Food Additives

Today, in our fast paced modern lives, the vast majority of processed foods we consume contain additives. These additives can be natural or synthetically made and each is used for a specific purpose.

It is worth noting that many additives could be eliminated if we were prepared to grow and make our own foods.

There are many different groups of additives and below we explore the 6 most common:

  • Preservatives - chemical preservatives are used to keep food safer to eat for a longer period of time. They work by delaying the growth of bacteria and fungi. Common preservatives are nitrite and nitrate, and are often found in cured meat such as bacon and ham.
  • Colourings – colourings are used to make our food look more attractive. This is needed as during some food preparation processes colours can be lost. Much of the processed and pre-packed foods we consume would look unappealing without these added colourings. Colourings can be natural or artificial and have many names such as curcumin (a natural food colouring also referred to as E100) and tartrazine (an artificial food colouring also known as E102).
  • Flavour enhancers – flavour enhancers are added to some foods to make them taste better. They are often added to savoury products such as soups, crisps and sauces to make them more appealing. An example of a commonly used flavour enhancer is monosodium glutamate (also known as MSG or E621).
  • Antioxidants – antioxidants are added to foods to prevent them from going off or changing colour. They are commonly included in foods which are prepared with fats and oils such as bakery products, pies, mayonnaise and sauces.
  • Stabilisers, emulsifiers, gelling agents and thickeners – these are added to foods to prevent separation of ingredients (for example oil and water) or to enhance the texture of food. Examples include; pectin, diglycerides, xantham gum.
  • Sweeteners – sweeteners are widely used in many food products as they have fewer calories than sugar. Sweeteners are commonly referred to as aspartame (E951), sorbitol (E420) and saccharin (E954) on ingredient labels.

There has been a great deal of interest in the safety of food additives over the past decade, mainly due to the changes in food labelling in the 1980's and increased awareness of ingredients contained within food. Approved food additives have been through rigorous European Union (EU) safety assessments before being certified with an E followed by a number. This procedure checks that the additive is both safe for consumption and that it is necessary in the product. Some food additives have been linked to health issues; for example it is widely regarded that several food colourings, approved for use by the EU, are associated with, and may potentially cause, hyperactivity in children. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has worked hard with manufacturers to remove these colours from general use, however only checking the ingredients of products can ensure they are free from the affected colours. The colours listed by the FSA are:

  • allura red (E129)
  • carmoisine (E122)
  • ponceau 4R (E124)
  • quinolone yellow (E104)
  • sunset yellow (E110)

It is extremely difficult to pinpoint the foods that may be affecting an individual's allergy. But, the general rule of thumb is to eat a diet based on fresh, home cooked food. When using processed or pre-prepared foods, check the labels for any particular additives you wish to avoid.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 16 March 2016
Next review: 16 March 2019