Food additives: categories, use and risks

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Joe Dispenza

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food additives they are substances added intentionally in food preparations without these having a nutritional purpose, but more for a technological end. Let's find out better.

> What are food additives

> The categories of additives

> European Union classification

> Risks in the use of food additives

> Shopping tips



What are food additives

With the term food additive is meant any substance added intentionally in food preparations without this having a nutritional purpose, but mostly for a technological end.

Additives can be added in many stages of preparation of a food product: production, processing, processing, storage, transportation, storage and packaging.
With the term "additive", which therefore derives from "add", we can refer to the wide range of natural or synthetic substances which bring various modifications to the food product without however bringing a nutritional value.

This addition of substances it therefore aims to make the product more attractive, with an appearance, a texture and a taste that make it more salable to customers or that allow a technological improvement useful for a conservation that leads to a longer shelf life or better storage and transport of the sales chain.


The categories of additives

Additives can classify by purpose of use that is for the effect they bring to the product. Some examples of categories of food additives:

  • Acidificanti which serve to lower the pH and therefore increase shelf life
  • Thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilizers which serve to give a better consistency
  • Coating agents which serve to protect and coat the food product
  • Antioxidants which act as improvements for shelf life
  • Dyes which improve the color of the food product
  • Preservatives which serve to extend the expiry date of the food product
  • Sweeteners which have the function of sweetening (sweeteners)
  • Flavor enhancers which make the food product tastier
  • Packing gas which have the function of maintaining the product during packaging

Additives can also be divided by origin: natural additives deriving from products extracted from plants / animals / minerals or also from chemical synthesis of substances that are the same as the molecule present in nature.

Another group are the additives of chemical synthesis which are not present in nature and which are created in the laboratory with man-made artificial synthesis.

For example, among sweeteners for sweetening purposes or aromatic additives we have:

  • natural additives of plant origin such as cane sugar (sweetener)
  • natural additives of animal origin such as honey (sweetener)
  • natural additives of natural-identical origin such as vanillin which is of chemical synthesis but equal to the natural molecule (natural-identical aroma)
  • chemically synthesized additives such as aspartame and acelsulfame-K which are newly synthesized laboratory created sweeteners


Find out how to extract natural dyes from fruit


The classification of additives in the European Union

Currently the European Union recognizes how food additives 360 substances which can be added to food preparations and classifies them with a caption by inserting the letter E followed by a number of 3 or 4 digits for each additive substance.
Some examples: ascorbic acid E 300, chlorophyll E 140, carbon dioxide E 290.

Lauthorized list of food additives it is studied and documented from the toxicological point of view and is monitored by the European Union with the advice of a specific Efsa body that controls food safety.

According to the legislation and the country which complies with the guidelines of the European Union, it is possible to add food additives respecting the admissible daily dose (Dga).
This daily dose has been calculated, according to current knowledge, by evaluating the amount of additive that can be added to people's diets every day and that this dose over a lifetime does not lead to the appearance of undesirable effects. We can say that it is a safety dose a threshold that sets a limit to the use of safety additives of people.


Possible risks of using additives

One aspect that could lead to any risks is the combined effect of the additives.

We can think of the purchase of different products containing additives that have a Dga of the individual additives but the impact in adding the quantities of additives between food products has not been calculated. The sum of the Dga doses of the same additive in several food products purchased can exceed that certain safe dose in the diet of the people.

Another risk is interaction with food ingredients which could create substances that are dangerous, toxic or unhealthy for humans. An example of these dangerous compounds are the nitrosammine, carcinogenic substances that are formed by the union of nitrates (additives) with the amines already present in the food itself.

Furthermore, some independent studies on some additives, above all of chemical synthesis, highlight data and correspondences with harmful effects on health (some examples to be explored are: aspartame, saccharin and monosodium glutamate.)


Shopping tips

In going shopping in supermarkets or city shops we find more and more packaged food products and a long supply chain that requires several steps between the initial producer and the consumer and end user of the product.
To find out how best to choose food products, here are some tips for shopping:

  • learn to read the label very well: leaving out the aesthetic and marketing aspect of the package, we look for the wording ingredients and check the composition of the product
  • inquire about and prepare a list of additives and substances that you want to exclude. For example, vegans will write additives and substances of animal origin while customers who want to exclude synthetic chemical additives can write these and maybe even those at higher risk.
  • choose unprocessed food products and as little elaborate as possible. Fresh products with fewer steps in the supply chain, with as little packaging as possible.
  • purchase of products from organic farming which admits in its regulation the possibility of adding additives with only 50 additives out of the 360 ​​allowed in conventional food. Only 10 additives are allowed in products of biodynamic origin.


Products and substances prohibited in organic food


Other articles on food additives:
> Additives among the ingredients shown on the label of organic products

> The consumption of foods with artificial additives among the causes of hyperactivity in children



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