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In the UK, food additives must be approved before they can be used. The FSA (Food Standards Agency) provides a full list of approved additives and E numbers. Approved additives are only usually allowed to be used in certain foods and the maximum quantities allowed will also be specified.
There are thousands of ingredients that are used to make food, and consumers often have concerns about additives as they may see long, unfamiliar names and think of them as complex chemical compounds. Food additives are carefully regulated to ensure that they are safe to eat and accurately labelled.
Food additives in the UK must:
- Be approved by the EU.
- Fulfil the criteria which meets the regulation standards.
- Be safe when used.
- Have a technological need for their use.
- Not mislead the consumer.
- Be of benefit to the consumer.
What are food additives?
Food additives are ingredients that are added to food in order to carry out different functions. Manufacturers have to provide information about any additives they may use in food. The list of ingredients will be displayed clearly on the packaging; it should tell you the name of the additive or E number and what each additive does.
All the foods we eat consist of chemicals. Many food additives are chemicals which exist in nature, for example citric acid found in citrus fruit or ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Many other additives are now man-made. Whether the additives used are natural or not, they are still subject to the same safety evaluations.
For many centuries different ingredients have provided useful functions in a variety of food. Salt has been used to preserve meat and fish, herbs and spices have been used to improve the flavour of food, fruit has been preserved with sugar and cucumbers have been preserved by pickling in a vinegar solution.
Today, consumers want and expect a food supply that is nutritious, flavourful, safe to eat, convenient, colourful and affordable. Advances in technology and food additives make this possible.
What foods additives are banned in the UK?
Some additives are banned in the UK and Europe as they are deemed as being unsafe and may cause harm if consumed. This may be because the additive has been found to be carcinogenic or to cause hyperactivity in children.
Banned substances include food which has been genetically modified, hormone treated and chlorine washed meat, and certain food dyes and preservatives.
The UK and the EU have strict labelling requirements, therefore importing food from outside the EU risks not meeting the labelling standards required.
Examples of banned substances include:
- Potassium bromate.
- Brominated vegetable oil.
- Chlorine treated poultry.
- Auramine O.
Certain industrial red dyes such as para red and scarlet red are not permitted to be used in food as they are carcinogenic. A carcinogen is an agent with the capacity to cause cancer in humans. Sudan dyes are used in shoe and floor polish, waxes, petrol, solvents and oils.
Sudan dyes have been used illegally in food products such as spices, sauces, vinegars, chutneys and other products, and therefore products have at times been recalled due to this.
However, since 2003, all imports of ground, dried and crushed spices, palm oil and curry powders have to come with a certificate evidencing that they do not contain Sudan dyes.
Any products without the relevant documentation will be detained for sampling and testing. Random sampling and testing is also carried out on imports, and any products found to contain Sudan dyes are destroyed.
Other illegal dyes include:
- Metanil yellow.
- Butter yellow.
- Orange ll.
- Orange G.
- Toluidine red.
- Rhodamine B.
The FSA provides food alerts about illegal dyes added to food to enforcement authorities who then consult with businesses that might be affected.
A likely ban of the use of titanium dioxide (E171) may come into effect this year following the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stating that it no longer considers titanium dioxide to be safe when used as a food additive. The main food category for the additive is fine bakery products, soups, broths and sauces.
Even if an additive is authorised for use, it still may not be approved for use in all categories of food products and in any quantity; the manufacturer will be restricted to only using the additive in a certain way and to a maximum level.
If you are found to be selling products containing illegal additives, you could face a fine and potentially you could even receive a prison sentence.
What are the different types of food additives?
Food additives are intentionally added to food for a technological purpose during its manufacturing and processing. Food additives are grouped together depending on what function they serve.
The most common food additives include:
- Colourings – Which are used to make food look more attractive or to replace colours which have been lost during manufacturing or processing.
- Antioxidants – These reduce the chance of fats combining with oxygen which can make foods change colour or smell or taste unpleasant.
- Preservatives – Are used to keep food safer for longer.
- Emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners – These help to mix or thicken ingredients. They help mix ingredients which would usually separate, for example water and oil.
- Sweeteners – Are used to replace sugars in certain foods, for example energy reduced products. These include intense sweeteners, for example stevia and aspartame, which are much sweeter than sugar.
- Flavour enhancers – Are used to bring out the flavour of food without adding a flavour of their own.
How to ensure food additives are safe
A food additive is only approved if it has been tested and proved to be safe, it does not mislead the consumer in any way and there is a need to use it. Food additives must be assessed for safety before they are added to food.
The science on additives is strictly and regularly reviewed and the law on this is strictly enforced and appropriate action is taken if any problems are found. Food additives need to be checked for potentially 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 can be used in food that is traded internationally.
In the UK food businesses are responsible for ensuring that their food is safe and that it complies with legislation on food additives and rules on reducing or eliminating any health risks caused by contaminants.
