Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavour or improve its taste and appearance.
Some additives have been used for centuries; for example, preserving food by pickling (with vinegar), salting, as with bacon, preserving sweets or using sulfur dioxide as in some wines. With the advent of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, many more additives have been introduced, of both natural and artificial origin.
To regulate these additives, and inform consumers, each additive is assigned a unique number. Initially these were the "E numbers" used in Europe for all approved additives. This numbering scheme has now been adopted and extended by the Codex Alimentarius Commission to internationally identify all additives, regardless of whether they are approved for use.
E numbers are all prefixed by "E", but countries outside Europe use only the number, whether the additive is approved in Europe or not.
For example, acetic acid is written as E260 on products sold in Europe, but is simply known as additive 260 in some countries. Additive 103, alkanet, is not approved for use in Europe so does not have an E number, although it is approved for use in Australia and New Zealand. Since 1987 Australia has had an approved system of labelling for additives in packaged foods. Each food additive has to be named or numbered. The numbers are the same as in Europe, but without the prefix 'E'.
The United States Food and Drug Administration listed these items as "Generally recognized as safe" or GRAS and these are listed under both their Chemical Abstract Services number and FDA regulation listed under the US Code of Federal Regulations
Food additives can be divided into several groups, although there is some overlap between them.Acids : Food acids
are added to make flavors "sharper", and also act as preservatives and antioxidants. Common food acids include vinegar
, citric acid
, tartaric acid
, malic acid
, fumaric acid
, lactic acid
.Acidity regulators : Acidity regulators
are used to change or otherwise control the acidity and alkalinity
of foods.Anticaking agents : Anticaking agents
keep powders such as milk powder from caking or sticking.Antifoaming agents : Antifoaming agents
reduce or prevent foaming in foods.Antioxidants : Antioxidants
such as vitamin C
act as preservatives by inhibiting the effects of oxygen
on food, and can be beneficial to health.Bulking agents : Bulking agents
such as starch
are additives that increase the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value.Food coloring : Colorings
are added to food to replace colors lost during preparation, or to make food look more attractive.Color retention agents : In contrast to colorings, color retention agents
are used to preserve a food's existing color.Emulsifiers : Emulsifiers
allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion
, as in mayonnaise
, ice cream
, and homogenized milk
.Flavors : Flavors
are additives that give food a particular taste or smell, and may be derived from natural ingredients or created artificially.Flavor enhancers : Flavor enhancers
enhance a food's existing flavors. They may be extracted from natural sources (through distillation
, solvent extraction
, among other methods) or created artificially.Flour treatment agents : Flour treatment agents
are added to flour
to improve its color or its use in baking
.Humectants : Humectants
prevent foods from drying out.Tracer gas: Tracer gas
allow for package integrity testing to prevent foods from being exposed to atmosphere, thus guaranteeing shelf life.Preservatives : Preservatives
prevent or inhibit spoilage of food due to fungi
and other microorganisms
.Stabilizers : Stabilizers
, thickeners and gelling agents, like agar
(used in jam
for example) give foods a firmer texture. While they are not true emulsifiers
, they help to stabilize emulsions
. Sweeteners : Sweeteners
are added to foods for flavoring. Sweeteners other than sugar
are added to keep the food energy
) low, or because they have beneficial effects for diabetes mellitus
and tooth decay
.Thickeners : Thickeners
are substances which, when added to the mixture, increase its viscosity
without substantially modifying its other properties.
Food additives are substances which are added in small amounts to processed foods for a specific purpose. Food additives have been used for centuries. Salt, sugar and vinegar were among the first and used to preserve foods. In the past 30 years, however, with the advent of processed foods, there has been a massive explosion in the chemical adulteration of foods with additives. Considerable controversy has been associated with the potential threats and possible benefits of food additives.
In several cases, artificial food additives have been linked with cancer, digestive problems, and neurological conditions such as ADD. They can be also linked with diseases like heart disease, obesity, rapid heartbeat and more. Though some people feel organic additives are preferable to artificial ones, others point out that "natural" additives themselves may be harmful in large quantities (such as salt) or may contain natural toxins, such as chemicals made by plants to defend themselves.
The U.S. Food Labelling Regulations (1984) describe an additive as:
- 'any substance not commonly regarded or used as a food, which is added or used in or on food at any stage to affect its keeping qualities, texture, consistency, appearance, taste, odour, alkalinity or acidity or to serve any other technological function in relation to food.'
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (1993). Everything Added to Food in the United States. Boca Raton, FL: C.K. Smoley (c/o CRC Press, Inc.).
- The Food Labelling Regulations (1984)
- Advanced Modular Science, Nelson, Food and Health, by John Adds, Erica Larkcom and Ruth Miller