Additives are added to food for technological reasons during production, processing, packaging or storage. For example, they are used to sweeten foods, to color them or to extend their shelf life. Additives are, for example, preservatives such as sorbic acid, colorants such as true carmine or brilliant blue FCF, sweeteners such as saccharin or xylitol.
Classification of additives
The classification of additives for use in food additives, enzymes and flavors is made in classes according to their main function in the food:
- raising agents
- Coloring agents
- firming agents
- Gelling agents
- Flavor enhancers
- Complexing agents
- Contrast enhancers
- Flour treatment agents
- Modified starches
- Packing gases
- Acidity regulators
- Foaming agents
- Antifoaming agents
- Melting salts
- Blowing gases
- Release agents
- Coating agent
For food additives to be approved throughout the EU, they must meet three conditions: they must be harmless to health and technologically necessary, and their use must not mislead consumers. Whether a food contains a technologically active additive is indicated in the list of ingredients in packaged foods. The quantities used are limited by maximum levels. These must be as low as possible, but high enough to still fulfill their function. In addition, the maximum levels take into account how much of a food is eaten on average in order to prevent possible health risks.
Flavors and food ingredients with flavoring properties are added to foods in small quantities to give them a special smell or taste (e.g. strawberry flavor). Flavorings also play an important role in nutrition, as they can be used to significantly influence dietary behavior. Natural flavorings are based on plants, animals or microbiological raw materials. They are obtained by suitable physical (e.g. extraction and distillation), enzymatic or microbiological processes. Flavors used in foods must be safe for health and must not mislead consumers. The conditions for their production, safety, use and labeling are regulated throughout the EU. The EU-wide permitted flavoring substances, currently around 2,500, can be found in Annex 1 of Regulation (EC) No. 1334/2008.
Smoking or smoking is a traditional process for preserving foods such as fish, meat and dairy products. It also changes the flavor of food. As an alternative to conventional smoking, so-called smoke flavorings are added to various foods to give them the typical "smoked" flavor - including foods such as soups, sauces, snacks or baked goods that are not traditionally smoked.
To obtain smoke flavor, certain woods are burned under controlled conditions (temperature, air supply, etc.). The chemical composition of smoke is complex and depends, among other things, on the type of wood used, the smoke production process, the water content of the wood, and the temperature and oxygen concentration during smoke production. The smoke is introduced into water, fractionated and purified. Smoke flavorings are produced from the "primary smoke condensates" and "primary tar fractions" thus obtained. These are either incorporated directly into foodstuffs or applied to the surface by dipping or spraying. Limits are set for undesirable substances (e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo[a]pyrene).
"Natural flavoring," "Natural flavoring substances," "Natural strawberry flavoring with other natural flavors": these and similar sales descriptions can be found in the list of ingredients of many foods. The term "natural" may only be used to describe a flavoring if the flavoring ingredient contains only flavoring extracts and/or natural flavoring substances.
There are a large number of products with the flavor claim "natural" that have the indication of a food (e.g., cheese) of a food category (e.g., spices) or a plant flavor carrier (strawberry) or animal flavor carrier (chicken) in the sales description of the flavor. The term "natural" may be used in conjunction with these claims only if the flavor component is derived exclusively or at least 95% by weight (wt%) from the source material referenced. A "natural strawberry flavor" must therefore be at least 95% derived from strawberries and the remainder must also be derived from natural sources. If the strawberry flavor is easily recognizable, but less than 95% by weight is derived from strawberries and the flavor otherwise consists of other natural flavors, the term "natural strawberry flavor with other natural flavors" should be used.
If the term "strawberry flavor" is used without the indication "natural," this is sometimes only a descriptive term of a strawberry-flavored flavor. It can therefore not be concluded from the indication "strawberry flavor" in the list of ingredients that the flavor of the food comes from the strawberry.
If the term "natural flavor" is used, this is an indication that the flavor consists of flavor extracts and/or natural flavoring substances derived from different source materials and that naming the source materials would not accurately describe the flavor.
Food colorants are contained in many foods. They are used to compensate for color losses (due to light, air, moisture and temperature fluctuations), to intensify naturally occurring colors and to color colorless or differently colored foods. All additives, including a total of 45 colorants approved in Austria and the other EU member states, must be harmless to health. Therefore, they must be approved for use in the European Union (EU) and are subject to a strict scientific safety assessment (see Legal basis).
Like other food additives, azo dyes can be used in a range of foods, including soft drinks, baked goods, desserts, sauces, seasonings and confectionery.
