Food additives

What are food additives?

Substances that are added to food to maintain or improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance of food are known as food additives. Some food additives have been in use for centuries for preservation – such as salt (in meats such as bacon or dried fish), sugar (in marmalade), or sulfur dioxide (in wine).

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Many different FA have been developed over time to meet the needs of food production, as making food on a large scale is very different from making them on a small scale at home. Additives are needed to ensure processed food remains safe and in good condition throughout its journey from factories or industrial kitchens, during transportation to warehouses and shops, and finally to consumers.

The use of FA is only justified when their use has a technological need, does not mislead consumers, and serves a well-defined technological function, such as to preserve the nutritional quality of the food or enhance the stability of the food.

Food additives can be derived from plants, animals, or minerals, or they can be synthetic. They are added intentionally to food to perform certain technological purposes which consumers often take for granted. There are several thousand food additives used, all of which are designed to do a specific job in making food safer or more appealing. WHO, together with FAO, groups food additives into 3 broad categories based on their function.

Flavouring agents

Flavouring agents – which are added to food to improve aroma or taste – make up the greatest number of additives used in foods. There are hundreds of varieties of flavourings used in a wide variety of foods, from confectionery and soft drinks to cereal, cake, and yoghurt. Natural flavouring agents include nut, fruit and spice blends, as well as those derived from vegetables and wine. In addition, there are flavourings that imitate natural flavours.

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Enzyme preparations

Enzyme preparations are a type of additive that may or may not end up in the final food product. Enzymes are naturally-occurring proteins that boost biochemical reactions by breaking down larger molecules into their smaller building blocks. They can be obtained by extraction from plants or animal products or from micro-organisms such as bacteria and are used as alternatives to chemical-based technology. They are mainly used in baking (to improve the dough), for manufacturing fruit juices (to increase yields), in wine making and brewing (to improve fermentation), as well as in cheese manufacturing (to improve curd formation).

Other additives

Other food additives are used for a variety of reasons, such as preservation, colouring, and sweetening. They are added when food is prepared, packaged, transported, or stored, and they eventually become a component of the food.

Preservatives can slow decomposition caused by mould, air, bacteria, or yeast. In addition to maintaining the quality of the food, preservatives help control contamination that can cause foodborne illness, including life-threatening botulism.

Colouring is added to food to replace colours lost during preparation, or to make food look more attractive.

Non-sugar sweeteners are often used as an alternative to sugar because they contribute fewer or no calories when added to food.

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Key facts

  • FA are substances added to food to maintain or improve its safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance.
  • Food additives need to be checked for potential harmful effects on human health before they can be used.
  • The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), is the international body responsible for evaluating the safety of food additives.
  • Only food additives that have been evaluated and deemed safe by JECFA, on the basis of which maximum use levels have been established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, can be used in foods that are traded internationally.

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