Food additives are substances used in the food industry during the preparation, storage and marketing of food products. They perform certain functions such as, for example, coloring, sweetening or preserving.

Regulation (EC) no. 1333/2008 defines food additive "any substance usually not consumed as a food in itself and not used as a characteristic ingredient of food, with or without nutritional value, the intentional addition of which to food for a technological purpose in the manufacture, transformation, preparation, treatment, packaging, in the transport or storage of the same, has or can presumably have the effect that the substance or its by-products become, directly or indirectly, components of such foods'.

The use of additives originated in ancient times; in pre-industrial times, in fact, food preservation methods were already used such as, for example, the salting of meat and fish or the addition of lemon juice to fruit and vegetables to prevent them from becoming dark. These uses of additives were not, however, without risks: there were not rare cases of intoxication caused by the ingestion of food prepared by hand and not subjected to the necessary treatments to ensure its safety.

In recent times, following the technological evolution and the change in eating habits, the use of food additives has expanded considerably and the production, storage and distribution of food products can be achieved in very distant geographical areas thanks to their use.

In the European Union all food additives are identified by a number preceded by a letter AND and grouped according to their function:

  • E100-E199 (dyes, improve the appearance of various drinks and foods)
  • E200-E299 (preservatives, slow down or block the alterations caused by microorganisms)
  • E300-E399 (antioxidants and acidity regulators, prevent the rancidity of fats and the browning of fruit and vegetables)
  • E400-E499 (thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers)
  • E500-E599 (acidity regulators and anti-caking agents)
  • E600-E699 (flavor enhancers, enhance the flavor and fragrance of a product)
  • E900-E999 (various)
  • E1000-E1999 (substances that do not fall under the previous classifications)

Food additives, when present, must always be indicated among the food ingredients, as established by the rules of Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011.

Product labels must indicate the function performed by the additive (for example, colorant or preservative) followed by the specific substance used (for example E100 or curcumin). Curcumin on the label will therefore be indicated as "dye: curcumin" or "dye: E100”.

Whether or not additives are needed depends on the production process, the ingredients used, the final appearance to be obtained, the type of storage required, the need to protect food from any harmful bacteria, the type of packaging, etc.

In some food products, such as pasta, olive oil or honey, the use of additives is not allowed because it is not justified from a technological point of view.

In other foods their use is very limited. In unprocessed food products, such as milk or fresh fruit and vegetables, only certain additives are allowed.

The more a food is processed, the more the number of additives used increases: snacks, sauces and desserts are some of the products that require more processing, so the use of more food additives is allowed.

Many additives are of natural origin, others are of natural origin but are modified to optimize their properties, still others are additives produced in the laboratory (of synthesis). Additives of natural origin include nutrients important for health such as, for example, vitamin C, lycopene (E160d, present in tomatoes), anthocyanins (E163 abundant in berries), curcumin and pectin (E440) which it is also commonly used in domestic cooking.

Many foods contain natural substances which are, at the same time, authorized as food additives. For example, in apples can be found riboflavin (E 101), carotenes (E160a), anthocyanins (E163), acetic acid (E260), ascorbic acid (E300), citric acid (E330), tartaric acid (E334), succinic acid (E363), glutamic acid (E620) and L-cysteine ​​(E920).



All food additives currently used in the European Union (EU) have undergone safety assessments by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). They are included in the official EU list of approved food additives only if they are considered safe for human health. Furthermore, the safety assessments of these additives are periodically reviewed and updated to take into account any new scientific information that suggests a possible health risk. For example, at the request of EFSA, the dye Red 2G (E128) was withdrawn from the market in 2007 because new scientific evidence published at that time indicated that its use could pose a safety risk. In addition to being potentially carcinogenic, it could also cause damage to the genetic material of human cells.

In 2010, the European Commission asked EFSA to reassess the safety of all food additives authorized before 2019, taking into account the most recent scientific data. The review, which was initially set for 2020, is still ongoing. both for the delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic and, above all, for the enormous amount of information that needs to be processed and screened. The new assessments are published on the EFSA website as soon as they are approved by the "Panel on Food Additives and Flavorings (FAF)".

EFSA carries out three main activities:

  • carries out safety assessments of new food additives or proposed new uses for existing food additives, before it is authorized for use in the European Union (EU)
  • carries out the review of all food additives already admitted in the EU before 20 January 2009
  • responds to specific requests from the European Commission to review some food additives in the light of new scientific information and / or the changing conditions of employment

A food additive can only be authorized if:

  • it poses no security problems, for the health of consumers
  • there is a technical need for its use, which cannot be satisfied by other economically and technologically feasible means
  • its use does not mislead consumers

Furthermore, before being added to foods, additives must comply with certain purity requirements (have certain chemical-physical and microbiological characteristics) set out in Regulation (EU) no. 231/2012.

EFSA seeks to establish, where possible (when sufficient information is available), an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for each substance. The ADI is the amount of a substance that an individual can consume on a daily basis throughout his life without health risks. The ADI is usually expressed in milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day and can be applied to a specific additive but also to a group with similar properties. When reviewing already authorized additives, EFSA may confirm or amend an existing ADI, once all available evidence has been reviewed.

Effects on health

Effects on health

To date, research has not shown, in general, a correlation between the development of tumors and the consumption of additives in limited quantities. The exception, however, are nitrites and nitrates used as preservatives and to add color and flavor to meat and sausages. In fact, due to the modifications they can undergo inside the organism, they can convert into substances known as nitrosamines, some of which are carcinogenic.

Nitrites are used as preservatives because they are essential to prevent the development of potentially very dangerous microorganisms such as, for example, clostridium botulinum which causes botulism. The current legal regulations governing the use of nitrites as food additives allow their use, in small quantities, in foods where the risk to health deriving from a possible contamination by Botox is much greater than the risk of increasing the probability of appearance of a tumor.

Prolonged dietary intake of large amounts of nitrites is associated with an increased risk of developing stomach cancer and cancer of the esophagus. Therefore, foods containing potassium nitrite (E249), sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrate (E252) should be avoided or strongly reduced. They are mainly present in canned meat, sausages and processed meats. In their place, preservative-free meats and cured meats should be preferred or a diet rich in fruit and vegetables that contains antioxidants and vitamins, inhibitors of the formation of nitrosamines.

In general, it is important to follow some precautions to avoid buying products with a high content of additives:

  • read the label, so as to prefer foods with a low content of additives
  • check the price of food with too flashy colors, if it is cheap, artificial dyes have certainly been used
  • prefer fresh food, avoiding precooked and packaged foods in which the use of additives is often high


Ministry of Health. Food additives

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Food additives

World Health Organization (WHO). Food additives (English)

Italian Association for Cancer Research (AIRC). Do food additives and preservatives increase the risk of cancer?

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The risk assessment explained by EFSA: nitrites and nitrates added to food

European Commission. Questions and answers on food additives (English)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Overview of food ingredients, additives and colors (English)

In-depth link

In-depth link

Ministry of Health. National plan for food additives and flavorings for the years 2020-2024

Regulation (EC) n. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council on food additives (16 December 2008)

Regulation (EU) of the European Parliament and of the Council No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (25 October 2011)

Commission Regulation (EU) 231/2012 establishing the specifications of the food additives listed in Annexes II and III of Regulation (EC) no. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council (9 March 2012)

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