Food Additives - do we need them?
The last 100 years has seen radical changes in the food supply
of societies around the world. While less and less people working
on farms, people now expect and demand a greater variety of food.
As the affluent middle working class becomes larger, the demand
for pre-packaged, convenience foods has also grown considerably
as families find it less convenient to cook meals from scratch.
convenience foods both varied as well as nutritious and safe (not
to mention cheap), is now being done using modern technology.
This technology includes food additives that have been proven
both useful as well as safe through long use and stringent testing.
what exactly are food additives and why use them?
are functional ingredients: they are added into foods on purpose
to improve safety, nutritional value and/or taste and appearance.
Basically, food additives are used to:
foods safely e.g. preventing bacteria from growing and causing
food to rot or cause food poisoning.
food nutrition e.g. preventing the loss or breakdown of vitamins
and amino acids.
food special qualities e.g. artificial sweeteners for making diabetic
snacks or using bulking agents to make food less fattening.
food more appealing (taste or appearance) e.g. thickeners and
stabilisers to prevent the ingredients of ice cream and salad
dressings from separating.
of food additives
additives have been around almost as long as man himself. Food
additives have been used to preserve food from one harvest to
the next with better appearance and nutritional value for thousands
of years. The ancient Egyptians used colours and flavourings to
make food look and taste better, while ancient Romans utilised
spices, salt and vegetable colouring to enhance their meals. All
over the world, salting and smoking food has been practised to
recently, technology and the discovery of new, effective food
additives has led to their widespread use. These include emulsifiers
in margarine (to keep it in a solid block), baking soda in cake
mixes and gelling agents in jams. The use of these additives has
offered consumers a wide range of reasonably priced foodstuffs
of a high and constant quality. In fact, without food additives,
it would be impossible to produce low-calorie or low-fat products
such as margarine.
sources of food additives are:
of vegetable origin
- Thickening agents extracted from seeds, fruit and seaweed
- Colours isolated from seeds, fruits and vegetables
- Acidulates such as tartaric acid from fruit
products produced by synthesis or biosynthesis
- antioxidants such as ascorbic acid in fruit and tocopherol in
vegetable oils colours such as carotenoids, the colouring agent
in many fruits and vegetables.
- Acidulants such as citric acid present in citrus fruit
obtained by modifying natural substances
Emulsifiers derived from edible oils and organic acids
- Thickening agents such as modified starches and modified cellulose
- Bulk sweeteners such as sorbitol and maltitol Man-made products
such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- Colours, such as indigotin and quinoline yellow
- Intense sweeteners such as saccharin.
safe are food additives?
Some additives have been used for decades or even centuries, so
we have a lot
of experience regarding both their usefulness and their safety.
To continue to assure safety, scientific experts review these
traditional additives every so often, and any reasonable doubts
are evaluated. New additives must not only have a demonstrated
useful purpose, but also go through a thorough and rigorous safety
evaluation before they can be approved for use.
Basically, both new and traditional additives are tested by an
independent experts who evaluate whatever information is available.
In the EU this group of experts is the Scientific Committee for
Foods. The Information they evaluate includes lifetime feeding
studies which assess how the additive is handled in the body,
stability of the additive in different foods and beverages, and
the intended uses in order to understand how much of the additive
is likely to be consumed. If the experts feel that specific information
is lacking, they will require additional tests
Once sufficient information is available for a thorough evaluation,
the experts will calculate an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for
the additive i.e., the amount of the additive that can be daily
consumed safely over a lifetime. This is typically done by finding,
through extensive testing, the level at which no effect is observed
and then dividing by a safety factor of typically 100. The purpose
of the safety factor is to provide additional security in case
humans are more sensitive to the additive than the test animals
are, and in case some people are more sensitive than others.
the regulators apply the ADI to establish the amount of the additive
which may be used, taking into account the likely consumption
of the foods and beverages which will contain the additive as
well as the amount of the additive needed to achieve its function.
These permitted levels ensure that the total consumption of an
additive is normally far below the ADI. It is important to note
that since the ADI is based on lifetime feeding studies, and because
the ADI has a built-in safety factor, the consumption of an additive
above its ADI on a given day is not a cause for concern. In fact,
human dietary surveys have confirmed many times that consumption
above the ADI on one day is more than accounted for by consumption
comfortably below the ADI on most other days.
people be allergic to food additives?
Many people are allergic or intolerant to foods such as milk,
eggs, fish, shellfish and wheat. In fact, about one in every fifty
individuals is allergic to some food substance. Allergic reactions
include migraine headaches, diarrhoea, respiratory problems and
skin rashes. In contrast, however, intolerance to food additives
has been shown to be uncommon.
Among the most recent and reliable investigations into food additive
intolerance was carried out by a regional authority in the United
Kingdom which found that 3 out of 18,000 respondents exhibited
any intolerance to food additives. This finding agreed with an
earlier estimate by experts of the European Commission. Therefore,
among adults, food additive intolerance appears to be very rare.
While food additives have been used for centuries, they have gained
increased importance and widespread use in the last few decades.
Food additives help assure a constant food supply of safe, healthy,
nutritious, varied and appealing products at an affordable price,
something we have come to expect.
of strict regulation and thorough testing, food additives are
safe elements of our diet. Of course, clear labelling adds to
consumers' ability to make informed choices about the foodstuffs
Essay written based on information from the European Food
Information Council (EUFIC). For more information, please visit
http://www.eufic.org [copyright granted on website].
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pictures taken by team member Jason Yeo