Food additives are ingredients that are added to foods to carry out particular functions.
Under EU law, manufacturers must provide information about any additives used in the foods they produce. You can find this information in the list of ingredients on the packaging. It will tell you what each additive does, followed by its name or E number.
Different types of food additives
Food additives are grouped by what they do. The additives that you are most likely to come across on food labels are:
- antioxidants – these stop food becoming rancid or changing colour by reducing the chance of fats combining with oxygen
- emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners – these help to mix or thicken ingredients preservatives – used to keep food safer for longer
- sweeteners – including intense sweeteners like stevia and aspartame which are many times sweeter than sugar
How we make sure food additives are safe
Additives must be assessed for safety before they can be used in food. We also ensure that:
- the science on additives is strictly reviewed
- the law is strictly enforced
- action is taken where problems are found
We investigate any information that casts reasonable doubt on the safety of an additive.
Food colours and hyperactivity
We funded research into possible links between food colours and hyperactivity in children. It found that consuming certain artificial food colours could cause increased hyperactivity in some children.
These artificial colours are:
- sunset yellow FCF (E110)
- quinoline yellow (E104)
- carmoisine (E122)
- allura red (E129)
- tartrazine (E102)
- ponceau 4R (E124)
Food and drink containing any of these six colours must carry a warning on the packaging. This will say ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.
We encourage manufacturers to work towards finding alternatives to these colours. Some manufacturers and retailers have already taken action to remove them.
It’s important to remember that hyperactivity can also be caused by other things. So being careful about what a child eats may help manage hyperactive behaviour but it may not stop it.
An E number means that a food additive has passed safety tests and is approved for use here and in the rest of the EU.
All the foods we eat consist of chemicals in one form or another. Many food additives are chemicals which exist in nature such as antioxidants ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or citric acid, found in citrus fruits.
Due to technological advancements, many other additives are now man-made to perform certain technological functions. Whether or not the chemicals used in additives exist in nature, they are subject to the same safety evaluations by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Some consumers think of food additives (E numbers) as a modern invention used to make cheap foods. In reality, food additives have a long history of consumption and are used in many traditional foods. For example, wines including Champagne contain sulphites, and bacon contains the preservatives nitrates and nitrites to prevent the growth of botulism.