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Saltmarsh's Essential Guide to Food Additives

Saltmarsh's Essential Guide to Food Additives

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Saltmarsh's Essential Guide to Food Additives

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Oct 30, 2020


Food additives play a vital role in allowing food manufacturers to provide the range of foods that are available in the developed countries of the world. Additives cover a considerable range from the recognisable sodium bicarbonate used to make cakes in the domestic kitchen to mono- and di-acetyltartaric esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids used as emulsifiers in commercial bread production. They include curcumin, the yellow colour in turmeric, beeswax and citric acid, the acid in citrus fruit, as well as substances prepared synthetically. It has long been fashionable in the media to criticise additives and, in so doing, to lump them all together but this ignores their diversity, their vital role in food production and preservation and the extensive testing they have undergone before being approved. This book outlines why additives are used, the testing regime within Europe, and a complete listing of all additives permitted within the EU.

The law covering food additives in the EU, which was harmonised in 1989, has been revised a number of times, most recently by the publication of Regulations 1333/2008 and 1129/2011. These Regulations have been amended a number times with additives being removed or added. This fifth edition of the Guide brings it up to date with a revision of every chapter to reflect the current situation.

Providing an invaluable resource for food and drink manufacturers, this book is the only work covering in detail every additive, its sources and uses. Those working in and around the food industry, students of food science and indeed anyone with an interest in what is in their food will find this a practical book full of fascinating details.

Oct 30, 2020

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Saltmarsh's Essential Guide to Food Additives - Royal Society of Chemistry


Chapter 1

Food Additives and Why They Are Used

Mike Saltmarsh

Inglehurst Foods Ltd, UK


A look at the shelves of any supermarket in the developed world will reveal a vast range of foods, of different flavours, colours and textures from many cuisines, which pay tribute to the skill of chefs, scientists and engineers in the food industry and the companies that provide them with ingredients and additives. What we now call food additives are the result of over 2000 years of creativity in the food industry. Once man had progressed from nomadic hunter/gatherer to living in settled communities he needed to work out how to store food for times of shortage. Meat was salted, smoked, dried or frozen according to location, and the relationship between bread and beer was established. Then, as with many technologies, it was the Romans who really started the food industry, actively seeking out the novel and ingenious as professional cooks were always on the lookout for fresh ideas to stimulate the palates of their masters. This drove the trade in pepper, for example, but also led to the use of albumen or fish gelatin for fining wine and copper for keeping greens green during cooking. As international trade increased over the years, cooks in the richer countries used commodities that were becoming available, generally from the East, to make delicacies for their employers. The development of retail trade in the 19th century, driven by new technologies and consumer power, generated the need for new ingredients, some of which we would now call additives, so that products that had once been the preserve of the rich could be available to all. Up until the end of the 18th century, new ingredients in Europe had all been used in other countries for some time, but the new understanding of science meant that the substances coming forward in the 19th century were novel, producing foods which had not been seen before. As an example, sodium bicarbonate started to be used in conjunction with sour milk to produce lighter cakes than had been possible with just eggs or yeast. The mixture of this compound together with potassium hydrogen tartrate produced the first consistent baking powder. The development of other mixtures of what are now called raising agents has allowed a vast range of cakes, buns, rolls and breads to be made available, either freshly baked or frozen part baked for later finishing. More recently, the challenges posed by long logistics chains and increasing consumer demands for increased convenience, lower fat without loss of texture, reduced salt with no loss of shelf life and reduction in the use of sugar with no loss of palatability, have all put increased demands on the technical requirements of thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilisers and sweeteners.

Over time, countries introduced systems of controlling additives, some using lists of compounds that were permitted, others of compounds that were banned. When the countries of the EU first came together to draw up an agreed list of permitted compounds and to determine how they should be described in an ingredient list they decided that, because some names were rather complicated, it should be acceptable to use a number instead of a name. The number was to be preceded by a capital ‘E’ to indicate the additive had been assessed and determined to be safe. Companies took up the use of numbers as it simplified the ingredient declaration, but for some organisations this highlighted the number of additives in some products and gave them the opportunity to cast doubts on their safety. In response the use of numbers has decreased and the name, even of the more complicated compounds, is now being used in preference.

