The dreaded food additives:
They have been around for centuries, mainly to extend the shelf life of food. Today there are hundreds used for various other reasons, with the least popular one, colourings.
Despite claimed to be safe, it is known that some may cause adverse reactions in some individuals.
Food additives have been used for centuries; for example, preserving food by pickling (with vinegar), salting, as with bacon and dried tomatoes, or using sulphur dioxide as in some wines. Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavour or improve its taste and appearance. 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. Some of these latter additives are open to debates and disagreements whether they should be allowed at all. Moreover, many claim that certain additives may be the cause of certain health conditions, such as allergies, migraines, hyperactivity in children, and several adverse reactions.
While many web sites and individuals preach in favour of complete abolition of additives as if they were toxic and lethal chemicals, at foodreactions.org I aim to let you understand why they are used. Some food additives are essential, others are beneficial to us but of course there are many which we can do without, especially those, as mentioned above that may cause a food reaction.
I blame our society for the introduction of many of these additives because we only buy food that looks nice to the eye. Supermarkets add colours to the food to make it look attractive, as if it has just been produced. To give just one example, when selling meat, producers add a cocktail of preservatives and anti-oxidants to give it a longer shelf life. Finally colour is added to give the impression that the meat has just been sliced off. A slight discolouration will putt us off from buying it, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Hence E numbers come to the rescue. Try explain to a child that a slightly darkened apple (oxidized), just minutes after being peeled, there is nothing wrong with it?
This is no excuse for putting additives in all foods. Sometimes, looking at the back of a package the large amount of E numbers on it is frightening. I recommend everyone to understand what the additives are, especially those commonly used to avoid those which can do without and do not worry with those that are completely harmless if not beneficial.
A special site dedicated to children can be found at Safekids - it help keep your kids safe and healthy from additives and allergies. Explore E Numbers is another site highly recommended. It claims to covers all that one needs to know about e numbers and their safety.
The E- stands for EC (European Community) and these numbers have been tested for safety and been passed for use in the EC. Numbers without an E in front are allowed in the UK but may have not been passed for use in all EC countries.
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 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.
Are they safe?
Despite their safety pass by the EC a few people suffer from allergic reactions to some of them, whether natural or synthetic. The E numbers are helpful to these people because they can easily see whether the food contains an additive to which they are allergic.
Many people feel that additives are sometimes used when there is no real need for them - for example, food colouring, but remember that most additives have a useful role. For example, preservatives help to prevent spoilage of food so that foods can be stored safely for longer. Many food additives, derived from natural food products, including colourings have been added to the list to replace previous synthetic ones.
A comprehensive list is provided for your own interest (click on the left menu). It has comments on many of the additives that may be subject to cause a reaction on some. This will help you to identify the product that is the cause of your reaction. Please note that this list is not my work but was adapted from foodag.com, a dedicated web site whose server has sustained damage during Katrina's disaster and is still off line.
Food additives can be divided into several groups, although there is some overlap between them. The list below gives a brief detail on each category.
The top left menu takes you directly to each category depending on the way they are numbered.
- Acidity regulators
- Anticaking agents
- Antifoaming agents
- Bulking agents
- Food colouring
- Colour retention
- Flavour enhancers
- Flour treatment agents
Food acids are added to make flavours "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 are used to change or otherwise control the acidity and alkalinity of foods.
Anticaking agents keep powders such as milk powder flowing freely.
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 are generally beneficial to health.
Bulking agents such as starch are additives that increase the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value.
Colourings are added to food to replace colours lost during preparation, or to make food look more attractive.
In contrast to colourings, colour retention agents are used to preserve a food's existing colour.
Emulsifiers allow water and oils to remain mixed together in an emulsion, as in mayonnaise, ice cream, and homogenised milk.
Flavours are additives that give food a particular taste or smell, and may be derived from natural ingredients or created artificially.
Flavour enhancers enhance a food's existing flavours.
Flour treatment agents are added to flour to improve its colour or its use in baking.
Humectants prevent foods from drying out.
Preservatives prevent or inhibit spoilage of food due to fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms.
Propellants are pressurised gases used to expel food from its container.
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 flavouring. 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.
Thickeners are substances which, when added to the mixture, increase its viscosity without substantially modifying its other properties