- Food additives have been used for centuries. We still use some of the old preservation materials and we have the same aims – to make the food look good, edible and enjoyable. The manufacturing methods, however, have changed.
- Definition of food additives. According to the Council Directive 89/107/EEC, 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”.
- What does the letter E stand for? The letter E stands for Europe (or EU). The number beside the letter E signifies the code number used to identify the food additive, that has been shown to be safe and authorized for use in the European Union.
- Are food additives safe? The assessment procedure of the food additives is very strict. All additives must be shown to be safe before they can be used in food. Some food additives are substances that are still under “surveillance” by the authorities.
- Food additives are not used only in processed foods.
- A processing aid is a substance only used during treatment or processing of a food product, and using it may result in the nonintentional, but unavoidable presence of residues or derivatives, which might not have any technological effects on the finished product. It is not a food additive and we don’t see it on labels.
Ever stared in a food product’s ingredients and wondered what the letter E stands for? Whenever you see the letter E, do you just walk away and look for something else? Can I tell you a little secret?
Sometimes even vitamins C (E300) and E (E308) are labeled with the E numbers. I’m not lying. Let’s discuss food additives this time!
Image Source: Bakery and Snacks
Food additives have been used for centuries. I know, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true! Back in the day (waaaaaay back), meat and fish were smoked and salted and that’s how they were preserved. (Even today – smoked salmon and smoked prosciutto, anyone? It’s yummy!).
The Egyptians used colors and flavorings, the Romans used saltpeter (potassium nitrate), the ancient Chinese unknowingly used traces of ethylene and propylene from burning paraffin to ripen fruit, herbs and colors for preservation and to improve the appearance of different foods. To transform the raw materials into foods that looked good, healthy and enjoyable to eat, the cooks used baking powder as raising agent; thickeners for sauces and gravies and colors, like cochineal and others. Fast forward many years, we still use some of those preservation materials and we have the same aims – to make the food look good, edible and enjoyable. The manufacturing methods, however, have changed.
In the last 50 years, advancements in food science and technology have led to the discovery and introduction to the world, many new substances that can fulfill various roles in foods. Food additives are now readily accessible and include: emulsifiers (in margarine), sweeteners (in low-calorie products) and a wide range of preservatives and antioxidants, that slow product spoilage, and also keep the goods from becoming rancid, whilst maintaining taste. (1)(2)
DEFINITION OF FOOD ADDITIVES
According to the Council Directive 89/107/EEC, 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”. (3)
WHAT DOES THE LETTER E STAND FOR??
This question has a very simple answer: the letter E stands for Europe (or EU). The number beside the letter E signifies the code number used to identify the food additive, that has been shown to be safe and authorized for use in the European Union. The idea is to have a system of identification that is the same in all languages and easy to fit on a food label (especially because some chemical names are really, really, really long!)
Here is how they are classified by numeric range:
Table source: Wikipedia
All in all, there are 322 different food additives inside the above presented ranges.
In the US food additives are referenced by their common names. For example, in the US calcium ascorbate will be labeled as calcium ascorbate, and in the EU it will be labeled as E302.
Food additives in Europe are regulated by the EU Regulation (EC) 1333/2008. Only authorized additives can be used in the EU with the foods in which they can be used. Maximum levels must also be described. A table of authorized food additives and their specific conditions of use can be found in a database on the European Commission website. (1) Information about the food additive status list is also provided by the FDA:
Food additives in the US are regulated by the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21 – Food and Drugs which is written, amended and enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA).
ARE FOOD ADDITIVES SAFE?
Well…Think of the Theory of Relativity and then read on!
Image Credit: David Mark (Pixabay)
The assessment procedure of the food additives is very strict. All additives must be shown to be safe before they can be used in food. The safety evidence is carefully analyzed by an independent committee of scientists and medical experts.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the US FDA are responsible for these safety analyses in Europe and USA, respectively. The approval process takes into account any tests which have been conducted on the additive and, where gaps and disagreements exist in the knowledge, further tests have to be carried out. The approval method for additives is designed to ensure that they are completely safe in all respects before approval. Even after a permit is given for their use in foods, additives are subject to continuous review. (4)
I say – think of the Theory of Relativity, because many food additives are substances that are still under “surveillance” by the authorities. Think: acesulfame K, or as labeled in the EU – E950.
