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Despite modern day associations food additives have been used for centuries. Food preservation began when man first learned to safeguard food from one harvest to the next and by the salting and smoking of meat and fish. The Egyptians used colours and flavourings, and the Romans used saltpetre (potassium nitrate), spices and colours for preservation and to improve the appearance of foods. Cooks regularly used baking powder as a raising agent, thickeners for sauces and gravies, and colours, such as cochineal, to transform good quality raw materials into foods that were safe, wholesome and enjoyable to eat. The overall aims of traditional home cooking remain the same as those prepared and preserved by today’s food manufacturing methods.
Over the last 50 years, developments in food science and technology have led to the discovery of many new substances that can fulfil numerous functions in foods. These food additives are now readily available and include; emulsifiers in margarine, sweeteners in low calorie products and a wider range of preservatives and antioxidants which slow product spoilage and rancidity whilst maintaining taste.
2. What are food additives and why are they necessary?
A food additive is defined as „any substance not normally consumed as a food in itself and not normally used as a characteristic ingredient of food whether or not it has nutritive value, the intentional addition of which to food for a technological purpose in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packaging, transport or storage of such food results, or may be reasonably expected to result, in it or its by products becoming directly or indirectly a component of such foods“ (Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008). Many food additives are naturally occurring and some are even essential nutrients; it is the technical purpose that leads to these being classified as food additives and given an E number.
Food additives play an important role in today’s complex food supply. Never before has the range and choice of foods been so wide either in supermarkets, specialist food shops or when eating out. Whilst a shrinking proportion of the population is engaged in primary food production, consumers are demanding more variety, choice and convenience alongside higher standards of safety and wholesomeness at affordable prices. Meeting these consumer expectations can only be achieved using modern food processing technologies which include the use of a variety of food additives proven effective and safe through long use and rigorous testing.
Additives carry out a variety of useful functions which we often take for granted. Foods are subjected to many environmental conditions, such as temperature changes, oxidation and exposure to microbes, which can change their original composition. Food additives play a key role in maintaining the food qualities and characteristics that consumers demand, keeping food safe, wholesome and appealing from farm to fork. Food additives are very carefully regulated and the general criteria for their use is that they perform a useful purpose, are safe and do not mislead the consumer.
3. How is the safety of food additives evaluated in Europe?
All food additives must have a demonstrated useful purpose and undergo a rigorous scientific safety evaluation before they can be approved for use. At present,
it is the EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS Panel), who is in charge of this task. At an international level there is a Joint Expert Committee, from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), on Food Additives (JECFA). Assessments are based on reviews of all available toxicological data in both humans and animal models. From the available data, the maximum level of additive that has no demonstrable toxic effect is determined. This is called the „no observed adverse effect level“ (NOAEL) and is used to determine the „Acceptable Daily Intake“ (ADI) for each food additive. The ADI provides a large safety margin and is the amount of a food additive that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without any adverse effect on health. To ensure people do not exceed the ADI by consuming too much of, or too many products containing a particular additive, EU legislation requires that studies are done to look at the ranges of intakes across a population and to address any changes in consumption patterns. Occasional intakes over the ADI are unlikely to cause any harm because of the 100 fold safety margin. However, if the ADI might be exceeded by particular sectors of the population, the Commission would assess the need to review levels in foods or reduce the range of foods in which the additive is permitted.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint FAO/WHO activity which develops guidelines for food safety globally, maintains the „General Standards for Food Additives“ (GSFA) database, with the aim of establishing a harmonised, workable and indisputable international standard for world trade. Only those additives that have been evaluated by the JECFA are included.
Thanks to strict regulation and thorough testing, food additives can be considered safe components in our diet that are contributing to the rapid evolution of the food supply in Europe and throughout the world.
5. What are the rules on labelling on food additives in the EU?
In the EU, food additives must be identified as ingredients of the foods in which they are used. preservative). Some common additives include: colours, preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners, and sweeteners. These are each discussed in more detail below.
An E number signifies approval of an additive by the EU. The E number system also serves as a simple and convenient way to label permitted additives across the range of languages in the European Union.
7. Do food additives cause hyperactivity?
In the 1970s, some researchers suggested that changes in diet had coincided with a rise in the number of children with behaviour problems. The idea that food additives, and food colours in particular, could be linked to hyperactivity generated much interest and considerable controversy.
In 2007, a study by researchers at the University of Southampton linked increased levels of hyperactivity in young children with consuming mixtures of some artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate.
The results of the Southampton study show that when the children were given the drinks containing the test mixtures, in some cases their behaviour was significantly more hyperactive. The scientific assessment panel was assisted by experts from the fields of behaviour, child psychiatry, allergy and statistics. The panel noted that the majority of the previous studies used children described as hyperactive and these were therefore not representative of the general population.
The EFSA concluded that there was limited evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had an effect on the activity and attention of some children. Although the findings from the study could be relevant for specific individuals showing sensitivity to food additives in general or to food colours in particular, it was found not to be possible at present to assess how widespread such sensitivity may be in the general population.