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Ingredients with confusing names or food full of E numbers? What does it all mean?

A food additive is something that isn’t consumed as a food itself, but is instead intentionally added to a food  for a technological purpose as part of its manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packaging, transport or storage.

Food consumers could easily be bamboozled by a food ingredients list containing E numbers or jargon names, but what really does this all mean and are they harmful to us?

Why are food additives used?

Food businesses use food additives to ensure their products are stable and uniform and also to preserve flavour or enhance its taste, appearance, or other qualities.

A lot of the food we buy in the supermarket isn’t very fresh. Without additives food wouldn’t stay good for long. Often pre-packed products are abundant with food additives.

Food additives include: Preservatives, sweeteners, colours, antioxidants, flavours, fat replacers, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners, anti-caking agents and humectants.

Safety of Food Additives

Before additives are used in food they must be assessed for safety. Only approved additives can be used in food and limits and conditions are set on their use.

What are the legal requirements?

As a general rule food additives cannot be added to unprocessed foods.

When selling an additive directly to a customer as an additive there are detailed labelling requirements.

When an additive is used for the manufacture of a food this must be detailed in the list of ingredients stating the category of the additive e.g. ‘Colour’ followed by its E number or specific name. For example Colour: ‘Sunset yellow’ or ‘Colour: E110’.

There is no such requirement for labelling of non-prepacked foods but it is good practice to know what ingredients, including additives, are being used in food so this is available if asked by a customer.

How is the law relating to additives enforced?

Local Trading Standards Departments enforce the law in relation to additives. Inspections can be undertaken at any stage of food production so can affect anyone involved in the process including manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, restaurants, takeaways and retailers. Inspections are carried out to ensure that the product label matches the ingredients in the product.

Test purchasing or sampling may be carried out in order to check for compliance which may also including testing the product for any unauthorised or excessive amounts of additives.

Food colours and hyperactivity

The Food Standards Agency carried out research into the links between food colours and hyperactivity in children which found that consuming the following artificial food colours could cause increased hyperactivity in some children:

• Sunset yellow FCF (E110)
• Quinoline yellow (E104)
• Carmoisine (E122)
• Allura red (E129)
• Tartrazine (E102)
• Ponceau 4R (E124)

If food and drink contains any of these six colours it must carry the following warning on the packaging: ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.


Food additives in the news

Hafiz Munir Ahmed and Mansural Aziz of Fine Bakers Ltd, an Asian sweet manufacturer in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire were fined £2,500 for making and selling Indian sweets containing the additive rhodamine B.

Fine Bakers were inspected by officers from West Yorkshire Trading Standards and found to be using rhodamine B, the bright pink chemical banned from use in foods. The chemical was in a tin labelled ‘not for food use’. This was ignored.

The substance, which is normally used in sewerage to trace water flows because of its ability to glow under fluorescent light, is thought to cause cancer and mutations.

Hafiz Munir Ahmed and Mansural Aziz admitted selling food with a banned ingredient and failed to be able to identify where the powder had originated.

The firm was also ordered to pay £2,200 costs and a £120 surcharge. Hafiz Munir Ahmed was banned from being a company director for two years.

General non-compliance with food law may result in an improvement notice being issued, requiring compliance to be achieved. If the improvement notice is not complied with it is an offence under the Food Safety Act 1990, the maximum penalty being an unlimited fine and up to two years' imprisonment.

If the use of additives does not comply with The Food Additives, Flavourings, Enzymes and Extraction Solvents (England) Regulations 2013 it is an offence , the penalty is a fine.

If you require any advice on the use and labelling of additives please contact our Regulatory Consultancy Team.