Food Safety Focus (5th Issue, December 2006) – Food Safety Platform

To the main pagePrevious ArticleNext Article

Food Safety Focus (5th Issue, December 2006) – Food Safety Platform

Chemicals in Food: Overview of Food Additives

Reported by Miss Joan YAU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section, Centre for Food Safety

When you read the ingredient list in the label of a "light" cola drink, you may find "…sweetener, colour, preservative…". These are examples of food additives we may encounter daily.

Intgredients: Carbonated Water, Flavour, Colour (150d), Acitidty Regulator (338), Sweeteners (952, 950, 951), Preservative (211), Caffeine

What are Food Additives?

Food additive refers to any substance, either natural or synthetic, intentionally added to food for a technological purpose in the processing, packaging, transport or storage of such food. There are currently some 20 functional classes, with over 2 000 different kinds of food additives. Majority of prepackaged foods available on the market contain one or more kinds of food additives.

Table 1: Technological purposes of food additives

Example Function
Colouring matter (e.g. sunset yellow FCF) To add colour to food
Preservative (e.g. benzoic acid in soft drinks, sorbic acid in sauces, sulphur dioxide in sausages) To extend the shelf-life of a food by inhibiting spoilage caused by microorganisms
Sweetener (e.g. aspartame in chewing gum) A non-sugar substance that imparts sweetness to a food
Antioxidant, e.g. BHT in oil Prevent rancidity

Food additives are not something new. People in the Middle Ages used "Saltpetre", which contained nitrite as an active ingredient, to preserve meat. It helps reduce microbial contamination and the chance of causing illnesses. Nowadays, nitrite is used instead to preserve various meat products and to fix their pink colour.

With the globalization of trade and the advent of food processing, the application of food additives plays an important role in providing a variety of safe and wholesome food from different parts of the world to meet the consumers' need.

Are Food Additives Safe?

Generally speaking, food additives should be applied in a way such that minimum amount is added to achieve the desired technological effect. Since majority of prepackaged food contains food additives, we are exposed to different types of food additives during daily food consumption. The prime food safety concern of food additives is whether the amount you consume in the long run exceeds the safety reference value .

In the international food safety arena, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization / World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) is responsible for collecting and evaluating scientific data on food additives and allocating safety reference values to the food additives evaluated. JECFA also makes recommendations on safe levels of use. Food authorities worldwide will take reference from JECFA's evaluation and their local needs when setting maximum permitted levels of food additives in food.

Food additives are generally of low toxicological concern and their normal use in food in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practice does not represent a health hazard. Even if you consume a product with excessive use of certain food additive, it does not necessarily mean that your health is at risk. For chronic health effects, your overall dietary intake of that food additive over a long period of time is important, since your average intake in the long run may not exceed the safety reference value.

Advice to the Trade

When formulating a food product, the trade is recommended to follow Good Manufacturing Practice and avoid abuse of food additives. The trade should also take note of the regulatory requirement under our local legislation on the use and labelling of food additives. For safety evaluation and specifications of food additives, the trade may refer to the website of the JECFA .

Advice to the Public

The public is advised to take a balanced diet so as to avoid excessive exposure to food additives from a small range of food items. People with allergic conditions, such as asthma patients, may experience hypersensitive reaction due to certain kinds of food additives like sulphur dioxide and should be careful when selecting food. Advice from medical professionals may be sought when necessary.

Starting from July 2007, any additive constituting one of the ingredients of a prepackaged food shall be listed by both its functional class and its specific name or its identification number under the International Numbering System (INS) for Food Additives, which is adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission for identifying food additives on food label. The public may refer to the website of the Centre for Food Safety for information on the INS for food additives.