Food additives

What is a food additive?

A food additive is a substance that is intentionally added to food, without such additives being considered food in the ordinary sense of the term.

aditivos alimentarios

Definition and background

The term food additive is defined differently by the food laws of each country. For example, in the food code (Codex Alimentarius), food additive means any substance not normally consumed as food by itself, and not normally used as a typical food ingredient, whether or not it has nutritional value. This includes the intentional addition to food for a technological (including organoleptic) purpose in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packing, packaging, wrapping, transport or storage of such food.

The additive may or may reasonably be expected to modify it (directly or indirectly) or its by-products into a component, or to affect the characteristics of such foods.

The term does not include any contaminants or substances added to foods to maintain or improve nutritional qualities.

Therefore, a food additive is a substance intended for use in the production, manufacture, processing, preparation, transport or storage of food; including any source of radiation intended for such use.

Food additives are indispensable for the production and processing of many foods. Some are essential to the economics of food production and distribution. Additives ensure the general availability of high quality foods with a satisfactory shelf life.

There are thousands of food additives. The FDA maintains a list of more than 3,000 additives in its "Substances Added to Food in the United States" database, many of which we use in the home on a daily basis.

According to the U.S. FDA, there are three reasons why ingredients are added to food:

  1. To maintain or improve safety and freshness.
  2. To improve or maintain the nutritional value.
  3. To improve flavor, texture and the appearance.

In the European Union (EU), food additives, food enzymes and food flavorings are also known as Food Improvement Agents, and are used to improve food for the following reasons:

  • Food additives preserve, color and stabilize food during production, packaging or storage.
  • Enzymes have specific biochemical actions that serve technological purposes at any stage of food preparation.
  • The flavors add or change the smell or taste of food.

The four basic reasons for using additives are as follows:

  1. Influence the nutritional value of food.
  2. To improve the stability of foodstuffs.
  3. Affect the sensory (organoleptic) properties of foods.
  4. To make certain technological processes possible.

Number E

On the other hand, food additives are assigned a code in the EU called "E-numbers" (the E for Europe). These are codes for substances used as food additives for use within the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Commonly found on food labels, their evaluation and safety approval is the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Having a single unified list for food additives was first agreed in 1962 with food colors. In 1964, directives were added for preservatives, 1970 for antioxidants and 1974 for emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners and gelling agents.

The E-number range indicates a type of food additive and are grouped as follows (see link to complete list of E-numbers):

E100 – E199 (Colours)

  • 100-109 yellows
  • 110–119 oranges
  • 120-129 reds
  • 130-139 blues and purples
  • 140-149 greens
  • 150-159 browns and blacks
  • 160-199 goldens and others

E200 – E299 (preservatives)

  • 200-209 sorbates
  • 210-219 benzoates
  • 220-229 sulfites
  • 230-239 phenols and formates (methanoates)
  • 240-259 nitrates
  • 260-269 acetates (ethanoates)
  • 270-279 lactates
  • 280-289 propionates (propionates)
  • 290-299 others

E300 – E399 (antioxidants, acidity regulators)

  • 300-305 ascorbates (vitamin C)
  • 306-309 tocopherol (vitamin E)
  • 310-319 gallates and erythorbates
  • 320-329 lactates
  • 330-339 citrates and tartrates
  • 340-349 phosphates
  • 350-359 malates and adipates
  • 360-369 succinates and fumarates
  • 370-399 others

E400 – E499 (stabilizers, emulsifiers, thickeners, gelling agents and emulsifiers)

  • 400-409 alginates
  • 410-419 natural gums
  • 420-429 other natural agents
  • 430-439 polyoxyethane compounds
  • 440-449 natural emulsifiers
  • 450-459 phosphates
  • 460-469 cellulose compounds
  • 470-489 fatty acids and compounds
  • 490-499 others

E500 – E599 (acidulants, acidity regulators, anti-caking agents)

  • 500-509 mineral acids and bases
  • 510-519 chlorides and sulfates
  • 520-529 sulfates and hydroxides
  • 530-549 alkali metal compounds
  • 550-559 silicates
  • 570-579 stearates and gluconates
  • 580-599 others

E600 – E699 (flavor enhancers)

  • 620-629 glutamates and guanylates
  • 630-639 inosinates
  • 640-649 others

E700E799 (antibiotics)