1.1 What are Additives?

The official definition of a food additive, as provided in the Procedural Manual of the Codex Alimentarius Commission¹ is:

any substance not normally consumed as a food by itself and not normally used as a typical ingredient of the food, whether or not it has nutritive value, the intentional addition of which to food for a technological (including organoleptic) purpose in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packing, packaging, transport or holding of such food results, or may be reasonably expected to result, (directly or indirectly) in it or its by-products becoming a component of or otherwise affecting the characteristics of such foods. The term does not include ‘contaminants’ or substances added to food for maintaining or improving nutritional qualities.

In other words, a food additive is a compound that is specially selected to do a specific job in a food product. It may be a natural product, like beeswax, a chemical identical to one found in nature, like citric acid, or an entirely new compound, like saccharin.

This definition is the basis of the definition given in the European Commission's Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008,² Article 3 of which provides the list of substances which are not to be considered additives. Thus salt is an ingredient, rather than an additive, as is vinegar, but the acid in vinegar, acetic acid, is an additive. Similarly, lemon juice is an ingredient but the acid that provides its characteristic acidity, citric acid, is an additive. This principle, that the original material is an ingredient but a selectively extracted component is an additive, is applied widely and is extended to the use of colours and colouring foods.

It is important to notice that some materials which are referred to in common speech as food additives are classified in the Regulation as ingredients; this would include materials such as high fructose corn syrup.

The Regulation as amended³ identifies 27 different classes of use for additives in the EU: sweeteners, colours, preservatives, antioxidants, carriers, acids, acidity regulators, anticaking agents, antifoaming agents, bulking agents, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, firming agents, flavour enhancers, foaming agents, gelling agents, glazing agents, humectants, modified starches, packaging gases, propellants, raising agents, sequestrants, stabilisers, thickeners, flour treatment agents and contrast enhancers. These are expanded in the following sections.

1.1.1 Sweeteners

Sweeteners perform an obvious function and they fall into two broad groups. One group is sweeter than sugar, often several hundred times sweeter, and the other is less sweet. The intense sweeteners, including saccharin, aspartame and sucralose, are roughly 300 times sweeter than sugar, so are used in very small quantities. This means that while they can be used to replace the sweetness of sugar in low-calorie products, they cannot replace the bulk. The other group, bulk sweeteners, are the polyols – maltitol, xylitol, and so on. These are about 80% as sweet as sugar so in some products sugar is replaced by a mixture of an intense sweetener and a bulk sweetener. It should be noted that while these products are sweet, their sweetness is different from that of sugar. Some sweeteners have a very intense initial sweetness, while with others the sweetness develops more slowly and lingers longer, and most artificial sweeteners have a bitter aftertaste. The search is still on for sweeteners, particularly ones extracted from plant material, that replicate sugar more closely. As an example, a fruit native to China and Thailand and used in Chinese traditional medicine, monk fruit, is currently permitted in the USA but not in Europe.

1.1.2 Colours

The role of colours is also obvious, although sometimes they are used to replace colour that has been lost in processing and sometimes just to make products more appealing. Colour is an important marker for consumers – orange drinks are supposed to be orange, and raspberries are supposed to be red. Sometimes the natural colour of products is lost during processing, for example during canning or bottling, and this colour needs to be replaced.