Still, it has become customary in some circles to criticize food additives, and in so doing, to pile them all together and imply that they are unnecessary, unnatural, not good and even dangerous. This approach ignores their diversity of nature, application and origin. It is often suggested that they are added for no reason, which is not the case. In fact, the law requires that additives must perform a technological function in the foods in which they are used, and may be added only in the minimum concentrations necessary to perform their function. (5)
Many of those materials (additives) have been used for centuries and are proven to be safe. However, there are certain foods, food ingredients (among which are also some additives) that have caused allergies, intolerance and even hyperactivity in children. Still, studies have shown, that the true prevalence of intolerance to certain foods is about 2% in adults and 20% in children; and for food additives from 0,01 to 0.23%.
The most commonly observed reactions from food additives is to sulphur dioxide (E220) and sulfites (E221-E228), notably in asthma sufferers. Within the EU, allergens have to be declared on the ingredient label. (6)
To assess the possible adverse effects of a food additive, it must be toxicologically tested (lab studies and tests on experimental animals). Occasionally, there are results from human studies, but usually such studies become available when the additive has been marketed.
If an additive is likely to have a large number of uses and a potential widespread daily exposure, then a full range of toxicity studies will normally be required. However, if it is estimated, that the additive will have a limited use and low human exposure, then fewer tests will be required.
Toxicokinetics (studies of absorption, distribution, metabolism and excression – ADME) is also conducted on experimental animals. These studies help in finding out if dangerous or harmful metabolites are produced, or if the parent compound accumulates in the body.
Acute toxicity and subchronic toxicity tests are also conducted. The later are very important, because they give valuable information on food consumption and body weight, haematology, blood and urine biochemistry, which can point out, if there is any damage to the organs, such as the kidneys and the liver. They also give information on organ weights and pathological effects in organs and tissues in the gross, macroscopic and microscopic levels.
Reproductive and developmental toxicities are usually required. Reproductive studies are usually done with rats and provide information on male and female fertility, maintenance of pregnancy, birth and lactation, and indicate any adverse effects on survival, growth and development of the offspring. Nowadays, reproductive studies also include assessment of postnatal physical development of the offspring and measures of motor and behavioral development. This is important, because critical aspects of the development of the reproductive system in rats occur in the late prenatal and early postnatal period, a developmental window in which there may be particular vulnerability to endocrine – mediated adverse effects.
In developmental studies (or teratology studies) the growth and development of the embryo and fetus is assessed with emphasis on embryonic and fetal survival, fetal weight and the occurrence of any malformations. These studies are important for monitoring brain and reproductive system development, which continue beyond the shorter period of organogenesis for other systems.
Then there are tests for chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity. These studies are usually done on two species – rats and mice, and are required for many food additives. These studies show us if there are any effects on body weight, organ weight or pathological changes in tissues and organs. Examination of haematological and clinical chemistry parameters may also be included.
Genotoxicity studies are also conducted. These studies assess the ability of a substance to react with the DNA, by induction of gene mutations, chromosome aberrations or other forms of DNA damage. Genotoxicity studies are important, because they indicate the potential for carcinogenic effects, induction of heritable mutations in germ cells or other adverse health consequences. These are in vitro (in tube) and in vivo (in live organism) studies. Substances that are genotoxic in vitro, but not in vivo (because they are broken down in non-genotoxic compounds) are generally regarded as not hazardous to humans.
Depending on the results of all of these studies, further analyses may be needed. The safety of food additives is an important public-health topic and considerable resources are devoted to their risk assessment, risk management and to legal aspects to ensure that food is safe for consumers. (7)
AREN’T ADDITIVES USED ONLY IN PROCESSED FOODS?
Nope. Additives are used only when necessary, and some processed foods do not contain them. I know that sounds kinda weird, because processed foods contain what-not, but there you go. Canned food doesn’t contain preservatives, because canning as a method, represents a way to preserve foods (really high temperatures used in the method of canning kill all the microorganisms).
It is important to add, that many substances which are added to foods are not considered as food additives, at least in the EU. For example, these substances are not considered to be food additives, according to the Regulations (EC) No. 1333/2008:
- Monosaccharides, disaccharides or oligosaccharides and foods containing these substances used for their sweetening properties.
- Dried foods or foods in concentrated form, including flavorings incorporated during the manufacturing of compound foods, because of their aromatic, savory or nutritive properties together with a secondary coloring effect.
- Substances used in covering or coating materials, which are not part of the foods and are not intended to be consumed together with these foods.
- Products containing pectin and derived from dried apple pomade or peel of citrus fruits or quinces, or from a mixture of them, by the action of dilute acid and followed by partial neutralization with sodium or potassium salts (liquid pectin).
- Chewing gum bases.
