food additives

Food additives

Main facts Food additives

Food additives are substances added to foods to preserve or enhance their safety, freshness, taste, texture or appearance.
It must be verified that they do not present a potential detrimental effect on human health before using them.
The Joint FAO / WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) is the international body responsible for assessing the safety of food additives.
Only food additives assessed and judged safe by JECFA, which are the basis for the establishment of maximum levels of use by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, may be used in foods entering international trade.

What are food additives?

Food additives are substances added to preserve or enhance the safety, freshness, taste, texture or appearance of foods. Some of these additives have been used for centuries for preservation – such as salt (for preserving meats such as bacon or dried fish), sugar (for jam) or sulfur dioxide (for wine).

Many food additives have been developed over time to meet the needs of food production because the conditions for large-scale food preparation differ greatly from those for home-based meals. Additives are needed to preserve the safety of processed foods and to maintain them in good condition during transport from factories or industrial kitchens to consumers, warehouses and businesses.

The use of food additives is justified only if it meets a technological need, does not mislead the consumer and serves a well-defined technological function such as preserving the nutritional quality of foods or improving their stability.

Food additives can be prepared from plants, animals or minerals, but also by synthesis. They are intentionally added to foods for specific technological purposes to achieve certain qualities that consumers often take for granted. Several thousand food additives are used and all are designed to perform a specific function in making food healthier or more appealing. WHO and FAO group these additives into three broad categories based on the function they perform.

Agents of palatability
Food additives – which are added to foods to enhance their aroma or taste – are the largest category of food additives. There are hundreds of varieties of flavoring agents, which are used in a very wide range of foods, ranging from confectionery and sweet drinks to cereals, cakes and yogurts. Natural flavoring agents include nuts, fruits and mixtures of spices, as well as vegetable derived agents and wine. In addition, there are aromatic agents that mimic natural flavors.

Enzymatic preparations
Enzymatic preparations are a type of additive that is or is not found in the final food product. Enzymes are naturally occurring proteins that stimulate biochemical reactions by breaking down large molecules into smaller elementary blocks. They are obtained by extraction from plants or products of animal origin or from microorganisms such as bacteria, and are used as alternatives to chemical techniques. They are mainly used in bakery (to improve pasta), in the preparation of fruit juices (to increase yields), in wine production and breweries (to improve fermentation) as well as in cheese making (to improve the formation of the crust).

Other additives
Other food additives are used for a variety of reasons, such as preservation, coloring, or sweet taste. They are introduced during preparation, packaging, transport or storage and eventually become a component of the food.

Preservatives can slow down the decomposition caused by mold, air, bacteria or yeasts. In addition to preserving food quality, preservatives help prevent contamination, which can lead to food-borne illnesses, including potentially fatal botulism.

Dyes are added to foods to replace colors lost during preparation or to make them more attractive.

Sweeteners are often used as an alternative to sugar because they add little or no calories to food.

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