The use of colours to make food more appealing has a long history but they have had a bad press, particularly after the publication in 2007⁴ of a study into the effect of a group of six colours and sodium benzoate on the behaviour of young children. As a result, the use of colours has decreased considerably and they have tended to be replaced by coloured foods, such as pumpkin, black carrot and safflower. This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

1.1.3 Preservatives

Preservatives are substances that protect foods against deterioration caused by micro-organisms, such as bacteria, yeasts and moulds. The micro-organisms could make the food taste bad or food poisoning bacteria could grow to unsafe levels, or they could produce toxins that would make consumers ill. Preservatives are thus an important part of the food safety measures in our food supply. They are important in extending the shelf life of foods, for example to allow for less frequent shopping expeditions and the longer supply chains needed for our modern food industry. Preservatives have a very long history, going back to the use of salt, sodium nitrite and spices to preserve meat. The most common preservative until recently was sodium benzoate, but its use decreased when it was discovered that parts per million levels of benzene could be formed in drinks containing sodium benzoate and vitamin C when exposed to sunlight. It has generally been replaced by potassium sorbate.

1.1.4 Antioxidants

Oxygen can cause changes in food which lead to off-flavours such as rancidity in fats and to loss of colour and flavour. This sort of oxidation is a chain reaction so it needs to be inhibited before it starts – antioxidants cannot restore oxidised foods. Oxygen also reacts with some vitamins, so that the amount of the vitamin decreases during storage. There are a number of ways to minimise the adverse impact of oxygen on food in storage (in addition to the use of antioxidants), including replacing the oxygen in a package with an inert packaging gas, removing the oxygen using enzymes or incorporating UV-absorbing substances in transparent packaging. Some antioxidants work by being oxidised themselves, like ascorbic acid, while others interfere in the mechanism of oxidation, like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), the tocopherols and gallic acid. All have specific properties making them more effective in some applications than in others. Often a combination of two or more antioxidants is more effective than one alone because they are synergistic. Sometimes metal ions catalyse the oxidation and a sequestrant such as citric acid is used to bind to the metal ion and increase the effectiveness of the antioxidant.

1.1.5 Carriers

Many flavours are liquid, so they need to be either absorbed or encapsulated in order to be used in dry products. The materials that perform this function are carriers. Some colours are intense and need to be diluted in order to be mixed evenly through a product. Again, the powders used for this dilution are called carriers.

1.1.6 Acids

Acids are used to provide an acid or sour taste to foods or to increase the acidity (decrease the pH) of a food to inhibit the growth of harmful organisms. Many acids are available, each with its own characteristic taste. The organic acids, e.g. citric, malic, acetic, are generally used for their taste while inorganic acids such as hydrochloric, sulfuric and nitric, are used in very small amounts to reduce pH. An exception is lactic acid, which is used to reduce the pH of bottled vegetables because it reduces the pH while having a particularly mild acid taste.

In contrast to the acids, sodium and potassium hydroxide are used to raise the pH in some products.

1.1.7 Acidity Regulators

The taste of the organic acid alone is usually quite sharp and a salt of the acid is commonly used to moderate the taste. These salts are called acidity regulators.

1.1.8 Anticaking Agents

Food powders are not necessarily free-flowing and this can cause problems in mixing and dissolving. Other powders tend to absorb water from the environment and form a solid mass. These problems can be overcome by using an anticaking agent, a fine powder that coats the surface of the particles and both stops them caking and acts as a lubricant so that the powder flows freely.

1.1.9 Antifoaming Agents

When soft drinks, hot jams and jellies are being filled into containers it is important that the lip of the container stays clean for subsequent sealing. Antifoaming agents are used to stop the product foaming as it is filled.

1.1.10 Bulking Agents

When intense sweeteners are used to replace sugar, very little sweetener is needed so there are occasions when a bulking agent is needed to replace the volume that was taken up by the sugar. This is particularly the case with table-top sweeteners, where a tiny amount of sweetener (1/60 g) would be needed to replace a teaspoon of sugar. This is too small to measure and the volume is made up by a bulking agent. Sometimes this is an ingredient like maltodextrin and sometimes an additive.

