Social changes in this century have caused a rapid evolution of the food supply in Europe and throughout the world. While a shrinking percentage of the population is engaged in primary food production, we demand more variety than ever before in the food we eat. With, a growing percentage of both two-wage and single-parent families, the demand for convenience foods has never been greater.

Meeting consumer demands for variety and convenience with food products that are at the same time wholesome, safe and affordable can be achieved using modern food processing technology including a variety of food additives proven useful and safe through long use and rigorous testing.

FOOD ADDITIVES IN HISTORY

Food additives have been used since man first learned to preserve food from one harvest to the next to improve the presentation and nutritional value of food. The use of salt and smoke for preservation dates back thousands of years. The Egyptians used colours and flavourings to enhance the appeal of certain foods, while the Romans used saltpetre, spices and colours for preservation and improvement.

Since the first half of this century, new substances have been discovered which fulfill these beneficial functions and are now readily available. Examples include emulsifiers in margarine, baking powder in cake mixes and gelling agents in jams. In the past 40 years, developments in food science and technology as well as changes in consumer demand have led to a substantial increase in the use of food additives. This has given consumers a large variety of foodstuffs of high and uniform quality at reasonable prices.

The preparation of foods such as margarine containing poly-unsaturated fats and many low-calorie products would be impossible without using food additives.

WHAT ARE FOOD ADDITIVES?
WHY ARE THEY USED?

Additives are ingredients with a purpose; they are added to food products Intentionally to enhance safety, nutritional value and/or appeal. The role of additives can be summarised as follows:

To improve the keeping quality of a food e.g. preventing microbial spoilage which can cause food-borne illness and retarding oxidisation which can cause fats and oils to become rancid.

To maintain the nutritional quality of a food – e.g. by avoiding degradation of vitamins, essential amino acids and unsaturated fats.

To provide ingredients for consumers with specific nutritional requirements e.g., sweeteners in tooth friendly confectionary or bulking agents for those seeking to reduce caloric intake.

To enhance the appeal of foods and food products by maintaining or improving the consistency, texture and other sensory properties such as taste and colour. Examples include emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilisers that maintain consistent texture and prevent the separation of ingredients In such products as margarine, ice cream, jams and jellies and salad dressings. Additives such as colours enhance the appeal of many food products while baking powder makes baked products rise and acidulants modify acidity and alkalinity to enhance flavour as well as to preserve food products.

The purpose for which food additives may be used have been categorised by the Codox Alimentarius Commission (1), which operates under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). This list of additive functions is widely used to guide national food legislation throughout Europe and the rest of the world. In the European Union, the specific levels of additives in foods and beverages are regulated by the three food additives Directives (2).

SOURCES OF ADDITIVES

Food additives are derived from a number of different sources:

  • Products of vegetable origin
    – thickening agents extracted from seeds, fruit and seaweeds
    – colours isolated from seeds, fruit and vegetables
    – acidulants such as tartaric acid from fruit
  • Nature-identical products produced by synthesis or biosynthesis – antioxidants such as ascorbic acid in fruit and tocopherol in vegetable oils colours such as carotenoids, the colouring matter in many fruits and vegetables.
    – acidulants such as citric acid present in citrus fruit
  • Products obtained by modifying natural substances
    – emulsifiers derived from edible oils and organic acids
    – thickening agents such as modified starches and modified cellulose
    – bulk sweeteners such as sorbitol and maltitol
  • Man-made products antioxidants such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
    – colours, such as indigotin and quinoline yellow
    – intense sweeteners such as saccharin

THE SAFETY EVALUATION OF FOOD ADDITIVES

A number of additives have been used for decades or even centuries, so we have a great deal of experience regarding both their usefulness and their safety. To assure continuing safety, scientific experts periodically review these traditional additives, and any reasonable doubts are evaluated. New additives must have not only a demonstrated useful purpose, but also a thorough and rigorous safety evaluation before they can be approved for use.

The basic approach to safety evaluation, whether for new additives or the reassessment of traditional additives, is to have independent experts evaluate as much pertinent information as is available. In the EU this group of experts is the Scientific Committee for Foods. The Information they evaluate Includes lifetime feeding studies which assess how the additive is handled in the body, stability of the additive in different foods and beverages, and the intended uses in order to understand how much of the additive is likely to be consumed. If the experts feel that specific information is lacking, they will require additional tests.

Once sufficient information is available for a thorough evaluation, the experts will calculate an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for the additive ie, the amount of the additive that can be daily consumed safely over a lifetime. This is typically done by finding, through extensive testing, the level at which no effect is observed and then dividing by a safety factor of typically 100. The purpose of the safety factor is to provide additional security In case humans are more sensitive to the additive than the test animals are, and in case some people are more sensitive than others.

Next, the regulators apply the ADI to establish the amount of the additive which may be used, taking into account the likely consumption of the foods and beverages which will contain the additive as well as the amount of the additive needed to achieve its function. These permitted levels ensure that the total consumption of an additive is normally far below the ADI. It is important to note that since the ADI is based on lifetime feeding studies, and because the ADI has a built-in safety factor, the consumption of an additive above its ADI on a given day is not a cause for concern. In fact, human dietary surveys have confirmed many times that consumption above the ADI on one day is more than accounted for by consumption comfortably below the ADI on most other days.

REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

Until recently, national regulations provided the legal framework for the control of food additives in each member state of the European Union. Governments based their regulations on advice received from their own experts. With the adoption of the three directives on sweeteners, colours and other additives in 1994-95, the role of the European Union’s Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) has become increasingly important (3).

The SCF was established by the European Commission in 1974 and is composed of scientists from the Member States covering a range of appropriate disciplines. It is the SCFs work to assess the potential risk and provide direction on safe use of food additives in Europe. Its findings are published as the SCF Report Series.

The SCF also takes note of the advice published by various international groups, the most important of which Is the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), a group of internationally recognised experts sponsored jointly by the FAO and WHO.

LABELLING AND E-NUMBERS

In addition to a thorough safety evaluation and a demonstrated purpose, food additive regulations require that food additives be labelled on the packages of the foods and beverages which contain them. The labelling must include the purpose of the additive as well as the name of the additive or its assigned E-number. An E-number means that an additive has been thoroughly tested by the SCF and has been accepted as safe all across the EU. E-numbers have been used for years, in order to communicate simply across the range of languages in the EU. Labelling of food additives, by name or by E-number, helps consumers make informed choices.

IS THERE INTOLERANCE TO FOOD ADDITIVES?

Allergy and intolerance to certain foods such as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish and wheat are surprisingly common, affecting about one in fifty individuals. Such intolerances result in various reactions including migraine headaches, diarrhoea, respiratory problems and skin rashes. It has been shown, however, that intolerance to food additives is rare.

One of the most recent and reliable investigations into food additive intolerance has been carried out by a regional authority in the United Kingdom which found that 3 of 18,000 respondents exhibited any intolerance to food additives (4). This finding is similar to an earlier estimate by experts of the European Commission (5). In adults, food additive intolerance therefore appears to effect a very small proportion of the population.

CONCLUSION

Food additives have been used for centuries, and have gained added importance over the last few decades. Food additives help assure a food supply with the safety, variety, appeal, wholesomeness and affordability we have become accustomed to.

Thanks to strict regulation and thorough testing, food additives are safe elements of our diet. Importantly, clear labelling adds to consumers’ ability to make informed choices about the food and beverages they eat and drink.