Focus on food additives

Definition and regulatory framework

E 300, E 104, E 129, xanthan gum, methylcellulose: what substances are hiding behind these codes / names? What are they used for? What foods are they found in? Are they dangerous? How are they regulated?

What is a food additive?

A food additive is a substance that is not usually consumed as a food or used as an ingredient in food products. These compounds are added to foodstuffs for technological purposes during manufacturing, transformation, preparation, processing, packaging, transport or storage and therefore become a component of the finished product.

Food additives have specific functions, for example:

  • to guarantee the safety of foods (preservatives, antioxidants);
  • to improve the appearance and flavour of foods (colouring agents, sweeteners, flavour enhancers);
  • to confer a specific texture (thickeners, gelling agents);
  • to ensure the stability of the product (emulsifiers, anticaking agents, stabilisers).

Food additives may be natural (i.e., obtained from microorganisms, algae, plant or mineral extracts) or synthetic.

They are listed in the ingredients list of foods that contain them either by their code (E followed by 3 or 4 digits) or by their name. 

What substances are authorised and how?

Additives are only authorised for human consumption if they do not pose a risk to the consumer at the applied level of use. But proof of their safety is not sufficient. In order to be used, a substance must also have proven benefits.

Food additives are thus only approved if: 

  • the claimed technological effect can be demonstrated;
  • their use is not likely to mislead the consumer.

Before being authorised by the European Commission, additives are submitted for evaluation to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). On this basis, the Commission establishes a positive list of authorised additives. A code beginning with E is assigned to each additive indicating the foods to which it can be added and the maximum permissible levels. Only additives on this list may be added to foods.

The assessment and authorisation of food additives is regulated and harmonised on the EU level by Regulations EC/1331/2008 and EC/1333/2008. 

Any new scientific or technological information regarding authorised additives is carefully examined, and their conditions of use are reviewed if necessary.

EFSA has also undertaken a systematic European review of all authorised additives. It began with food colouring agents, in accordance with the request made by the European Commission, and will continue with the other food additives. The detailed European re-evaluation plan for all authorised food additives was recently published. The re-evaluation of food additives within the context of this plan is expected to end in 2020 with sweeteners. 

ANSES provides the French authorities with scientific support for the studies in progress when necessary.