Sweeteners are used to give food a sweet taste. Sweeteners are substances regulated by the EU and must undergo a safety assessment before being approved. Sweeteners used in a food must be indicated on the list of ingredients on the packaging.
Steviol glycosides are plant ingredients obtained by extraction and purification from the leaves of the subtropical plant Stevia rebaudiana. The sweetening power is around 40 to 300 times stronger than that of sugar. Steviol glycosides produce a long-lasting sweet taste, which is, however, accompanied by bitter and licorice-like secondary notes. During cooking and baking processes, a decrease in sweetening power can be observed due to cleavage of the aforementioned sweeteners.
In Austria, flavored beverages sweetened with steviol glycosides, flavored fermented dairy products and seasoning sauces (for example, ketchup) are on the market, among others, with reduced flavour or without added sugar. Steviol glycosides are also available in the form of "tablet sweeteners" for sweetening food and beverages as a substitute for sugar in domestic supermarkets, drugstores and pharmacies. Replacing sugar with steviol glycosides has proven to be a major challenge for product development in terms of taste and texture in some foods, so the supply of steviol glycoside-sweetened goods is currently limited.
Sucralose is a sweetener whose sweetening power is about 600 times stronger than that of sugar. As an additive, sucralose with the E-number E-955 is only permitted in certain foods:
- energy-reduced or sugar-free foods (beverages, desserts, spreads, jams, marmalades, jellies, confectionery)
- sweet and sour preserves (fruits and vegetables, fish, seafood and molluscs)
- sauces and mustard
- alcoholic beverages
- snack products made from cereals or nuts
- Food supplements
Phosphoric acid - phosphates
Phosphates are essential for living organisms and occur naturally in the body. Phosphates occur naturally in meat, fish and dairy products, cereals, and fruits and vegetables and are an important component of a balanced diet.
Phosphoric acid and phosphates are also used in food production, e.g. as an acidifier, acidity regulator, emulsifier, stabilizer, carrier, melting salt or release agent. As approved additives, they can be found in foods such as sodas, processed cheese, desserts, chocolate, sausages, cured meats, dairy drinks, powdered milk or baking mixes. The approved phosphate additives must be listed in the ingredient list with their E-number or with their specific name: phosphoric acid and its salts, di- and tri-phosphates and polyphosphates (E 338 - 341, E 343 and E 450 - 452).
Situation in Austria
The use of additives in food is continuously checked. The official control is mainly carried out in the form of focus actions. Our experts examine and assess the correct content declaration and correct composition of additives. The food groups analyzed include soft drinks, sugar confectionery, pastries, snacks and meat products. In addition to finished foods, we also test additives and mixtures (e.g. baking powder) that are intended to be incorporated into a food.
The results of the food additive studies not only serve to verify compliance with laws, but also help to estimate the intake levels of food additives in Austria. In 2021, 147 food additives and flavors were investigated, of which 16 (10.8%) were objected to. 11 samples due to labeling deficiencies and/or misleading information, five samples due to composition and one sample was judged unfit for human consumption due to pesticides.
We estimated the intake levels of colorants, preservatives and sweeteners for the Austrian population in 2016-2021. For this purpose, national data on consumption and actual use levels of the food additives were used. Analysis results of food samples examined by our experts in the period January 2016 to 2021 served as the basis for the calculations.
The intake of most food additives (except colorants) is below the respective accepted daily intake (ADI) for average consumers of all population groups in Austria. The ADI value describes the amount of a substance that a person can consume daily over a lifetime without any appreciable risk to his or her health.
More information can be found in the reports.
Our experts regularly conduct tests on flavors and flavor preparations such as vanillin sugar, spice extracts, baking and fruit flavors. They check whether the composition of the flavors meets the requirements of the EU declaration and whether the typical ingredients are contained. In addition, there are flavoring substances whose use is permitted only in limited quantities (e.g., caffeine, quinine, glycyrrhizic acid) and substances that may not be added as such to foods (e.g., aloin, hydrocyanic acid, methyl eugenol and safrole). By means of analytical testing, these substances are detected and evaluated.
Additives in the list of ingredients
Whether a food contains a technologically active additive is indicated in the list of ingredients of packaged foods. There, the additive must be listed as an E-number or with its special designation. In addition, the class name must also be indicated. It clarifies the purpose of the application based on its main effect on the food, for example "Sweetener: Saccharin" or "Sweetener: E-954".
In addition to the naming of additives in the list of ingredients, some sweeteners and colorants require additional information (also for unpackaged goods). For example, foods colored with certain dyes must bear the additional information "May impair activity and attention in children". This information is not only mandatory on the label in the contents declaration, but must also be indicated on unpackaged goods. For example, in a sugar confectionery store that sells loose goods, this notice must be clearly displayed in a conspicuous place, such as on a sign, the price list, the menu or on a notice board.
