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What are food additives?

Food additives are substances intentionally added to food for specific technological reasons. While some are age-old, used since Antiquity, nowadays numerous ingredients are regarded as food additives. Whether natural or synthetic, they are currently categorized by their function, followed by their specific name or by a number, preceded in Europe by the letter E.
AL031-02 Colorants Alimentaires
© Getty Images / Jean-Paul Chassenet - Colouring agents

Additives used in Antiquity

Food additives are substances intentionally added to foodstuffs to perform specific technological functions, whether to improve shelf life, to enhance colour, flavour or consistency. Many additives were not invented by the modern food industry, but have in fact been used for centuries in the preparation of food.

Ingredients such as salt, sugar and vinegar have served as preserving agents for thousands of years. The Romans used saltpetre (or potassium nitrate, E252), or turmeric (whose colouring agent is curcumin, E100) to preserve or improve the appearance of certain products. Bakers have long since used yeast as a raising agent, even if, by today’s legislation, it is not considered an additive.

Industrialisation in the 19th century had significant repercussions on food. From the 1850s, the percentage of the European population involved in the production of food decreased. This coincided with the emergence and expansion of a new social class, the workers. They lived in towns and so began to consume an ever-increasing amount of processed foodstuffs. As the appetite of the working and middle classes for consumable products grew, adulterated food became commonplace. It was then quite usual to find bread intentionally whitened by flour enriched with chalk or potassium alum, or cheese, such as Gloucester, tinted red by the use of lead oxide. Such alterations were common practice and made food more appealing, both to the eye and to the palate, but could also cause public health problems. Few laws were in place at that time, and there were very few scientific means for detecting alterations accurately. The first regulations banning the use of certain substances in food were often on a case-by-case basis, as and when a problem arose, and followed legal precedents. It was not until the end of the 20th century that the approach changed. The main national and international regulatory bodies then created positive and exhaustive lists, identifying only those ingredients duly approved for specific functions and conditions of use, and referencing them by a unique number. As an example, acetic acid acts as an acidity regulator and, as such, is authorised for use as a preservative, identified by the number 260 (or E260 in Europe). Any additive not on these lists is now automatically banned.

Over recent decades, technological developments within the food industry and consumers’ changing expectations have led to a more widespread and more diverse use of additives. Consumers now demand safe, tasty, affordable and non-perishable food. Without additives, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet such demands. The most common additives are antioxidants (which prevent food from deteriorating from oxidation), colouring agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling and thickening agents, preservatives and sweeteners.

Natural or synthetic, the letter E followed by a number

Product labels list additives alongside other product ingredients. All additives must be given their category name followed by their specific name or by a number preceded by the letter E. The latter indicates that it is included on the European list of approved additives, while the number defines which particular additive it is. Countries outside Europe, declare additives only by their name or number.

Additives may be either natural or synthetic. Natural additives are chemical compounds extracted from plants, animals or minerals. Synthetic additives are not extracts, but are the result of a chemical or enzymatic reaction. They are either completely identical to a natural equivalent, or pure creations which do not exist in a natural state. E numbers do not indicate anything regarding the origin of an additive nor how it is produced.

Additives are approved only after they have been assessed as both beneficial and innocuous. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regularly updates the list of approved additives on the basis of studies carried out to ascertain their utility, to determine the acceptable daily intake (ADI) as well as the conditions of their use.

Additives by categories

There are hundreds of food additives. They are grouped into categories. Colouring agents are identified by a number between 100 and 180 preceded by the letter E in Europe. For preservatives, this number ranges from 200 to 285, for antioxidants from 300 to 321, and for texturing agents, from 322 to 495. The numbers 500 to 1520 comprise acids, alkalis, flavour enhancers and sweeteners, as well as additives with various other functions.

Molecules that are naturally present

Many foodstuffs naturally contain substances that are approved as food additives. For example, an apple contains riboflavin (E101), anthocyanins (E163), citric acid (E330), glutamic acid (E620) and L-Cysteine (E920).

Food dyes – structural chemical formulas of food additives, second set E107-E127

AL031-02 Colorants alimentaires formules chimiques