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Food Safety Focus (157th Issue, August 2019) – Food Safety Platform

One or Two Things about Food Additives

Reported by Ms. Sosanna WONG, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section, Centre for Food Safety

When we do grocery shopping in a supermarket, most food products on the shelves, in particular prepackaged foods, contain food additive. In the cooking oil aisle, antioxidants can be found in vegetable oils to prevent them from going rancid. In the baked goods aisle, preservatives are added to bread to prevent mould and bacterial growth that would otherwise cause it to go mouldy easily. In the cereal aisle, sweeteners are used in some breakfast cereals as an alternative to sugar to lower the calories. Food additives have been used for centuries and play an increasingly important role in today's food supply. Not only do they enhance the taste, texture or other qualities, they also improve the safety and extend the shelf-life of food products so as to prevent foodborne illness.  

Despite the long-time and widespread application of food additives, there have been concern about their safety from time to time. In this article, let's look into their safety issues when use in food production.

Different labelling formats of food additives

What are Food Additives?

Food additives are substances, either natural or synthetic, added to food to maintain or improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture, appearance, etc., of food. Based on their technological function, food additives are classified into different functional classes such as antioxidant, preservative, colour, sweetener, acidity regulator, emulsifier, and etc.

Are Food Additives Safe for Consumption?

Before a food additive is ascertained as safe for food use, it has to go through rigorous safety assessment. International and national food safety authorities, such as the Joint FAO / WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), evaluate the safety of food additives based on scientific reviews of all available toxicological and related data. If a food additive is not safe for food use, approval is not given. Moreover, if new scientific information is available suggesting that a food additive is no longer safe, the approval to use the food additive would be withdrawn. Different countries have their own food laws to regulate the use of food additives.

How are Food Additives Regulated in Hong Kong?

In Hong Kong, there are regulations which spell out the standards for specific food additives allowed in food such as antioxidant, preservative, colour, and sweetener. For food additives with no specified standards in the regulations, food traders should ensure that food additives should be used under the principle of Good Manufacturing Practice in which only the minimum amount is added to achieve the desired technological effect, and that the food is fit for human consumption. If necessary, the Centre for Food Safety would conduct risk assessment on the detected level of food additives in a food sample.

How to Make an Informed Choice?

Since food additives are commonly present in our food supply, you may wonder what kind of food additives are added to the foods you eat. According to the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132W), if a food additive is used in a prepackaged food available in Hong Kong, it must be listed by its functional class together with its specific name or identification number in the ingredient list on the food label. For example, if aspartame is added to a prepackaged food as a sweetener, it must be listed as sweetener (aspartame), sweetener (E951), or sweetener (951). Concerned consumers can make reference to the food label to make an informed choice.