Food additives sector needs to go natural

Food firms need to balance the advantages of food additives against the perception that these ingredients are harmful to the consumer. On the one hand, additives offer improved prices, product quality, consumer acceptance and shelf-life to processors and retailers. On the other hand, the sector must increasingly consider consumer fears that these ingredients could have potentially harmful effects.

Global Market

Food additives are substances that are added to food during processing or storage. The European Union permits more than 363 different additives, which have 23 recognised uses. On a global basis, food additives are segmented by product type, including flavours and enhancers; sweeteners; enzymes; colorants; emulsifiers; food preservatives; and fat replacers. Most food additives have little or no nutritional value.

The global market for food additives is expected to exceed $30 billion by the end of 2015.

Most of the transactions are business-to-business deals, yet as a sector it receives a lot of attention from consumers.According to a Transparency Market Research report, Europe held the largest market for food additives in 2014, however, it is projected that Asia Pacific will hold the largest market by 2021.

The flavours and enhancers sector has the largest market share, followed by fat replacers and sweeteners.

The E-number system for food additives was introduced in the 1960s – the E stands for European – and was intended to reassure consumers that additives were safe.

From the 1980s onwards, all ingredients had to be listed on product labels. Manufacturers were allowed to use either the name of the additive, or to use the number of the additive on the ingredient list. Many chose to use the E numbers, to save space on the ingredients label.

During this period, some publications suggested that consumers should be suspicious of these additives. The E-number became identified, not as a mark of safety, but as a threat and a source of controversy. This is despite the fact that these E-numbers are tested and monitored by the WHO, which establishes a ‘no observed effect level’ (NOEL) of testing as the standard for safe food additives.

Figure 1: Model for Assessing NOEL standards in the testing of food additives. Source: WHO


External Influences

The industry faced reports which suggested that various food additives led to the formation of cancer-causing compounds; induced respiratory conditions; were linked to hyperactivity in children;or could even cause brain damage.

Over time, the choice of which additive to use as an ingredient in a product became less influenced by its chemical role and increasingly influenced both by legislation, food activists and media.

Figure 2: Food additives and the health controversy to which they were linked (Source: Food Chemical Safety—volume 2: Additives: David H. Watson)

E number Name Controversy
(E249-E252) Nitrites Formation of cancer-causing compounds
(E220-228) Sulphites Induction of
respiratory conditions
(E102) Tartrazine-containing colourings Linked hyperactivity
in children
(E621) Monosodium glutamate Is an excitotoxin causing brain damage
(E951) Aspartame Linked to mood swings and neurological problems


As a result, some natural additive products are showing growth at the expense of synthetics.

There is rising demand for fat replacers and sweeteners in the weight control market, while antioxidants functional food ingredients are thriving. This trend is being broadened to avoid using anything the consumer might consider to be additives, particularly those linked to colors and preservatives.

Several food and beverage giants – including General Mills, Nestle, Hershey andKraft – have announced that they will be removing artificial dyes and flavors from their products.

The Future

In the future the processing and retail industry will have to pay even more attention to food additives and – rather than taking a technical or regulatory approach to food additives – should consider the consumers’ desire for attractive and tasty food products, which include the minimum of additives.

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