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.