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The science of nutrition and healthy eating
The science of nutrition and healthy eating

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5 Food additives

Certain chemical additives in food are permitted. These are also listed in the ingredients. Table 1 shows why permitted additives are included in foods.

Table 1 Effects of food additives
Additive Effect
Colouring Improves the appearance of the food.
Flavouring Improves the taste of the food.
Sweetener Makes the food taste sweeter – artificial sweeteners are used to sweeten ‘diet’ foods.
Emulsifier Stabilises mixtures containing oil and water.
Preservative Stops the growth of microbes – such as bacteria or moulds– in food, giving it a longer ‘shelf life’.
Antioxidant Stops chemical reactions in food that make it go stale.

Food additives that have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority are given E numbers (the ‘E’ stands for Europe). Some additives are natural and some are artificial. Vitamin C has the number E300 and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is E101, so it is not necessarily good to have a food that is free of all E numbers.

There may be health hazards linked to some food additives. The most widely known link is between certain food colourings and hyperactivity in children. However, the precise mechanism of that link is not understood. Similarly, there appear to be links between the increased inclusion of additives in food and an increase in childhood asthma and other medical conditions. Research into whether there is a direct causal link continues.

You can find out more information about food labelling and packaging [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] on the Gov.UK website (, 2018).