20/11/2019 3 min

Changes in the use of food additives in processed products

ANSES is today publishing a review of the use of additives in processed foods available on the French market, as part of the OQALI food observatory operated jointly by ANSES and INRA. Using data collected on more than 30,000 products, this study has also revealed changes in the presence of additives in food. While the majority of products contain at least one additive, they are used to a greater degree in certain food categories. In general, there has been a decrease in the use of the most common additives; only four of the 46 most frequently found food additives have increased for specific uses. These results will help better assess consumer exposure to these substances.

Food additives are substances added intentionally to foods for technological purposes at various stages of production. Their use is governed by European Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008, which establishes a list of authorised additives on the basis of a prior risk assessment and defines the conditions for their use. This Regulation requires Member States to share with the European authorities the data they have on the use of additives in the agri-food industry.

A ground-breaking study on changes in the use of food additives

For more than ten years, OQALI has been conducting studies to characterise the nutritional quality of the food supply through the data found on product packaging. In this context, OQALI launched a study to analyse changes in the use of additives in food products marketed in France.

This study, published today, provides a review of the additives found in 30 food categories (excluding confectionery), based on more than 30,000 products collected between 2008 and 2016. Changes in food additive use were also studied for 20 food categories.

Specific uses

Over the period 2008-2016, 78% of the food products analysed mentioned at least one additive in their list of ingredients. On the other hand, only a small number of additives were used frequently: of the approximately 400 additives currently authorised, 42 were found in at least 2% of foods and only eight additives were identified in at least 10% of foods.

The most frequently used additives were:

  • citric acid (E330), used mainly as an acidity regulator, and mentioned on 23% of products;
  • modified starches, used mainly as thickeners, concerning 22% of products;
  • lecithins (E322), used in particular as emulsifiers, found in 17% of products.

While 53% of the products studied contained fewer than three different additives, 4% of the products used at least ten additives. These were mainly frozen bakery goods and desserts (16%), fresh delicatessen products (15%), and ice creams and sorbets (12%).

By market segment, national brands had the most products without additives (27%), followed by retailers' own brands (21%), then budget products (20% of entry-level own-brand products and 19% of products from discount outlets).

Declining usage trends

The use of additives in processed products has declined overall over the period in question. Among the 20 categories for which trend data are available, the number of foods without additives has increased from 13.7% to 18.3% of products since the early 2010s.

This decrease in the use of additives can be seen in all market segments and for most product categories, particularly fresh delicatessen products (+13 points for products without additives). In addition, the number of different additives within the same product is falling.

However, among the 46 most commonly used additives, four are increasing: +2 points for carotenoids used as food colourings (E160a), +1 point for sodium carbonates (E500) used as raising agents, +0.4 points for pectins (E440) used as gelling agents, and +0.3 points for anthocyanins (E163) used as food colourings. In addition, the number of fruit puree products with additives has increased significantly (+10 points), mainly due to the use of antioxidants such as ascorbic acid.

Valuable data for better assessment of consumer exposure

This OQALI report, which contributes to the national monitoring of additive use in France, has been forwarded to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU body responsible for risk assessment of food additives.

All data are also made public, in order to contribute to health risk assessment and to the continuous improvement of food quality, by enabling improved characterisation of exposure to additives.

These results may later be reinforced with data on changes in other product categories, and extended to the confectionery sector, which uses colourings in particular.

Lastly, it will be useful to monitor the alternatives used by the food industry to replace food additives, whether through the use of new technological treatments, reduction of the product's shelf life, or substitution by other substances.