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Additives

Additives are used to preserve food and keep it safe, as well as to improve its appearance, taste and texture

What are food additives and why do we need them?

Food additives are substances added to food for a specific reason, such as to preserve or to colour it. They perform a variety of useful functions, which often go unrecognised.

Food is subjected to many environmental conditions, such as temperature changes and exposure to air and to microbes, which can change its original composition. Additives help to make sure that our food stays safe to eat and does not deteriorate or ‘go off’ too quickly.

Additives can be natural or artificial/synthetic.

  • Natural additives are substances found naturally in some foods (and plants) and are extracted for use in others. For example, bright purple beetroot juice can be used to add colour to products such as sweets, drinks and yogurts.
  • Artificial additives are not naturally present in food and are made synthetically. An example is potassium sorbate (E202), a synthetic preservative used for its antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is often used in salad dressings and fruit squashes.

What are the different types of additives?

Food additives can be grouped according to the function they perform:

  • Antioxidants make food last longer by helping to stop fats, oils and certain vitamins from combining with oxygen in the air, a process known as oxidation, which makes food taste ‘off’. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and vitamin E are commonly used antioxidants.
  • Colourings impart colour to food and compensate for colour lost in processing. Some food colourings are natural in origin, such as curcumin (E100), which comes from the spice turmeric.
  • Emulsifiers help mix ingredients together that would normally separate. They are used in mayonnaise, margarine, ice cream and some baked goods.
  • Gelling, thickening and stabilising agents, such as carob gum, guar gum, xanthan gum and agar, give food its desired texture and consistency.
  • Flavourings are used to bring out and enhance the flavour of food.
  • Preservatives stop mould or bacteria from growing, so food can be safely kept for longer. Sulphur dioxide is an example of a preservative and is used in products such as dried fruit.
  • Sweeteners include aspartame and saccharin. These are ‘intense sweeteners’ which are many times sweeter than sugar and therefore used in smaller quantities. There are also ‘bulk sweeteners’, which are of a similar sweetness to sugar and tend to be used in similar amounts.

Sweeteners provide fewer calories than sugar and so can be used instead of it to sweeten products such as yogurts, soft drinks and chewing gum. Sweeteners are kinder to our teeth because they are not broken down to form the acids that cause tooth decay, as happens when we eat foods containing sugar.

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What is an E number?

An E number is given to an additive once it has been fully evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority. This approval is monitored, reviewed and amended as new scientific research emerges.

The maximum permitted levels of each additive allowed in food is determined by the ‘Acceptable Daily Intake’ or ADI. The ADI of an additive is the amount that can be consumed daily over a person’s lifetime without it causing any adverse effect on health.

The European Food Safety Authority encourages the lowest possible level of an additive to be used in food. EU legislation requires studies to be undertaken to look at the ranges of intakes across a population and to address any changes in consumption patterns. This ensures people do not exceed the ADI by consuming too much of – or too many products containing – a particular additive.

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Additives and health

People can react to certain additives in the same way that some people react to certain foods. Reactions to additives have been associated with individuals who suffer from asthma or other non-food allergies. The most common additives that cause these reactions include sulphites, sulphur dioxide, benzoates and tartrazine. (Typical reactions might be an asthma attack or a rash similar to nettle rash).

Food labelling laws now require pre-packed food sold in the UK and EU to state if it contains sulphur dioxide or sulphites at a level above 10mg per kg. All Waitrose own-label wines and pre-packed foods now clearly state in the allergen panel if sulphur dioxide or sulphites are present.

How to avoid additives in your diet

The most effective way to avoid additives is to eat fewer processed foods, snacks and sweets. Cook more food from scratch using only fresh ingredients such as meat, chicken and fish, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly organic ones.

Waitrose lists all additives used in its own-label food by their full name or, if space is limited on the label, its E number is given. If you want to avoid certain additives, simply check the list of ingredients on the back of the pack.

Once you know the roles that additives play in food and drink, you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to include them in your diet.

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How can Waitrose help?

Waitrose permits the use of appropriate additives only where necessary and seeks to use natural alternatives whenever possible. Waitrose also prohibits and restricts the use of specific additives in its own-label foods.

For more information

Nutrition Advice Service
Waitrose Ltd
Doncastle Road
Bracknell
Berkshire
RG12 8YA

Tel: 0800 188884
waitrose.com/nutrition
Email: customersupport@waitrose.co.uk

Other useful contacts

The Food Standards Agency provides advice and information to the Government and public on food safety. It also protects consumers through effective food law enforcement and monitoring.

Food Standards Agency
Aviation House
125 Kingsway
London
WC2B 6NH

Tel: 020 7276 8000
Email: InfoCentre@ foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk
www.food.gov.uk (this link opens in a new window)

For more information about understanding food labels, visit the Food Standards Agency website: www.eatwell.gov.uk (this link opens in a new window).

European Food Information Council
This provides science-based information on food safety and quality, plus health and nutrition advice for a healthy lifestyle.
www.eufic.org (this link opens in a new window)

Food Additives and Ingredients Association
The FAIA is affiliated to the Chemical Industries Association and promotes better awareness of the role that additives play in food.

FAIA
10 Whitchurch Close
Maidstone
Kent
ME16 8UR
www.faia.org.uk (this link opens in a new window)

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Looking at the label

All food additives must be included in the ingredients list either by name or by E number. The ingredients list tells you what function an additive is performing, such as adding colour or acting as a preservative.

Sulphur dioxide E220 prevents browning and/or discolouration.

Potassium sorbate E202 acts as a preservative to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

Sulphur dioxide E220 prevents browning and/or discolouration.

Potassium sorbate E202 acts as a preservative to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

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