). However, natural ingredients will sometimes fail to meet the necessary processing requirements. Some naturally occurring colours are sensitive to light and heat and tend to lose their natural colour during processing. Artificial colours are often preferable in canned foods because they are better able to withstand the high temperatures involved in the canning process.
ALLERGY & INTOLERANCE
Look carefully at ingredient lists on food labels. Under new EU food labelling regulations, manufactures and retailers must inform consumers if any of the major allergens [peanuts, tree nuts (pecan, walnuts etc), fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soya, wheat, mustard, celery, sesame seeds] are present in their foods. Sulphite, a preservative that can trigger asthma in about 5% of asthmatics, is also one of the allergens that must be listed on food labels.
Not for the vast majority of us. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about allergy to food additives. Studies indicate that about one in fifty people in Britain have an allergy to a natural food whilst about one in five thousand are sensitive to additives (ie you are much more likely to be affected by natural foods than by additives).
No additives are derived from peanuts, but any other ingredient derived from peanuts must according to new EU food labelling regulations be declared on the label (see above).
ADDITIVES & HYPERACTIVITY
No, not generally. There have though been claims of a link between hyperactivity and artificial colours.
The scientific evidence has been contradictory, so the Food Standards Agency (FSA) funded new research on this complex topic to try to clear up the confusion. The work was carried out at Southampton University.
The Southampton researchers found that a mixture of artificial colours and the preservative sodium benzoate increased levels of hyperactivity in a test group of 3 year old and 8 year old children.
However, the findings were questioned by medical experts on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA experts were not convinced that the small alterations in attention and activity found in the Southampton study would actually interfere with school work and other intellectual functioning.
FSA has advised parents that children showing signs of hyperactivity might be helped by avoiding the colours used in the study. As a precautionary measure, FSA has also asked the UK industry to try to find alternatives to the artificial colours in question.
See here for more information.