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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
- See list of food additives for a complete list of all the names.
- See E number for the numbers.
- 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 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 allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise, ice cream, and homogenized milk.
- 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, maceration, 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 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 prevent or inhibit spoilage of food due to fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms.
- Stabilizers, thickeners and gelling agents, like agar or pectin (used in jam for example) give foods a firmer texture. While they are not true emulsifiers, they help to stabilize emulsions.
- Sweeteners are added to foods for flavoring. Sweeteners other than sugar are added to keep the food energy (calories) low, or because they have beneficial effects for diabetes mellitus and tooth decay and diarrhea.
- Thickeners are substances which, when added to the mixture, increase its viscosity without substantially modifying its other properties.
With the increasing use of processed foods since the 19th century, there has been a great increase in the use of food additives of varying levels of safety. This has led to legislation in many countries regulating their use. For example, boric acid was widely used as a food preservative from the 1870s to the 1920s, but was banned after World War I due to its toxicity, as demonstrated in animal and human studies. During World War II the urgent need for cheap, available food preservatives led to it being used again, but it was finally banned in the 1950s. Such cases led to a general mistrust of food additives, and an application of the precautionary principle led to the conclusion that only additives that are known to be safe should be used in foods. In the USA, this led to the adoption of the Delaney clause, an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, stating that no carcinogenic substances may be used as food additives. However, after the banning of cyclamates in the USA and Britain in 1969, saccharin, the only remaining legal artificial sweetener at the time, was found to cause cancer in rats. Widespread public outcry in the USA, partly communicated to Congress by postage-paid postcards supplied in the packaging of sweetened soft drinks, led to the retention of saccharin despite its violation of the Delaney clause.
Cases like these serve to highlight the controversy associated with the risks and benefits of food additives. Some artificial food additives have been linked with cancer, digestive problems, and neurological conditions such as ADD, or diseases like heart disease or obesity. Even "natural" additives may be harmful, whether because of overuse (for example table salt) or because of natural toxicity. An example is safrole, which was used to flavour root beer until it was shown to be carcinogenic. Due to the application of the Delaney clause, it may not be added to foods, even though it occurs naturally in sassafras and sweet basil.
- Chemical elements
- Delaney clause
- Dietary supplement
- Food allergies
- Food supplements
- List of food additives
- 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
- Bucci, Luke (1995). Nutrition applied to injury rehabilitation and sports medicine, 151, Boca Raton: CRC Press.
- Rev. Lyman Abbott (Ed.) (1900). The Outlook (Vol. 64), 403, Outlook Co..
- (1981) Assessment of technologies for determining cancer risks from the environment, 177, Darby, PA, USA: DIANE publishing.
- Fennema, Owen R. (1996). Food chemistry, 827, New York, N.Y: Marcel Dekker.
- Food Trade's Juicy Secrets by John Triggs in the Daily Express July 17 2007
- Everything Added to Food in the United States (EAFUS) i.e. Castor oil, etc.
- Database of food additives and regulations governing their use
- EU legislation on food additives
- CSPI's guide to food additives, (PDF)
- Food Standards Australia and New Zealand page on food additives
- Database of food additives for mobile phones (freeware)
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