If sucralose is used in food, it must be indicated in the list of ingredients, e.g., "Sweetener: Sucralose" or "Sweetener: E-955." If a food contains this ingredient, it should not be used for cooking or baking if heated to over 120 °C as a precaution based on current data. On behalf of the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection, we therefore recommend that sucralose should not be used in foods heated above 120 °C or that sucralose should only be added after heating.
The EU Regulation EC No. 1333/2008 has harmonized the existing legislation regarding food additives, flavors and enzymes at EU Community level. It regulates the approval procedure for food additives and the European list of food additives. The following legislation was introduced for this purpose:
Legal basis for flavorings
EU Regulation 1334/2008 sets out conditions for the production, safety, use and labeling of flavorings for use in food. See also Legal on food additives on the establishment of a single approval procedure for additives, enzymes and flavors used in food.
The list of primary products for the production of smoke flavourings exclusively authorized in the Union for use as such in or on foods and/or for the production of smoke flavourings produced from them is set out in the Annex to Regulation (EU) No 1321/2013. The list of authorized smoke flavorings is valid since January 1, 2014, based on Regulation (EU) No. 2065/2003 on smoke flavorings.
In principle, the term "natural" may only be used to describe a flavoring according to EC Flavouring Regulation 1334/2008 if the flavoring component contains exclusively flavoring extracts and/or natural flavoring substances. Flavoring extracts are a mixture of defined substances with flavoring properties obtained from natural source materials such as spices, fruits, herbs, yeast, meat and vegetables. "Natural flavor" without indication of source: according to the EC Flavor Regulation 1334/2008, the term "natural flavor" may only be used if the flavor component is derived from different source materials and if naming the source materials would not accurately describe its aroma or flavor. An example is a flavoring made from natural flavoring substances of blackberry, apple and orange, the odor and taste of which do not identify any of the three types of fruit mentioned.
Legal basis for colorants
European Union legislation specifies the foods in which they may be used and the maximum amount that may be added, depending on the type of food. Furthermore, identity and purity requirements are specified for food colorants, which must be met. This is set out in EU Regulation No. 231/2012 and is based on EU Regulation No. 1333/2008.
Legal basis for steviol glycosides
The authorization for the use of these high-purity sweeteners has been in force since December 2, 2011, in accordance with Regulation (EU) No. 1131/2011 amending Annex II of the EC Additives Regulation as regards steviol glycosides. This means that steviol glycosides complying with the purity requirements of Commission Regulation (EU) No. 231/2012 of March 9, 2012 (see pages 272-273) are permitted as food additive E 960 for certain foods (including flavored beverages, confectionery, desserts, snack foods, tabletop sweeteners, food supplements) with appropriate maximum use levels as sweeteners. It should be noted that the conditions for the use of additives in food must be observed in accordance with the requirements of Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 on food additives.
Austrian Food Codex, ANNEX 10: Guideline on the deceptive use of foods sweetened with the additive steviol glycosides (E960).
Before a food additive can be newly approved in the EU, a safety assessment must be carried out by the European Food Safety Authority EFSA. This is also necessary if a substance is to be approved for new uses. In addition, EFSA reviews new scientific evidence at the request of the European Commission and also evaluates changes in conditions of use and use levels. Since the initial approval of many additives sometimes dates back many years, EFSA has been reviewing all food additives since 2009 to take into account new scientific data. For each substance, an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is established as part of the safety evaluations if the available information is sufficient. The ADI describes the amount of a substance that a person can consume daily over a lifetime without any appreciable risk to their health.
In Austria, the intake levels of colorants are below the respective ADI values for both average and high consumption. The highest intakes for high consumers were calculated for tartratzin (E102) and allura red AC (E 129). The ADI in this case is 13% (E102) and 6-14% (E129). Main sources of intake may be flavored beverages, soups and broths, sauces, snacks, and confectionery.
Sulfonated mono-azo dyes include a group of six chemically related dyes: allura red AC (E 129), amaranth (E 123), cochineal red A (E 124), yellow orange S (E 110), tartrazine (E 102), and azorubin/carmoisin (E 122). The azo dyes also include the food colorants brilliant black BN (E 151) (bisazo dye), brown HT (E 155) (bisazo dye) and litholrubin BK (E 180) (monoazo pigment).
