Frequently asked questions

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Ageing and processing of foods can affect their natural colour. During processing, food ingredients’ colour may change into one that doesn’t look appealing to consumers. To compensate for this, the food industry is allowed to use a range of food colours, to; a) make up for colour losses (due to the effects of light, air, moisture and temperature changes, or through processing) b) enhance naturally occurring colours c) add or change the colour of a food.
An E number simply means that a particular food additive is approved for use in food products sold in the EU. The ‘E’ stands for ‘Europe’. An E number will be the same no matter where in the EU that food product is sold, unlike the actual name of the additive which can change depending on the language used – there are 23 official languages in the EU after all. Furthermore, the E numbering system has been adopted for food additives worldwide; they just drop the ‘E’.
Food colours are found in a wide range of food products. The conditions of use, in terms of the products to which they can be added and the levels at which they can be used, are usually more constrained for individual food colours. These can be viewed in the annexes to European Parliament and Council Directive 94/36/EC of 30 June 1994 on colours for use in foodstuffs. This has now been repealed and replaced by Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on food additives. However, the annexes to the old directive are still valid while the annexes to the new regulation are being established.
Food additives are classified according to the function they perform in the food and this is reflected in the range of E number used. So for instance, the additives that are used to colour foods are all in the 100 – 199 range, so Tartrazine is E102, while Silver is E174. Similarly, preservatives are classified in the range E200–E299, antioxidants and acidity regulators in the range E300–E399, thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers from E400–E499, acidity regulators and anti-caking agents from E500–E599 and flavour enhancers from E600–E699. Waxes, synthetic glazes, improving agents, packaging gases, sweeteners and foaming agents are numbered from E900–E999 while the range E1000–E1599 lists ‘additional’ or newer chemicals and includes emulsifiers, stabilisers, flavour enhancers, antioxidants, preservatives, thickening agents, humectants and carriers. Even antibiotics are given E numbers in the range E700–E799 as they are used as additives in animal feed. Many food additives can serve different functions depending on how they are used. Also, certain classes of food additives such as preservatives are not confined to a particular numeric range.
The purpose of food additives is to meet consumer expectations with regard to the quality, taste, presentation, consistency and cost of the food products they buy. They are not a main ingredient of food recipes. Food additives such as improving agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers, antioxidants, thickening agents, humectants and carriers are added to give certain physical qualities to the food, such as making it thicker. Other additives such as flavour enhancers, sweeteners and colours do exactly as their names suggest. For instance the processing of strawberries can result in a loss of the red colour which consumers associate with fresh delicious and healthy strawberries; they will not purchase greyish coloured strawberries. Hence food colours that impart a red colour on foods are added and cochineal (E120) is a good example. Other food additives such as antioxidants and preservatives increase the shelf-life of a food product.
Yes. All food additives are subjected to a rigorous safety evaluation before they can be approved for use in the EU. This is carried out by the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC Panel) of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Furthermore, food additives are also evaluated by the Joint Expert Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (JECFA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Data is used to establish an Acceptable Daily Intake or ’ADI’ which is used by the EU Commission to determine the range of foods the additive can be used in, and also the levels at which it can be used. It is in a food business’ best interests to use a food additive (a) only if absolutely necessary and (b) at the lowest level possible to achieve the desired effect. Food additives are subject to constant review under the EU approval system. If new scientific data calls the safety of a food additive into question, then this will be removed from the list of approved additives. A cursory glance at the approved list shows a number of gaps in the E numbering sequence. For instance, Erythrosine (E127) and Allura red AC (E129) are both on the list but E128 (Red 2G) was removed in 2007 following an evaluation and subsequent concerns about its possible health effects.
ADI stands for ‘Acceptable Daily Intake’ and it is expressed in milligrams of the additive per kilogram of bodyweight per day. The ADI is the amount of a food additive that people, regardless of their age, can safely eat every day for the rest of their lives. The ADI is generally calculated by looking at the highest amount of additive which did not cause a harmful effect in animal experiments and applying a safety factor (usually x 100) to account for differences between humans and animals. The EFSA AFC panel is responsible for setting an ADI following a safety assessment.
The ADI is determined by taking the lowest level of the additive that caused an effect in the toxicological studies and dividing this by a safety factor (usually x 100). This gives a large margin of safety so that occasionally breaching the ADI is not a cause for concern. Bear in mind that the amount of an additive in a food is usually very small, so it would take a lot of food to push the amount of additive eaten in one day over the ADI.
No need to; E numbers have proven that they are safe to eat in such foods at the levels listed.
If you wish to avoid eating food colour additives, then check the label on the food product. By law the class of food additive and either the name or the E number must be listed in the ingredients. For example, if Brilliant Blue FCF was used in a confectionary product, then the product label must show either ‘Colour: Brilliant Blue FCF’ or ‘Colour: E133’ on the list of ingredients.
The ‘Southampton Six’ are six food colours that were linked to hyperactivity in children in a study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency in 2007 that investigated the effect of two mixtures of the food colours, and a preservative (sodium benzoate), on children’s behaviour. The six colours involved were Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow FCF (E110), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red AC (E129) and Carmoisine (E122). The UK’s Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment evaluated the study and concluded that the study had provided “supporting evidence suggesting that certain mixtures of artificial food colours, together with the preservative sodium benzoate, are associated with an increase in hyperactivity in children from the general population”.
The EFSA Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food considered the overall weight of evidence and the considerable uncertainties that they found with the Southampton study and concluded that the study findings could not be used as a basis for altering the ADI of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate. It was impossible to tell if the effects were due to one or more of the colours in the mixtures. Therefore, EFSA found no reason to ban or even reduce the recommended safe levels of use for these food colours.
Despite the lack of hard evidence that these food colours had an effect on children’s behaviour, the EU decided to go for a precautionary approach to their regulation and in July of 2010 new legislation came into effect which states that all products manufactured from that date, containing any of the Southampton six colours, must clearly be labelled with the following statement: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. Furthermore, ADIs for three of the Southampton Six colours (E104, E124 and E110) have subsequently been lowered by EFSA as part of the on-going EFSA review of all food additives and for reasons other than their possible behavioural effects.