Common food additives
Food additives fall under two main categories, those that extend shelf life and those that act on the consistency and the sensory qualities of food. The most common additives are antioxidants, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling and thickening agents, flavour enhancers, sweeteners and colouring agents. In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is responsible for assessing substances added to food to ensure they are safe to use.
What food additives do
The most commonly used food additives in Europe are grouped into two categories. The first comprises additives such as antioxidants and preserving agents, which prevent the degradation of food and maintain its freshness. Antioxidants inhibit the effects of oxygen on food (oxidation), including rancidity and loss of colour. Preservatives limit, slow down or stop the growth of microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, moulds) present in or entering food. They thereby prevent food poisoning. Acids and acidity regulators, as well as packaging gases, also fall into this category.
The second category of additives includes those that modify texture and enhance or improve the sensory qualities of foodstuffs. Texturing agents affect the mouthfeel of food. Emulsifiers and stabilisers maintain structure and prevent the separation of immiscible ingredients, while thickening agents increase viscosity. Other additives include anticoagulant agents and anti-foaming agents.
With regard to the perception of tastes, sweeteners are used to provide a sweet taste yet with few calories, notably in food labelled as ‘sugar-free’ or ‘diet’. Flavour enhancers accentuate the taste of food.
Colouring agents add colour or improve the colour of a foodstuff to make it more appealing to the eye.
Some additives and their use
Antioxidants maintain the colour of freshly cut fruit and vegetables. They include ascorbic acid (E300), which is simply vitamin C, and citric acid (E330), the acid found in lemon juice.
Nitrates and nitrites, either sodium or potassium (E249-E252), prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the highly pathogenic bacterium responsible for botulism. They are used in the preparation of meat such as ham and frankfurters. Similarly, sulphur dioxide and sulphites (E220-E228) inhibit bacterial growth in wines and fermented foodstuffs.
Lecithin (E322), naturally present in egg yolk and soybeans, helps create and stabilise water/oil emulsions, notably in mayonnaise, but also in chocolate, spreads, sauces, ice creams and numerous other products.
Pectin (E440) is a polysaccharide present in large quantities in the cell walls of plant matter, including those of apple pips. Its gelling-properties are frequently put to good use, to give the desired consistency to jam.
The most well-known sweeteners are aspartame (E951), acesulfame potassium (E950) and saccharin (E954), the oldest artificial sweetener, first made in 1879. They are between 200 and 500 times sweeter than sugar (saccharose) with the advantage of containing virtually no calories. Thaumatin (E957), a natural protein extracted from the Thaumatococcus daniellii plant, is the most potent natural sweetener, 2500 times sweeter than sugar. Sorbitol (E420), isomalt (E953) and maltitol (E965) are bulk sweeteners. They contain few calories and are incorporated into food products to add sweetness, while also improving smoothness and volume. Excessive consumption of these three polyols can lead to bloating and diarrhoea.
Sodium glutamate (E621), also called ‘monosodium glutamate’ or MSG, is the most well-known flavour enhancer. Glutamate is a nonessential amino acid comprising proteins and is present in high quantity in free form in Parmesan cheese, dried tomatoes and soy extracts. It gives food its umami taste, one of the five basic tastes. MSG is a controversial additive, and its use and effects have been the subject of numerous studies. National and international regulatory bodies conclude that the results of these studies do not raise objection to the use of glutamate in our food.
Towards reassessing approved additives
One of the aims of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is to reassess the safety of all food additives by 2020, starting with the food colourings that were among the first approved additives.
Consequently, in 2007, the EFSA banned the use of the food colouring Red 2G (E128) as it could no longer be guaranteed innocuous to health. In 2012, it reduced the maximum levels of three food colouring agents (E104, E110, E124) as human exposure to these additives is thought likely to be higher than originally estimated.
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