Biggest threat to additives development? Quality data, says food industry

By Natasha Spencer-Joilliffe

- Last updated on GMT

Rather than consumed as food on their own or as typical ingredients, additives are substances primarily added to processed foods or those produced on an industrial scale for technical purposes. GettyImages/Monkey Business Images
Rather than consumed as food on their own or as typical ingredients, additives are substances primarily added to processed foods or those produced on an industrial scale for technical purposes. GettyImages/Monkey Business Images

Related tags Additives

As the World Health Organization (WHO) publishes its latest information on additives, the food industry details how insufficient quality data is the biggest threat to their growth and management.

On 16 November 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidance on additives​, bringing together vital and up-to-date information on the role of additives in the food industry and how the sector evaluates the health risks of food additives, including their safety assessments.

Rather than consumed as food on their own or as typical ingredients, additives are substances primarily added to processed foods or those produced on an industrial scale for technical purposes. Often, their inclusion is there to improve safety, increase shelf life and storage time, and alter food products’ sensory properties.

Additives’ role in the food environment

“As global demand for improved sustainability throughout the entire food supply chain continues to grow, the use of food additives plays an ever-important role,” ​Michelle Maynard, Executive Director of Food Additives & Ingredients Association (FAIA) UK, told FoodNavigator.

Additives’ value in the food industry lies in their ability to provide technological and functional benefits but are also “essential for providing consumers with a wide range of safe, healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food”​, Maynard said.

For example, additives also make a significant contribution to lowering food waste and are becoming increasingly well-understood by consumers who appreciate that, without food additives, there would be a vast reduction in food and drink product ranges on supermarket shelves, along with a significant impact on these products’ shelf life, Maynard continued.

Leading additives

Food additives can be derived from plants, animals or minerals or chemically synthesised. “The food additives currently in use are designed to do a specific job and are categorised according to their function,” ​Maynard added. 

The most common additives on food labels are antioxidants to prevent deterioration caused by oxidation, along with colours, emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners, preservatives and sweeteners, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) shared.

Flavouring agents and enzyme preparation enhance biochemical reactions that support the finished product. Additives can be added during various production stages, including food preparation, packaging, transportation and storage.

Some additives provide additional health benefits, while many food additives are naturally occurring chemicals, and some are essential nutrients, such as ascorbic acid E300 or vitamin C. An antioxidant, Vitamin C is known for playing a pivotal role in preserving food as it helps protect against deterioration caused by oxidation.

“The industry is constantly reviewing its processes to ensure it produces sustainable products by the best means available,”​ said Maynard. Ongoing evaluations may occur by controlling its raw materials and or/ the use of new production methods. Changes in production or raw materials may necessitate a new safety evaluation.

Determining the presence and need for additives

“All food additives must have a demonstrated useful purpose and undergo a rigorous scientific safety evaluation before being approved for use in food and drink products,” ​said Maynard. In Europe, they are assessed for safety by the EFSA to ensure they do not pose a risk to human health and are, therefore, safe for consumption.

Food additives undergo safety evaluations, and facilities assess them for potential harmful effects on human health. Safety assessments evaluate the health risks associated with additives and identify whether harmful effects are present. The first step is to establish the additive's acceptable daily intake (ADI). ADI refers to the estimated amount of an additive in a product or drinking water that people can consume safely daily over a lifetime without adverse health effects.

The Member States, the Commission and Parliament determine the need for additives in a food item. A similar system is now in place in the UK. In the safety assessment process, health experts review all available and relevant scientific data to identify, for example, an Upper Limit (UL) for specific nutrients and an ADI for food additives that corresponds to the quantity of the additive that can be safely ingested daily over a lifetime.

The results can then be used to calculate maximum levels of use. Member States of the European Union (EU) must monitor the consumption level of food additives to ensure that the population is always below the ADI.

EFSA’s role is clear. “We assess the safety of new food additives and new uses of permitted food additives,”​ a spokesperson for the Authority told FoodNavigator. Since 2009, as part of EFSA’s role in food additive safety evaluation in the EU, it has also conducted a safety re-evaluation programme for all permitted food additives on the EU market.

Under EU legislation, food additives must be authorised before they can be used in foods. The European Commission is responsible for the rules on food additives​, which it agrees with EU Member States.

The evaluation process includes reviewing the original scientific evaluation and any new data that has emerged. If any safety concerns are identified, the European Commission and EU Member States are responsible for deciding whether regulatory action is needed and implementing risk management measures.

Quality data remains elusive

“One major challenge is ensuring that we have high-quality data made available to us by additive producers, food processors and other sources on elements such as chemical and biological properties, toxicological studies and levels in food,”​ said EFSA’s spokesperson.

Gathering high-quality data is a significant hurdle in developing and managing additives in the food industry. Producing reliable dietary surveys is required to evaluate the health risks of food additives, yet these create challenges.

As it is necessary to undertake reliable dietary surveys to determine the intake of both foods and their additives, the EU has developed specialist databases to minimise the possible overestimation of intake and obtain a reliable intake estimate. The European Commission maintains a publicly accessible database​ containing information on the food additives permitted in the EU and their condition of use.

The EFSA had an initial deadline of 2020 to complete the re-evaluation process. Additional time has been required to receive more data to fill newly identified gaps owing to a heavily increased workload for our scientific panel, EFSA said. “The regulation framework has also evolved, enabling us to become even more transparent on what we do,”​ said EFSA’s spokesperson.

The 2019 Transparency Regulation’ (EU 1381/2019)​ introduced sweeping changes to how EFSA assesses food additives and other regulated products in the food area, such as pesticides and food contact materials.

“In particular, there are now explicit requirements to publish almost all the scientific studies used in our evaluations,”​ said the EFSA spokesperson. These changes took effect in 2021, with assessments following these new rules.

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