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Additives: what is their function?

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 254 views

They make chewing gum whiter, bread lasts longer or margarine spreads better: In Europe there are more than 300 additives for food that appear as E numbers in the nutritional information. They are used in particular in the manufacture of finished food products to influence properties such as taste, colour, shelf life or consistency. Read more about the importance of additives here.

What are additives and what are they used for?

Around 320 food additives are authorized in the European Union (EU). They are valid in all EU countries, some even worldwide. Additives are mainly used in ready-to-eat foods. The “E” in the E numbers stands for EG or EU.

The additives are used to make food last longer, to improve its taste or appearance, or to simplify technological processing. They are subject to declaration – they must therefore be included in the list of contents.

Each additive is assigned to a category or group. You can find out more about food additives and their importance in the following table:

E-100 to 199 dyes; ensure that the food looks appetizing
E-200 to 299 preservatives; inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, mold or yeast; longer shelf life of the product
E-300 to 321 antioxidants; prevent the reaction with oxygen and thus e.g. B. rancidity, increase the shelf life of food
E-322 to 399 acidulants; give a sour taste and preserve or stabilize, act as a raising agent or gelling agent
E-400 to 429 gelling, thickening and humectant agents; the former impart a firmer shape, the latter increase the food’s viscosity by absorbing water , the latter prevent the product from drying out or the sugar from crystallizing
E-430 to 499 emulsifiers; make immiscible liquids miscible, e.g. B. water and oil, and thus improve smoothness / creaminess and flavor characteristics
E-500 to 949 Miscellaneous additives; including raising agents, firming agents, modified starch, flavor enhancers
E-950 to 1518 sweeteners; give a sweet taste, have almost no nutritional value, but can have a laxative and flatulent effect

Some additives fall under several groups. For example, carbon dioxide (E 290) is an acidifier, preservative, propellant and raising agent. The E numbers must always be specifically stated on the food. But there are some exceptions, such as emulsifiers. Only the substance group is required here.

There are also substances that are added to food but are not considered additives:

  • Foodstuffs that have a coloring effect and that are added for flavoring, taste or nutritional properties.
  • Substances that are not consumed but only used to cover or coat certain foods.
  • Pectin in foods that comes from apples or citrus peels.
  • Bases for making chewing gum
  • Various starch products – for example roasted or physically modified starch
  • Ammoniumchlorid
  • Edible gelatine, protein hydrolysates, milk protein, gluten, blood plasma
  • Amino acids that do not function as an additive – unlike, for example, glutamic acid, glycine, cysteine ​​and cystine.
  • casein and caseinates
  • Insulin

Labeling of additives

All additives used must be specified in the list of ingredients of a food. Instead of the chemical name, the simpler E number is usually given.

The regulations applicable to additives in food for all EU member states are laid down by Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and Council. In Germany, the list of E numbers is specified in the Additives Approval Ordinance (ZZuIV).

Some E-substances such as the sugar alcohol sorbitol are indicated with “quantum satis” (“qs”). This means that <a is the quantity required, according to good manufacturing practice, to achieve the desired effect without misleading the consumer.

Other additives must not exceed a certain maximum amount – for example preservatives in the surface treatment of hard and semi-hard cheese.

Since July 20, 2010, a warning (“May impair children’s activity and alertness”) must be declared on the packaging if the coloring agents E 102 and E 122 or other synthetic coloring agents are used.

For unpackaged foods, a general note such as “with flavor enhancer”, “with coloring” or “sulphurized” is sufficient.

Additives without a “technological effect in the end product” do not have to be labeled. This refers to foodstuffs that do not contain any food additives themselves, but whose ingredients have been previously added with certain additives. However, this additive is no longer effective in the end product. Exceptions are allergenic substances.

The list of ingredients and thus the information on the additives can also be omitted for foods that are sold individually or whose packaging area is less than ten square centimetres. This includes sweets, for example.

What additives are there?

More than 300 substances with an E number are currently approved as food additives in the European Union.

Some selected E numbers are listed in the following E number list:

E-Number traffic name
E 100 curcumin
E 150d Sulphite ammonia caramel
E 171 titanium dioxide
E 200 sorbic acid
E 202 Kaliumsorbate
E 210 benzoic acid
E 211 Natriumbenzoat
E 250 Natriumnitrit
E 330 citric acid / citric acid
E 331 Natriumcitrat
E 339 sodium phosphate
E 407 Carrageen
E 410 locust bean gum
E 412 guar gum
E 414 Arabic gum
E 415 Xanthan
E 420 Sorbitol
E 422 Glycerol/Glycerin
E 450 Dinatriumdiphosphat, Trinatriumdiphosphat, Tetranatriumdiphosphat, Dikaliumdiphosphat, Tetrakaliumdiphosphat, Dicalciumdiphosphat, Calciumdihydrogendiphosphat
E 440 Pectin
E 466 Carboxymethylcellulose
E 471 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, MDG
E 472e Mono and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of MDG
E 500 Sodium carbonate
E 621 Natriumglutamat
E 950 Acesulfam-k
E 951 Aspartame
E 952 Natriumcyclamat

Additives: are they dangerous?

The question of the danger posed by additives can hardly be answered unequivocally. More than half of the permitted additives are considered harmless. In addition, all food sold in Germany must be safe. This means that the additives used must be approved. Harmful residues of pesticides, for example, are prohibited.

A residual uncertainty remains, however. For example, certain additives are suspected of causing (pseudo) allergies. Typical symptoms include a tingling sensation in the mouth or a rash on the skin.

In principle, the respective food business operator is responsible for the safety of its products. However, there is also an internationally coordinated security system and competent authorities. In Germany it is the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMEL). The employees constantly reassess the risks in the area of ​​additives and continuously adapt the regulations and structures.

If you want to avoid additives, cook with fresh ingredients as often as possible. In addition, very few additives may be used in organic products.

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