Key points

  • Food additives are substances added to foods to perform specific functions. Additives may be natural, nature identical or artificial. 
  • The main groups of food additives are antioxidants, colours, flavour enhancers, sweeteners, emulsifiers and stabilizers and preservatives.
  • All additives are thoroughly assessed for safety before they are allowed to be used. Approved additives are given a number and some are also given an ‘E’ if they been accepted for safe use within the European Union.

Food additives are substances added to foods to perform a range of specific function. Additives may be natural, nature identical or artificial.

  • Natural additives are substances found naturally in a foodstuff and are extracted from one food to be used in another. For example, beetroot juice with its bright purple colour can be used to colour other foods such as sweets.
  • Nature identical additives are man-made copies of substances that occur naturally. For example, benzoic acid is a substance that is found in nature but is also made synthetically and used as a preservative.
  • Artificial additives are not naturally present in foods and are made synthetically. An example is azodicarbonamide, a flour improver that is used to help bread dough hold together.

Why are they used?

Additives are used for a range of functions including:

  • To maintain the nutrient composition of the food and to keep it safe to eat
  • To make food look or taste better
  • To extend the shelf and storage life of a food product
  • To improve the nutritional composition of a product (e.g. increase the vitamin content e.g. by adding ascorbic acid)
  • Aiding in the processing and manufacture (e.g. emulsifiers, to help mix together ingredients).