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published an opinion on azo dyes in 2013. Following a review of new scientific data, the competent body concluded that, based on the available carcinogenicity studies, there is no evidence that azo dyes are carcinogenic. However, EFSA recommended that new tests be conducted to clarify uncertainties regarding possible genotoxicity. Genotoxicity is the ability of a substance to damage DNA, the genetic material of cells. At the moment, however, the weight of evidence overall suggests that they are not genotoxic.
Also, suspected links between the intake of individual dyes and hyperactivity in children could not be confirmed. In their 2008 opinion, EFSA's experts concluded, as confirmed in subsequent assessments, that the available scientific evidence, including the "Southampton Study", did not allow for the demonstration of a causal relationship between the individual dyes and possible effects on behavior (hyperactivity).
Intake levels for sweeteners calculated for average and high consumption are below the respective ADI for all population groups. The highest intakes were calculated for high consumers for acesulfame K (E 950), aspartame (E 951) and sucralose (E 955). The ADI value is utilized by 20-34% (E 950), 12-20% (E 951) and 18-38% (E 955), respectively.
Sweeteners are mainly ingested via products that are reduced in calorific value or manufactured without added sugar. The main sources of intake are flavored beverages and fruit nectars. Cocoa and chocolate products, snacks, and confectionery represent other sources of intake.
In April 2019, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) published a statement on sucralose. In it, the BfR concludes, based on the available data, that sucralose is not heat stable at temperatures above 120 °C and may decompose. This could result in the formation of chlorinated compounds such as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD), dibenzofurans (PCFD) or chloropropanol. These substances have the potential to be harmful to health. However, at the time of this statement, it is not known which of these compounds are formed during the cooking or baking process and to what quantitative extent. Therefore, a conclusive assessment of potential health risks is not possible from the data currently available. Currently, EFSA is conducting a re-evaluation of sucralose.
Phosphoric acid - phosphates
Phosphates are not carcinogenic and not mutagenic. Their acute toxicity is low, but very high doses can lead to calcification in the kidney and tubular nephropathies (disease of the renal tubules). Phosphate as an additive contributes to 6-30% of total phosphate intake.
On June 12, 2019, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg body weight per day for phosphates based on a re-evaluation. This ADI takes into account naturally occurring phosphate in food but also phosphates used as additives. The ADI describes the amount of a substance that a person can consume daily over a lifetime without any appreciable risk to his or her health. However, this ADI value only applies to healthy people, not to people with a moderate to severe reduction in kidney function.
In an exposure calculation by EFSA, it has been shown that infants, toddlers and children already exceed the ADI at moderate consumption levels. Adolescents may exceed the ADI on a high phosphate diet. For infants under 16 weeks of age who receive phosphate-containing diets for medical necessity, EFSA sees no safety concerns.
Unlike food, where the addition of phosphates is restricted with maximum levels, the quantum satis principle (use as much as is technologically necessary) applies to food supplements. EFSA notes that in individuals over 3 years of age consuming dietary supplements, the ADI may be exceeded to such an extent that adverse effects on the kidney and its function cannot be excluded.
EFSA recommends setting a maximum level for phosphate as an additive in food supplements.
The intake estimate of sorbic acid - sorbate (E 200- E 203) was calculated using Austrian consumption and occurrence data. Here, all population groups were below the ADI. The main sources of intake are bread and bakery products. In January 2014, we estimated the intake levels of food additives for the Austrian population on behalf of the Ministry of Health. For this purpose, data on food consumption in Austria and the maximum permitted levels for the use of the additives were used for an intake estimate. In the report "Intake of Food Additives in Austria - Selected Examples", the intake levels of food additives for the Austrian population (children, adults) were estimated according to level 2 and 3 in November 2010.
Methods for estimating intake levels:
In its report, the EU Commission describes methods for monitoring the intake of food additives in the member states. In it, intake levels are calculated in three stages.
- In stage 1, theoretical data on food consumption are set in conjunction with the maximum permitted levels for the use of the additive
- In stage 2, national data on actual food consumption of the total population are used in conjunction with the maximum permitted levels for the use of the additive to estimate the intake levels
- In stage 3, national data on actual food consumption and actual use levels of the additive are combined for the calculation
Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is a white color pigment that is currently approved as a food additive E171 and is used to color food and as a component of white glossy coatings, for example, of sweets. Due to the existing safety concerns about titanium dioxide as a food additive, a regulation banning the use of titanium dioxide as an additive in food has been submitted for vote by the European Commission in agreement with the Member States. Subject to the approval of the European Council and the European Parliament, this ban is expected to enter into force in January 2022 with a transition period of 6 months.
Last updated: 10.10.2023