Chemical contaminants can come from:
- The environment.
Food additives must comply with specific legislation which aims to ensure that they are used only when they are justified and that they do not mislead consumers or have effects on consumer health.
All additives used in food must be on the EU approved list. Any additives that have not been approved for use are often deemed to be harmful or there is insufficient evidence to prove that they are safe for use.
Misleading the consumer relates to the nature, freshness, quality of the ingredients used, and the nutritional quality of a product, including its fruit and vegetable content. It also refers to the production process and how natural a product is.
Most additives are restricted to certain foods and at specified levels. EU legislation states that additives used in foods must be labelled clearly in the list of ingredients, either by their name or E number. If an additive has been given an E number, it means it has passed EU safety tests. Legislation must be followed which sets out the levels of additives that can be used and which foods they can be used in.
Under the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, you must ensure that any food products supplied to caterers or consumers are labelled clearly with the list of ingredients used, including any additives. The British Nutrition Foundation provides a helpful guide to understanding food labelling on products.
Ultra-processed foods are foods that have undergone a process and have had additives added to them. Ultra-processed foods have been associated with a higher risk of heart disease, strokes, obesity, diabetes and cancer.
They are foods usually containing ingredients that you would not add when making homemade food. These will usually be preservatives, colourings, chemicals and sweeteners.
The most commonly consumed ultra-processed foods in the UK are:
- Pre-packaged meals.
- Breakfast cereals.
- Sausages and other reconstituted meat products.
- Industrialised bread.
- Biscuits and cakes.
- Soft drinks.
Food colouring additives are used by food manufacturers to enhance or change the colour of food.
They are used in order:
- To replace or enhance colour lost in storage or processing.
- To make food more visually appealing or appetising.
- To mask natural colour variants.
- For decorative purposes, for example in cake decorating.
The Colours in Food Regulations 1995 define which food colouring additives may be used in the UK. Specific colours are listed along with conditions for their use and which colours must not be sold directly to the public.
The link between food colourings and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
In 2008, following some research carried out on the link between food colourings and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in children, it was found that certain artificial food colourings caused increased hyperactivity in some children.
It was recommended by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and UK ministers that UK manufacturers should remove six colour additives from their food by the end of 2009. The additives remained permitted under EU legislation and so it was recommended that UK manufacturers check with their suppliers abroad about whether these particular colours were still being used.
These colours were:
- Quinoline yellow (E104).
- Sunset yellow FCF (E110).
- Allura red (E129).
- Carmoisine (E122).
- Tartrazine (E102).
- Ponceau 4R (E124).
Since 20th July 2010, foods containing any of the six colours which are supplied to the EU market must contain additional warning information on the label. In order to avoid adding this label, it is common for manufacturers to use natural food colourings instead.
Clearly, food colourings are not the only thing which may contribute to increased hyperactivity in children; however, studies have shown a link and therefore it is important to be aware of this. For further reading about how to help a child with ADHD please see our knowledge base.
E numbers are codes for substances used as food additives. This includes those found naturally in many foods including vitamin C. The ‘E’ stands for Europe. It is common to find additives with an E number on food labels. This replaces the chemical or common name of particular food additives.
If something has an E number, this means that it is or once was approved for use by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for sale in the European Single Market. Some additives that were once approved for use are no longer allowed today.
Safe Kids UK provide some useful information about E numbers and which E numbers to avoid particularly for children.
Sweeteners are food additives which are used:
- To make food sweet tasting.
- As tabletop sweeteners.
Sweeteners are ingredients that sweeten like sugar, but may be low calorie, synthetic substitutes. Tabletop sweeteners are products that consist of or include any permitted sweeteners and are intended for sale to the consumer, usually for use as an alternative to sugar.
Foods with sweetening properties, such as sugar and honey, are not additives and are excluded from the scope of official regulations.
As with all other food additives, sweeteners are regulated substances which are subject to safety evaluations. And, as with all other ingredients, any sweeteners added to food must be included in the ingredients list on the label.
Under EU legislation, food products containing a sweetener must include the statement ‘with sweeteners’ on the label. Only certain sweeteners have been approved as food additives.
Sweeteners are classed as either high intensity, or bulk. High intensity sweeteners possess a sweet taste but without the calories; they have a greater sweetness to sugar and are therefore used at very low levels. Bulk sweeteners are generally carbohydrates, providing energy, calories and bulk to food. They have a similar sweetness to sugar and are used at comparable levels.
The relationship between sweeteners and negative health effects has been studied for many years by many different regulatory agencies. After rigorous safety assessments and the establishment of safe levels of use, certain sweeteners are approved for use.
People diagnosed with phenylketonuria need to avoid foods containing certain sweeteners. This is because they cannot consume foods containing phenylalanine, which includes foods such as dairy, meat and nuts.
