Throughout history, mankind has needed to prolong the shelf life of food, modify its organoleptic characteristics or stabilise its physical properties, with the aim of surviving periods of shortage, drought or winters. In the past, the classification of additives was less common and food consumption was seasonal, but with the development of agriculture and livestock mankind began to manipulate food in order to preserve them better and transform them into more durable and stable products.
The first techniques developed were based on physical treatments, which were sometimes combined with chemical treatments. Some of these treatments are still currently used, for example: drying, salting, smoking, and freezing, among others.
Food additives are one of the great technologies that have been developed in terms of food preservation and transformation. Due to massive urbanisation and the rhythm of life in the twentieth century, it has become necessary to use food additives to adapt products to current needs. Without additives, many foods could not be manufactured or even consumed.
Today, additives are part of our daily lives, since virtually all beverages and processed foods we consume contain any of these substances. However, the incorporation of additives into the food industry’s products is a controversial issue due to both ignorance and concern on the part of consumers. On one hand, there is ignorance in the classification of additives and their types and on the other, there is concern about the possible impact of certain additives on human ihealth.
According to the Codex, international food standards proposed by FAO and approved by WHO, a food additive is defined as: “any substance which is not normally consumed as a food, nor is it used as a basic food ingredient, having a nutritional value or not and whose intentional addition to the food for technological purposes in its manufacturing, processing, preparation, processing, packaging, packaging, transport or storage phases, results or can reasonably be expected to result in itself or its by-products in a component of the food or an element that affects its characteristics.”
Main characteristics of food additives
In the food industry, for a substance to be admitted as an additive and to be used, it must overcome toxicological controls, be chemically characterised and demonstrate that its use provides consumer benefits and / or technological benefits.
The 7 main functions of the additives are:
– Ensure the safety and edibleness of the food.
– Preserve or increase the nutritive value of the ingredients.
– Increase stability or improve organoleptic properties.
– Prolong the shelf life of the food and contribute to its conservation.
– Make possible the availability of food out of season.
– Facilitate the manufacturing processes of the products.
– Provide food for groups of consumers with particular dietary needs.
Classification of food additives
The following classification of additives is based on criteria on their technological functions. However, it is necessary to emphasize that there are other classifications based on the origin (natural or synthetic) or the type of additive.
1) Stabilizers of physical characteristics
– Emulsifiers: Substances that allow the maintenance or formation of a homogeneous mixture of two or more non-miscible phases. For example, water and oil.
– Thickeners: macromolecules that preserve the textures of foods such as viscosity or gelling effect. For example, adding E-406 (agar-agar) to a jam preserves for its texture.
– Anti-caking agents: substance that prevents the formation of clumps or lumps that affect product homogeneity. They are usually used in soups, sauces, juices or dairy products.
– Acidity correctors: substances that control or alter the pH of food. Inadequate control can lead to the proliferation of undesirable bacteria in the food which could suppose a health risk.
2) Inhibitors of chemical and biological alterations
– Antioxidants: they are additives that are added mainly in fatty ingredients to delay or prevent the rancidity of foods due to the oxidation. There are two types of antioxidants on the market: natural and synthetic.
– Conservatives: substances that when added protect food against deterioration caused by unwanted microorganisms. They are often used in food containing water, such as bakery, pastries, dairy, beverages or meat products.
3) Modifiers of organoleptic characters
– Colouring agents: substances used to modify or stabilise the colouring characteristics of a food. Colour in food is an aspect that is associated with the quality of food and is related to taste and smell. The use of dyes in food goes back to ancient civilizations; the use of saffron or cochineal for colouring have a long tradition which continues to today.
– Flavour enhancers: substances that enhance the taste and / or aroma of a food without giving its own flavour. They are widely used in sauces and soups. Monosodium glutamate is one of the most used in processed foods.
– Sweeteners: These additives are used to provide sweet taste or to mimic flavours. Its aim is that the flavour is the most similar to the common sugar and resist similar treatments in which sugar is used. They are very important in products for diabetics or low calorie products.
– Aromatic substances are substances that provide a new aroma and / or correct the aroma of food and beverages. It is possible to obtain them from extracts of vegetable origin.
4) Improvers and correctors
They are additives that are used in baking, wine making, or to regulate the maturation of dairy products, such as cheese or meat products.
As mentioned above, there are natural and synthetic additives that are titrated according to the ADI (acceptable daily intake) and based on available toxicological data. Each additive has a maximum dietary level without demonstrable toxic effects and public administrations rely on the ADI when legislating and establishing authorized quantities for the use of the additives.
The use of food additives seeks to improve the products that food manufacturers offer to consumers. However, in many cases the consumer has a poor perception about the additives, especially of the synthetic or artificial ones. Some believe that the food industry uses additives to mask poor quality and to lower costs, but the truth is that the use of additives allows people to eat healthy, tasty and safe food.
Although there is still a great deal of ignorance on the subject in the general population, the market trend is towards the consumption of good quality food, using natural additives, easily prepared and preserved, and without harmful effects on health.
The classification of food additives allows to synthesise and understand what type of additives the manufacturer needs for each type of product. In addition, the regulations concerning additives require that all food additives used in the product should appear on food labels. In Europe, the E-number system is used, although labelling using the full name of the additive, Tocopherols for example, a natural antioxidant used in the food industry can be labelled using its E-306 number or as “Rich Extract in Tocopherols”.
The main bodies responsible for regulating additives are the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) at the European level and the FAO / WHO Committee of experts on food additives (JECFA) at the international level. It is important to periodically review the official sources in order to stay updated on the latest developments and changes regarding additives and the food sector in general.