- White or yellow dextrin, roasted or dextrinated starch, starch modified by acid or alkali treatment, bleached starch, physically modified starch and starch treated by amylolitic enzymes.
- Ammonium chloride.
- Blood plasma, edible gelatin, protein hydrolysates and their salts, milk protein and gluten.
- Amino acids and their salts, other than glutamic acid, glycine, cysteine and cystine and their salts having no technological function.
- Caseinates and casein.
- Processing acids.
- Substances used for the protection of plants and plant products in accordance with community rules relating to plant health (for example: pesticides and plant protecting products, such as, herbicides, insecticides, etc).
- Substances added to foods as nutrients, such as minerals or vitamins.
- Substances used for the treatment of water for human consumption falling within the scope of Council Directive 98/83/EC on drinking water quality.
- Flavorings as they are regulated under Regulation (EC) No. 1334/2008 (as amended) on flavorings and certain food ingredients with flavoring properties.
- Food enzymes, as they are controlled under Regulation (EC) No. 1332/2008 on food enzymes.
- Extraction solvents that are subject to specific legislation on both their use and residual levels, under Directive 2009/32/EC (as amended). (8)
So, you might ask – what then is considered as food additive in the EU??
Well, there are 26 classes of food additives listed in Annex I of Regulation (EC) NO. 1333/2008:
- Sweeteners – substances used to add a sweet taste to foods or in table – top sweeteners.
- Colors – substances that add or restore color in foods, and include natural constituents of foods and natural sources that are normally not consumed as foods as such and not normally used as characteristic ingredients of food. Preparations obtained from foods and other edible natural source materials obtained by physical and/or chemical extraction resulting in a selective extraction of the pigments relative to the nutritive or aromatic constituents are colors within the meanings of the Regulation.
- Preservatives – substances that prolong the shelf life of foods by protecting them against deterioration caused by micro – organisms and/or that protect against growth of pathogenic micro – organisms.
- Antioxidants – substances that prolong the shelf life of foods by protecting them against deterioration caused by oxidation, such as fat rancidity and color changes.
- Carriers – substances used to dissolve, dilute, disperse, or otherwise physically modify a food additive or a flavoring, food enzyme, nutrient and/or other substance added for nutritional or physiological purposes to a food without altering its function (and without exerting any technological effect themselves) in order to facilitate its handling, application or use.
- Acids – substances used to increase the acidity of a foodstuff and/or impart a sour taste to it.
- Acidity regulators – substances that alter or control the acidity or alkalinity of a foodstuff.
- Anticaking agents – substances that reduce the tendency of individual particles of a foodstuff to adhere to one another.
- Antifoaming agents – substances that prevent or reduce foaming.
- Bulking agents – substances that contribute to the volume of a foodstuff without contributing significantly to its available energy value.
- Emulsifiers – substances that make it possible to form and maintain a homogenous mixture of two or more immiscible phases, such as oil and water in a foodstuff.
- Emulsifying salts – substances that convert proteins contained in cheese into a dispersed form and thereby bring about homogenous distribution of fat and other components.
- Firming agents – substances that make or keep tissues of fruit or vegetables firm or crisp, or interact with gelling agents to produce or strengthen a gel.
- Flavor enhancers – substances that enhance the existing taste and/or odor of a foodstuff.
- Foaming agents – substances that make it possible to form a homogenous dispersion of a gaseous phase in a liquid or solid foodstuff.
- Gelling agents – substances that give a foodstuff texture through formation of a gel.
- Glazing agents (including lubricants) – substances that, when applied to the external surface of a foodstuff, impart a shiny appearance or provide a protective coating.
- Humectants – substances that prevent foods from drying out by counteracting the effect of an atmosphere having a low degree of humidity, or promote the dissolution of a powder in an aqueous medium.
- Modified starches – substances obtained by one or more chemical treatments of edible starches, which may have undergone a physical or enzymatic treatment, and may be acid or alkali thinned or bleached.
- Packaging gases – gases (other than air), introduced into a container before, during or after the placing of a foodstuff in that container.
- Propellants – gases (other than air) that expel a foodstuff from a container.
- Raising agents – substances or combination of substances that liberate gas and thereby increase the volume of a dough or a batter.
- Sequestrands – substances that form chemical complexes with metallic ions.
- Stabilizers – substances that make it possible to maintain the physical cochemical state of a foodstuff, stabilizers include substances which enable the maintenance of a homogenous dispersion of two or more immiscible substances in a foodstuff, substances that stabilize, retain or intensify an existing color of a foodstuff and substances that increase the binding capacity of the food, including the formation of crosslinks between proteins enabling the binding of food pieces into reconstituted food.
