What are Food Additives?

03 July 2001

Why is it that in many people's minds all additives are harmful chemicals with nasty E-numbers? And why is it that the roles of food additives have been so badly misunderstood?

Despite their modern-day associations, food additives have been used for centuries. The preservation of food is an age-old necessity and salt and saltpetre were used to preserve meat and vinegar to pickle vegetables. Cooks regularly used baking powder as a raising agent, thickeners for sauces and gravies, and colours such as cochineal to transform good-quality raw materials into foods that were safe, wholesome and enjoyable to eat. The overall aims of traditional home cooking and those foods prepared and preserved using food manufacturing methods remain the same, only today we rely on a very small number of people to supply most of the foods for a largely urban population.

The catalyst for the negative focus on additives was a change in labelling requirements in the 1980s, which required the declaration of each individual additive in the ingredient list of most pre-packed foods. Until that time, additives were declared using general groupings that reflected their functions in the food, for example, preservatives, antioxidants and colours. These new labelling regulations brought in some lengthy lists of chemical names and a new E-numbering system, which was intended to make it easier for consumers to identify additives, and simply meant that they had been passed as safe for use in the European Community.

Consumer interest was fuelled by many emotive articles in the tabloid press on the 'harmful' effects of all 'chemical' additives, which were blamed for a wide variety of ill effects, ranging from hyperactivity to chronic disease. However, a very positive outcome of this 'anti-additive campaign' was that food manufacturers scrutinised their use of additives, with a view to eliminating or minimising their use. A parallel development was the growth in chill foods and in the wider use of refrigeration and freezing techniques as alternative methods of food preservation.

Today, food additives are strictly regulated and are subject to regular safety reviews. Permitted food additives are broadly classified into several categories according to the functions they perform. Each has a specific name and number, and the majority have the prefix E - for Europe. For example, the E100 series are colours, the E200 series are preservatives, the E300 series are antioxidants and the E400 series are emulsifiers, thickeners and gelling agents. As with many food issues, it is important to keep a sense of perspective and to ensure that any information concerning additives is accurate and up to date.

The main uses of additives in foods are to:

  • Ensure safety and wholesomeness
  • Improve keeping quality
  • Increase availability from season to season
  • Improve or maintain nutritional value
  • Enhance consumer acceptability
  • Facilitate preparation of the food

Additives play an important and necessary role in making our food supply one of the safest, most wholesome, affordable and abundant in the world. Over the next issues of Food Today, we will explore them in more detail and how they are approved for use in foods.


  1. Essential Guide to Food Additives (2000). Edited by Mike Saltmarsh, Leatherhead Food RA Publishing, Randalls Road, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 7RY, England, pp. 1-322.
  2. Directive 89/107/EEC on the approximation of the laws of the Member States concerning food additives authorised for use in foodstuffs intended for human consumption, as amended. The Official Journal of the European Communities (1989) 32 (L40), 27-33.