Food additives: a subject of discussion

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Food additives are the subject of heated debate. The trend towards natural and sustainably produced products has added fire to the discussion. But are additives actually as bad as they are reputed to be? We provide the background information for you to decide yourself what lands on your plate.

Preserving food

For thousands of years, people have gone to great lengths to preserve food in order to survive during low vegetation seasons. Methods such as heating, salting, souring, fermenting, drying, smoking and sulphuring proved sufficient for a long time to prevent the growth of spoiling agents such as bacteria and mould. However, with the Industrial Revolution leading to urbanisation around 200 years ago, the rapidly growing urban population also had to be supplied with food that could be transported and stored. The first «refrigeration facility» developed by Carl von Linde in 1873 enabled shelf lives to be extended by permanently lowering the food’s temperature. However, decades were to pass before a refrigerator was a standard appliance in every household in the Western world. Despite being able to refrigerate goods, the food industry still in many cases uses preservatives such as sorbic acid and sorbates (E 200 - E 203), benzoic acid and benzoates (E 210 - E 213) and PHB esters (E 220 - E 228) to also extend the shelf life of unrefrigerated products such as canned goods, dried fruit or bread.

Additives from a natural source

Many additives are of natural origin, for example riboflavin (= vi­ta­min B2, E 101) or carotenes (E 160a), the preservatives benzoic acid (in cran­ber­ries, E 210) or sorbic acid (in rowan berries, E 200), the acidifiers lactic acid and lactates (E 270, E 325 - 327) or phosphates (E 338 - 343, E 450 - 452), and the thickeners alginates (E 421 - 405) or agar-agar (E 406) from algae.

Food additives

Additives are useful for delaying food spoilage, preventing food waste and avoiding food poisoning from disease-inducing germs such as salmonella. Food additives are divided into functional classes according to their main intended use.

Testing additives

What many people don't know is that an additive often has to undergo several years of testing to determine its safety before it can be approved. In the EU and for Switzerland, a subdivision of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is responsible for this. Animal and cell culture tests are used to determine whether a new substance is acutely or chronically toxic, or if it could be damaging either at the foetal or genetic level.

Expert opinion has classified the possible use of additives as follows:
  • in unlimited quantities, e.g. packaging gases such as nitrogen (E 941) in potato chip bags
  • in quantities necessary for the purpose to be achieved in line with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) e.g. acetic acid (E 260) or ascorbic acid (= vitamin C, E 300) in canned vegetables
  • with a quantity limit, e.g. as­par­tame (E 951) in chewing gum
  • should not be permitted

Quantity limit

A quantity limit applies to most additives. In addition, many additives may only be used in certain foods and then in varying amounts. The limit known as the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) level is the amount of a substance per day that can be consumed for a lifetime without damaging a person's health. It doesn't correspond to the level at which adverse effects occurred in tests, but is usually lowered by a factor of 100. This allows for a high safety margin to ensure that almost all harm is avoided even in the case of children and at high consumption levels. Each additive is given an E number by the EFSA.

In Switzerland, the Federal Department of Home Affairs (FDHA) is responsible for the legal approval of additives. This department can also withdraw approval if the EFSA expresses concerns after reviewing new studies.

Additives must be declared

In pre-packaged goods, additives must be included in the list of ingredients on the package, with their functional class name plus either the substance name or the E number (e.g. «propionic acid pre­ser­va­tive» or «E 280 preservative»). When goods are sold in open form, sales staff must provide verbal information about all additives.

Necessary or superfluous?

Certain products cannot be manufactured without additives. A pretzel, for example, only becomes a lye pretzel when it is dipped in a sodium hydroxide solution (E 524). Refined vegetable oils and mar­ga­ri­nes would go rancid within a few weeks without the added to­co­phe­rols (= vitamin E, E 306 - E 309). Curaçao or a Smurf ice cream wouldn't feature their bright blue colour without the artificial but highly stable colourant Brilliant Blue FCF (E 133).

Two opposing trends

Of course, the necessity of such products is debatable. And the question of whether the expectation of how a food should look, taste or feel in the mouth is created by manufacturers or whether con­sumers have a certain expectation already is another dis­cus­sion altogether. Progress has been made in that consumers have managed to ensure that natural colourants such as beetroot red (E 162), paprika extract (E 160c), curcumin (E 100) and fruit and plant extracts are increasingly being used in confectionery instead of synthetic colourants. Two opposing trends, i.e. the increasing demand for con­ven­ience and the desire for natural products, will continue to satisfy both consumer needs in the future. In the end, everyone can and should decide for themselves whether and how much food they want to consume with or without additives.

Side effects of additives

Reactions such as pseudoallergies do occur, but far less frequently than is often assumed. For example, in blinded provocation tests, only 0.06% of the subjects reacted to the dye tartrazine (E 102) and 0.04% to the preservative benzoic acid (E 210). In contrast, about 4-5% of the population suffers from allergies to natural foods with sometimes severe reactions (respiratory swelling, vom­it­ing, skin rashes, asthma attacks, circulatory problems). Sweeteners such as aspartame (E 951) or cy­cla­mate (E 952) are also consistently being suspected of promoting obesity or even being carcinogenic. However, regular checks by the EFSA have not found any valid evidence for this. The same applies to the thesis that the con­sump­tion of artificial colourants (including tartrazine, ponceau 4R, allura red AC, azorubine) and benzoic acid is responsible for hyperactivity in children – but so far, the quality of the studies has been too poor to reliably deduce a connection.

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