  • 701-703 tetracycline
  • 704 oleandomycin
  • 705-708 penicillin G
  • 710 spiramycin
  • 711 virginiamycin
  • 712 flavomycin
  • 713 tylosin
  • 714 monensin A
  • 715 avoparcin
  • 716 salinomycin
  • 717 avilamycin

E900E999 (coating agents, gases and sweeteners)

  • 900-909 waxes
  • 910-919 synthetic glazes
  • 920-929 enhancing agents
  • 930-949 packaging gases
  • 950-969 sweeteners
  • 990-999 foaming agents

E1000E1599 (additional additives)

  • 1100-1599 New chemical compounds that do not fit into the standard classification schemes

Sometimes, "E-number" is used informally as a pejorative term for artificial food additives, and products may be promoted as "E-number free". This is incorrect, and can lead to confusion, because many natural food components have E numbers assigned to them (and the number is synonymous with the chemical component). For example, vitamin C (E300) and lycopene (E160d), found in carrots.

Classification by use

Additives are used for many purposes, but the main uses are as follows:

  • 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, folic acid, fumaric acid and lactic acid.
  • Acidity regulators: used to change or control the acidity and alkalinity of foods.
  • Anti-caking agents: prevent powders such as milk powder from clumping or sticking.
  • Antifoaming agents: reduce or prevent foaming of food.
  • Antioxidants: act as preservatives by inhibiting the effects of oxygen in food and can be beneficial to health, e.g. vitamin C.
  • Bulking agents: are additives that increase the volume of a food without affecting its nutritional value, e.g. starch.
  • Colours: added to food to replace colors lost during preparation or to make food look more attractive.
  • Color retention agents: Unlike dyes, they are used to preserve the existing color of a food.
  • Emulsifiers: allow water and oils to remain mixed in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise, ice cream and homogenized milk.
  • Flavours: are additives that give foods a particular taste or odor, and may be derived from natural ingredients or artificially created.
  • Flavor enhancers: improve the existing flavors of a food. They can be extracted from natural sources (by distillation, solvent extraction, maceration, among other methods) or artificially created.
  • Flour treatment: are added to flour to improve its color or its use in baking.
  • Glazing agents: provide a glossy appearance or protective coating to foods.
  • Smoke flavourings: prevents food from drying out.
  • Tracer gas: tracer gas allows package integrity testing to prevent food from being exposed to the atmosphere, ensuring shelf life.
  • Preservatives: prevent or inhibit food spoilage due to fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms.
  • Stabilizers, thickeners and gelling agents: such as agar or pectin (used in jams, for example) give foods a firmer texture. Although they are not true emulsifiers, they help stabilize emulsions.
  • Sweeteners: are added to foods to give them flavor. Sweeteners other than sugar are added to keep food energy (calories) low or because they have beneficial effects on diabetes mellitus and dental caries and diarrhea.
  • Thickeners: substances which, when added to the mixture, increase its viscosity without substantially modifying its other properties.

According to the different uses, food additives can be grouped into 5 major groups:

I - Stabilizers

  • Antioxidants, complexing agents, synergists and sequestering agents
  • Preservatives and antimicrobial agents
  • Emulsifiers
  • Thickeners and gelling agents
  • Protection, packaging and propellant gases, air and controlled atmospheres

II - Organoleptic additives

  • Colorants (colors, pigments and dyes)
  • Color stabilizers, bleaches and whitening agents
  • Sweeteners
  • Acidulants and acidity regulators
  • Salt and salt substitutes
  • Flavor enhancers
  • Glazing, coating and sealing agents

III - Production assistants

  • Carriers, carrier solvents for preparations
  • Extraction solvents (extractants)
  • Anti-caking agents, release agents, release agents
  • Crystallization aids and inhibitors

IV - Foaming agents, whipping agents, foam stabilizers and defoamers

  • Fillers, bulking agents and standardizers
  • Disinfectants and sterilizing agents
  • Enzymes

V - Additives for individual foods

  • Drinking water treatment materials
  • Wine treatments, oenological additives
  • Flour treatment agents, dough improvers, raising agents
  • Meat curing salts and cutting additives
  • Cheese emulsifying salts
  • Gum base, chewing agents
  • Food for infants and toddlers
  • Dietetic food
  • Low-calorie foods, low-energy foods
  • Additives in organic food

Complete table of E-numbers