1.1.11 Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers are used to help maintain homogenous mixtures of oil and water. Egg yolk provides this role in traditional mayonnaise. The main active ingredient in egg yolk, lecithin, is now available from a number of sources including soya and sunflower. The most common emulsifier, mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, E 471, is derived from fats (triglycerides), both animal and vegetable, and is used for fat spreads, in bakery products and a range of other products. Other emulsifiers derived from the mono- and diglycerides interact with gluten and are used in breads.

1.1.12 Emulsifying Salts

Emulsifying salts are specifically used in the production of processed cheese, to make the proteins more soluble and enable the formation of a cheese spread.

1.1.13 Firming Agents

Firming agents are used to interact with the tissues of bottled or pickled fruit and vegetables, to keep them crisp during storage.

1.1.14 Flavour Enhancers

Flavour enhancers do exactly that. Specifically, they enhance the meaty taste of meat dishes. The most common flavour enhancer is monosodium glutamate, which is naturally present in a number of foods including seaweeds and tomatoes.

1.1.15 Foaming Agents

Foaming agents are used to increase the stability of a foam, for example on a soft drink.

1.1.16 Gelling Agents

Gelling agents are substances which give a foodstuff texture through formation of a gel. Examples are carrageenan and agar, which form gels with milk proteins.

1.1.17 Glazing Agents

Glazing agents are applied to the external surface of a foodstuff in order to impart a shiny appearance or provide a protective coating, particularly to individual sweets. There are a range of glazing agents; those which are softer like beeswax are easier to apply, while harder materials like carnauba wax are more difficult to apply but give a longer-lasting shine.

1.1.18 Humectants

Humectants are substances that prevent foods from drying out during storage. Glycerol (or glycerine) is the most common humectant. It is, for example, added to cake icing (or frosting) to keep the icing softer for longer.

1.1.19 Modified Starches

Modified starches are used to provide texture to foodstuffs. The term refers to chemically treated edible starches, which may have also have undergone physical or enzymatic treatment. Starches can provide a number of different textures – some thicken on heating while others become thinner (like corn starch). Some give a smooth thick texture while others can give a similar texture to fruit pulp.

A number of modified starches are additives with E numbers in the 1400s but since the trend to decrease the number of additives on ingredient labels they have largely been replaced by physically or enzymatically treated starches that are considered ingredients and do not require an E number.

1.1.20 Packaging Gases

Packaging gases are generally used to change the atmosphere inside a package in order to decrease the growth rate of micro-organisms and extend the shelf life of food products. The most common gases are carbon dioxide and nitrogen, although nitrous oxide has a particular use in instant whipped cream. In this case the gas also acts to create the foam and expel it from the canister.

1.1.21 Propellants

Propellants are the gases, other than air, that are used in aerosols to propel the foodstuff from the container.

1.1.22 Raising Agents

Raising agents have been used for 200 years to liberate carbon dioxide and increase the volume of a dough or batter. The carbon dioxide is provided by sodium carbonate or bicarbonate either by the action of heat or an acid. The acid is either tartaric acid or one of several acid phosphates. The original mixture consisted of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid but the new mixtures have been formulated to provide a range of baking options from immediate to delayed, to allow, for example, the production of frozen part baked items for later finishing.

1.1.23 Sequestrants

Sequestrants form complexes with metallic ions so that the metal ions do not cause unwanted effects such as catalysing oxidation reactions or causing coagulation of milk proteins.

1.1.24 Stabilisers

The term stabiliser includes substances with a number of functions, including those that keep an emulsion stable for an extended time or that stabilise, retain or intensify an existing colour of a foodstuff, as well as 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.

1.1.25 Thickeners

Thickeners increase the texture of food products and provide body. There are two main ways of increasing the texture of foods, using gums like gum arabic, locust bean gum and gum guar, and using starches. Some of the gums are synergistic and two are often used together. Their use is limited by the gummy texture inherent in overuse.

1.1.26 Flour Treatment Agents

Flour treatment agents are added to flour or dough to either strengthen or weaken the dough, depending on the product.

