Categories: Lifestyle

Food additives: are they dangerous and how to spot them?

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Identifiable on labels by the letter E followed by a 3-digit number, food additives are regularly the subject of criticism and rumours. The editorial takes stock of these additives: how to spot them? Are they dangerous? Can we find it in organic products?

What are food additives used for?

A food additive is a substance which is added to a food for a technological purpose: to improve its conservation, to reduce the phenomena of oxidation, to color foodstuffs, to enhance the taste, etc.

How to identify the different types of food additives?

There are several categories of food additives that are recognized according to the 3 digits following the E.

Antioxidants (from E 300 to E 321)

They preserve the taste, smell and color of food by preventing rancidity.

They are present in a large number of products:

  • vitamin E and its derivatives (tocopherols): E 306 to E 309
  • vitamin C (or ascorbic acid): E 300
  • butylated hydroxyanisole: E 320, present in oils, salad dressings, chewing gum
  • and butylhydroxytoluene: E 321, present in crisps, diet margarines and certain fats intended for frying.

Preservatives (from E 200 to E 299)

They prevent the development of microorganisms.

Here are the most common:

  • sulphites and sulfur dioxide: E 220 to E 228, added to wine, dried fruit or peanuts
  • nitrates and nitrites: from E 249 to E 252, present in charcuterie
  • calcium propionate: E 282, found in bread


They are used to give more consistency or binder to sauces, mayonnaise or dairy products.

Among them are:

  • pectin: E 440, often obtained from apple seeds
  • guar gum: E 412, from legumes
  • gelatin: E 471 and E 472, obtained from pigskin and widely used in sweets.

Emulsifiers and stabilizers

Their role is to prevent the dispersion of one liquid into another. This is the case with oil and water, for example: water is often added to lighten foods rich in fat, but so that the water does not repel fat, an emulsifier is added.

This category includes:

  • lecithin, obtained from egg yolk (E 322), which is also an antioxidant or soy lecithin (E 422)
  • fatty acid mono and diglycerides (E 470 to E 496)

Flavor enhancers

As their name suggests, they give flavor to foods that lack it, but can also enhance one flavor by masking others.

  • salt: arguably the oldest food additive in history
  • glutamates (E 620 to E 625), very common in Asian cuisine
  • inosinic acid (E 630), a salt obtained from meat or dried sardines.

Dyes (E 100 to E 180)

They revive the colors of food or modify them.

Among them are products derived from plants:

  • curcumin (E 100), which colors mustards
  • carotene (E 160), which gives yellow tones to charcuterie and pastries.

Others come from the animal kingdom:

  • cochineal (E 120), which brings red to cold cuts and dairy products.

Still others are derived from the mineral:

  • gold (E 175) or silver metal (E 174) for cake decorations.

Are food additives safe?

To be sure that a food additive is safe, the health authorities (the European Food Safety Authority in Europe) study all the toxicological data concerning it.

From these studies on humans and animals, they determine a dose without effects. And for safety, this is further divided by 100 to obtain the acceptable daily intake (ADI), expressed in milligrams per kilo and per day.

Other studies are carried out in parallel to ensure that certain population groups are not likely to exceed the ADI (in particular with the excess of drinks based on aspartame for example).

Despite these precautions, some additives can cause allergic reactions : this is the case of lecithin made from the egg and the red dye from the cochineal, for example.

Many people can also be bothered by glutamates and sulfites.

Did you know that certain food additives were authorized in “Organic” products?

Yes, no way to escape it! The certified organic products can also contain food additivesContrary to popular belief.

But only 48 additives are allowed against 300 in the conventional diet.

A very large majority of them are of natural, plant, animal or mineral origin, and most of the additives derived from plants come from organic farming.

Only 4 additives are of chemical origin, produced by synthesis.

Here is the list:

  • dyes: E153, E160B, E170,
  • preservatives: E220, E224, E250, E252, E270, E290, E296
  • antioxidants: E300, E301, E306, E322, E325, E330, E331, E334, E335, E336, E341, E392
  • thickeners: E400, E401, E402, E406, E407, E410, E412, E414, E415, E422, E440, E464
  • acidifiers: E500, E50, E503, E504, E509, E524, E551
  • gaseous additives: E938, E939, E941, E948

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