Caffeine in energy drinks and other foods
Caffeine is a substance that is naturally present in the leaves, seeds and fruits of many plants where it acts as a herbicide and insect repellent. Caffeine is naturally found in tea leaves, cocoa beans, coffee beans and kola nuts.
People add caffeine to a variety of food and drinks and it is the most used psychostimulant substance in the world. Psychostimulant means that it increases activity in the nervous system.
Energy drinks usually have high levels of caffeine in them – on average there is 80 milligrams of caffeine in a small 250 milligram can. Manufacturers say that these drinks will give you more energy than regular soft drinks as they usually contain two or three times the amount of caffeine.
The caffeine content of coffee depends on:
- Type of coffee.
- Type of coffee beans.
- Serving size.
Caffeine is assessed to be safe for consumption. Up to 400 milligrams of caffeine is advised as being safe for the average adult. This is the equivalent of four cups of brewed coffee, ten cans of cola or two energy drinks. Caffeine should be avoided where possible in children and adolescents.
Pregnant women are advised to limit their caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrams per day; however, more recent advice is to limit caffeine as much as possible in pregnancy as some studies show that caffeine may not be safe in any quantity.
Heavy caffeine use can cause some unpleasant side effects including:
- Heart palpitations.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Increased heart rate.
- Muscle tremors.
- Frequent urination.
Some people are particularly sensitive to caffeine and even caffeine intake in smaller amounts can cause these side effects. Caffeine is sometimes added to food and drinks, maybe without you realising, and therefore it is important to look at labels before consuming a product if you are trying to decrease your caffeine intake.
Specific labelling is required for high caffeine drinks and food where caffeine has been added for a physiological effect. This helps consumers to identify products with a high caffeine content where they may not necessarily expect it.
Drinks that contain caffeine at a level over 150 milligrams per litre must state: ‘High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women.’ Foods where caffeine is added for a physiological purpose must state: ‘Contains caffeine.
Not recommended for children or pregnant women.’ This labelling is not required for food and drinks where caffeine is added for flavour purposes rather than for a physiological effect. These types of food and drinks should comply with the flavouring legislation, which limits the use of caffeine for flavouring purposes.
The most common foods containing caffeine are:
- Coffee – A brewed beverage prepared from coffee beans, which are a natural source of caffeine. On average, one cup of coffee contains about 100 milligrams of caffeine.
- Decaf coffee – Still contains caffeine but in reduced amounts compared to regular coffee. One cup of decaf coffee contains 1-50 milligrams depending on the brand.
- Tea – A cup of tea usually contains less caffeine than a cup of coffee due to how it is brewed. On average a cup of tea will contain 50 milligrams of caffeine depending on the brand and type of tea.
- Cocoa beans and chocolate – Just like coffee beans, cocoa beans naturally contain caffeine. This means that all chocolate and foods flavoured with chocolate contain some caffeine but the amount of caffeine contained in the product depends on the percentage of cocoa it contains.
- Kola nut – The kola nut is native to West Africa. It is the seed of the kola tree and a natural source of caffeine. It was once the main flavouring agent and source of caffeine in commercial colas like Coca-Cola; however, some major cola brands no longer use it.
- Green tea – A natural source of caffeine and often used in Asian countries. A cup of green tea contains 30-50 milligrams of caffeine. Green tea contains amino acids like theanine which studies have shown aid stress reducing effects. A 2017 study suggested that theanine and caffeine in green tea may improve brain function and cognition, and also reduce anxiety, although more research is needed on this.
- Guarana – Native to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and known for its antioxidant and stimulant properties. Some studies have found that consuming the guarana plant can increase energy and protect against high blood pressure, obesity and metabolic syndrome. Manufacturers use guarana extract as a food additive in soft drinks, energy drinks, herbal dietary supplements and energy bars.
- Chewing gum – Some manufacturers add caffeine to their chewing gum recipes. Studies have shown that you absorb caffeine in chewing gum much faster than caffeine in a capsule form and therefore it has been popular among athletes.
- Energy drinks – These are carbonated, sweetened drinks marketed as drinks that will boost your energy levels and alertness. Energy drinks are sold as food supplements and may not be regulated by the FSA and therefore are exempt from some testing. This means that it can be difficult to determine the caffeine content of some brands.
- Coffee containing foods – Many foods are coffee flavoured and therefore contain caffeine. Examples of these are coffee flavoured cake, ice-cream and sweets.
- Chocolate flavoured foods – All chocolate and chocolate flavoured products contain caffeine, as the cocoa beans used in these products are a natural source of caffeine.
Guidance on food additives legislation
In the EU and UK, new food additives must be authorised and permitted before they can be used in food. There is a list provided by the FSA of approved additives and E numbers. The majority of approved additives are only approved for use in certain foods and in certain quantities.
It is important for those who source and purchase raw materials and products to know which food additives are legal, where the raw materials and products are coming from and exactly what is in them. Again, the FSA provides a full list of approved additives and E numbers.