1.1.27 Contrast Enhancers

When it is necessary to mark the skin of a fruit or vegetable the effect can be enhanced by using a laser to remove natural pigment before using the marking substance. This substance is a contrast enhancer.

1.2 Flavourings

While flavour enhancers are classed as additives, flavourings are different and are regulated under Regulation 1334/2008⁵ and Regulation 872/2012⁶ which amended it and populated the Annex with the list of flavouring substances. Flavourings are divided into a number of categories: flavouring substances, flavouring preparations, thermal process flavourings, smoke flavourings, flavour precursors or other flavourings or mixtures. Flavouring substances are single chemicals with flavouring properties, for example ethyl vanillin, whereas flavouring preparations are products that may contain several individual flavouring chemicals, for example vanilla extract. Because of the complexity of the flavourings used in food all that is required on the label is the word ‘flavouring’.

1.3 ‘Clean Label’

Since the publication of the report on the effect of certain additives on the behaviour of children mentioned above, the drive within the European food industry has been to not only remove colours from foods and to replace E numbers with the names of additives, but also to replace additives wherever possible. This trend is known within the industry as ‘clean label’. As mentioned above, the replacement of additives with ingredients has been particularly noticeable with colours. It has also been achieved by the replacement of chemically modified starches with those that have been physically or enzymatically modified, but has not extended significantly beyond these two categories.


1. Codex Alimentarius Commission, Procedural Manual, 26th edn, Rome, 2018.

2. European Commission, Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on food additives, Off. J. Eur. Union, 2008, L354, 16–33.

3. European Commission, Commission Regulation No. 510/2013 of 3 June 2013 amending Annexes I, II and III to Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 as regards the use of iron oxides and hydroxides (E 172), hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose (E 464) and polysorbates (E 432-436) for marking of certain fruits, Off. J. Eur. Union, 2013, L150, 17–20.

4. D. McCann, et al.Lancet, 2007, 370, 1560–1567.

5. European Commission, Regulation (EC) No. 1334/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on flavourings and certain food ingredients with flavouring properties for use in and on foods and amending Council Regulation (EEC) No 1601/91, Regulations (EC) No 2232/96 and (EC) No 110/2008 and Directive 2000/13/EC, Off. J. Eur. Union, 2008, L354, 51, 34–50.

6. European Commission, Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No. 872/2012 of 1 October 2012 adopting the list of flavouring substances provided for by Regulation (EC) 2232/96 of the European Parliament and of the Council, introducing it in Annex I to Regulation (EC) No. 1334/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and repealing Commission Regulation (EC) No. 1565/2000 and Commission Decision 1999/217/EC, Off. J. Eur. Union, 2012, L267, 1–161.

Chapter 2

Safety of Food Additives in Europe

Susan M. Barlow

Harrington House, 8 Harrington Road, Brighton BN1 6RE, UK

2.1 Introduction

The objective of European Union (EU) legislation on food additives is to ensure protection of public health within a harmonised EU internal food market. The legislation on food additives has been developed following the approach laid down by the European Commission in 1985.¹ This approach limited the requirement for legislation to those areas which were justified by the need to protect public health, to provide consumers with information and protection in matters other than health, to ensure fair trading and to provide for the necessary public controls. This chapter focuses on the processes that are in place to ensure the safety of food additives covered by EU legislation.

2.2 Definition of a Food Additive

In the EU, a food additive is defined in law 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.²

The definition excludes processing aids, including enzymes and extraction solvents, flavourings, substances added as nutrients (such as vitamins and minerals), and substances migrating from food contact materials (food packaging, utensils, etc.) that do not exert a technological function in the food. All substances falling under this definition are simply called food additives in the EU, whereas in the USA, the terms ‘direct food additive’ and ‘color additive’ are used to describe them. The US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) also uses the term ‘indirect food additives’ to describe pesticide residues in food and substances derived from food contact materials that are present in food. In the EU, pesticides and substances used to make food contact materials are covered by separate legislation. Similarly, extraction solvents and flavourings are also covered by separate EU legislation (see Chapter 4 for details). In the EU, food additives, food enzymes and food flavourings are collectively termed ‘food improvement agents’.