- Thickeners – substances which increase the viscosity of a foodstuff.
- Flour treatment agents – substances, other than emulsifiers, which are added to flour or dough to improve its baking quality. (9)
Food additives have a very bad reputation, because people connect them only to processed foods. Same additives can be found in processed and non-processed foods, and it is important to understand that processed foods contain other chemicals that are not food additives and are bad for our health.
It is also important to know that there are chemicals which are food additives and chemicals that are processing aids. So what is what?
- Food additive is strictly regulated, defined substance added to foods and has a technological role in the said foods.
- A processing aid is a substance only used during treatment or processing of a food product, and using it may result in the nonintentional, but unavoidable presence of residues or derivatives, which might not have any technological effects on the finished product.
SO, ON LABELS, HOW THE HECK ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHICH IS A FOOD ADDITIVE AND WHICH IS A PROCESSING AID???
To determine which is which – one must determine whether a substance continues to function in the final product. And for us, consumers – how do we recognize processing aids? We can’t! They are NOT listed on the labels. According to the FDA’s regulations (21 CFR 101.100), the definition of processing aids is:
- Substances that are added to a food during the processing of such food but are removed in some manner from the food before it is packaged in its finished form.
- Substances that are added to a food during processing, are converted into constituents normally present in the food, and do not significantly increase the amount of the constituents naturally found in food.
- Substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in the processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food. (10)
This means: you go and buy fruits or vegetables, but you don’t know that they have been washed with organic acids; or you go and buy frozen waffles, but on the label it doesn’t say that sodium stearoyl lactylate has been used to strengthen dough.
The good news is, that self-determination by manufacturers, that a substance is a processing aid is not acceptable. Data must be submitted to FSIS’ Labeling and Program Delivery Division (LPDD) to show, that the suggested use of the substance is consistent with FDA’s definition of a processing aid. (11)
The European Commission is planning to develop more detailed regulations overseeing the use of processing aids. Although it is at a very early stage of development, one possibility being considered is that the definition of a processing aid will be tightened, so that residues in final foods will no longer be acceptable, unless a substance in question is specifically authorized for food use. Legislation on processing aids is not yet harmonized at the European Commission level, and so, processing foods that might be legal in France, for example, might not be permitted in other member states. (12)
So, one thing can be said: processing aids can be safe if used properly. Are they always used properly? That’s another question. There are so many studies about this, ones that show, that processing aids in the right concentration are safe, and others that aren’t.
So we’re left with the same question: what are we to do??
And the answer is always the same: eat organic and non processed whenever you can, but don’t beat your head from the wall when you eat a frozen waffle. Just don’t eat them every day. I know – you expected me to say – eat 100% organic or else! But, the truth is, you’ll go in a restaurant, can you know exactly what kind of foods and what ingredients they use, even for the “healthy” menù choices?
Eat as healthy as possible, eat organic, drink filtered water and smile. Everything is relative and you can’t live in a bubble – eventually it will pop.
See you next week!
- EUFIC (European Food Information Council). Online source: http://www.eufic.org/article/en/food-safety-quality/food-additives/expid/basics-food-additives/ (26.11.2016).
- Online source: http://www.worldhistory.biz/sundries/37289-food-additives-in-history.html (26.11.2016).
- Online source: https://www.fsai.ie/uploadedfiles/dir89.107.pdf (26.11.2016)
- Food Additives and Ingredients Association. Online source: http://www.faia.org.uk/faqs/ (26.11.2016).
- Mike Saltmarsh: Essential Guide to Food Additives. RSC Publishing 2013. Cambridge UK. page: 1.
- Mike Saltmarsh: Essential Guide to Food Additives. RSC Publishing 2013. Cambridge UK. page: 10-12.
- Mike Saltmarsh: Essential Guide to Food Additives. RSC Publishing 2013. Cambridge UK. page: 19-27.
- Mike Saltmarsh: Essential Guide to Food Additives. RSC Publishing 2013. Cambridge UK. page: 50-53.
- Online source: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2008:354:0016:0033:en:PDF (26.11.2016).
- Online source: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.100 (26.11.2016).
- Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Online source: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/9a34e8d9-997a-4c58-bd5e-d87cc371ecda/Determination_of_Processing_Aids.pdf?MOD=AJPERES (26.11.2016).
- Mike Saltmarsh: Essential Guide to Food Additives. RSC Publishing 2013. Cambridge UK. page: 13.