2.3 The Safety Assessment Process

2.3.1 The Role of the European Food Safety Authority

Since 2003, the risk assessment of food additives in the EU has been undertaken by an agency of the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Unlike the regulatory systems governing other chemical sectors, such as human medicines, veterinary medicines and pesticides, which have advisory committees on which representatives of all the EU member states sit, EFSA is required by its founding Regulation³ to use independent scientific experts on its Scientific Panels and Committee. These experts do not represent member state governments and are required to give their own independent views. The creation of EFSA ensured that the risk managers (the European Commission and the EU member states) could receive independent scientific advice on proposed food additives prior to them being considered for authorisation. EFSA also advises on any safety concerns regarding food additives that are already approved in the EU. Thus, EFSA's role is to advise risk managers on the safety of new and existing food additives, while the role of the European Commission is to authorise additives and incorporate their approved uses into EU legislation. This ensures that there is an appropriate separation between risk assessors and risk managers.

Commission Regulation (EU) No 234/2011⁴ elaborates on procedural arrangements for updating the existing lists of substances authorised for use in food in the EU. It sets out the formal procedure for submitting an application to market a new food additive, enzyme or flavouring and the required content of the dossiers to be submitted in support of an application. Dossiers contain (inter alia) the essential information for risk assessment, including technical information, biological and toxicological data relating to safety, information on proposed uses, normal and maximum use levels, and estimates of dietary exposure. When the European Commission receives an application for a new food additive, the dossier of information is sent to EFSA with a request for it to evaluate the data and advise on the additive's safety.

EFSA has published opinions on the data requirements for food additives,⁵ enzymes⁶ and flavourings,⁷ which discuss the range of information and toxicity studies that must be submitted in support of an application for these types of substances. Upon receipt of a dossier, EFSA verifies whether the information submitted is suitable for undertaking a risk assessment. If the dossier is considered valid, EFSA examines the data in depth and provides the risk managers with an opinion on whether the substance is safe for consumers, under the proposed uses and conditions of use. EFSA opinions on food additives summarise the available data and provide conclusions on the safety/toxicity of the additive, dietary exposure assessments (including exposure of vulnerable consumer groups) and, where appropriate, establish a health-based guidance value, such as an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for the additive (see Section 2.6.1). All the published opinions on proposed and existing individual food additives can be found on the EFSA website (

Many food additives currently permitted for use in the EU were first evaluated some time ago, some as long ago as the 1970s, by the former EC Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), which provided advice to the Commission in the 25 years prior to the launch of EFSA. In addition to evaluating applications for new food additives, EFSA was also charged, under Regulation EU 257/2010,⁸ with the task of reviewing all permitted food additives that were authorised before 2009. The re-evaluation programme that began in 2010 was due to be completed in 2020.

2.3.2 General Criteria for the Use of Food Additives

The general criteria for use of food additives are set out in Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008.² The Regulation stipulates that an additive can only be approved if it presents no hazard to the health of the consumer at the level of use proposed, that there is a reasonable technological need that cannot be achieved by other economically and technologically practicable means, and that its use does not mislead the consumer. All food additives must also be kept under observation after approval so that they can be re-evaluated if there are changing conditions of use or new scientific information emerges on safety aspects.

2.4 The Origin of ‘E’ Numbers

Each permitted additive is assigned an ‘E’ number, signifying that it has been approved as safe for food use and its inclusion in the relevant Directive or Regulation has been agreed by the member states. Each E number has a separate specification that lays down purity criteria for the additive.⁹–¹¹ Labels on processed foods must list additives by their E numbers and/or by their common name.² An up-to-date list of authorised substances and their authorised uses can be found on the EU database on food additives

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