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Food Additives and Ingredients

As we know, food additives are not a modern invention. People have always needed to preserve food after the harvest so they have things to eat during the winter. Salt and smoke have been used to preserve food since early times. And then there is the desire to make food look and taste better. Ancient Egyptians used colours and flavourings in their foods, while the Romans used spices and saltpetre as well as colourings. Many of these additives were expensive, and only the rich were able to afford them.

Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavor or enhance its taste and appearance. Some additives have been used for centuries; for example, preserving food by pickling (with vinegar), salting, as with bacon, preserving sweets or using sulfur dioxide as in some wines. With the advent of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, many more additives have been introduced, of both natural and artificial origin.

In the past century, new additives have been discovered and invented that can be used to improve food products at relatively low cost. The first of these included colours in cheese, emulsifiers in margarine, baking powder in cake mixes and gelling agents in jams. The past 40 or so years have seen dramatic developments in food science and technology, along with a substantial increase in the use of food additives. The food industry can now make a huge variety of products, with good and uniform quality, which are sold at reasonable prices.

Food additives and changing lifestyles

Our way of life has changed dramatically in the past few decades, with the busier lives we lead meaning we spend less time in the kitchen.

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Why are food additives used?

To maintain a food’s nutritional quality, for example by preventing vitamins, essential amino acids and unsaturated fats from degrading.

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E – Numbering

To regulate these additives, and inform consumers, each additive is assigned a unique number, termed as “E numbers”, which is used in Europe.

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    Food Additives and Ingredients

    The term ‘food intolerance’ generally refers to any abnormal reactions some people may have to certain foods. These can include migraine headaches, diarrhea, respiratory problems and skin rashes.

    Intolerance to foods such as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish and wheat is surprisingly common, and may affect as many as one-in-30 of the adult population. In contrast, one of the most extensive and reliable investigations into food additive intolerance, carried out by a regional health authority in the UK,1 found that only three out of 18,000 subjects were found to have a food additive intolerance.
    This finding confirms an earlier estimate by experts at the European Commission2 on sensitivity to food components and additives. In adults, food additive intolerance appears to affect only a very small proportion of the population.

    It has been suggested that any intolerance to additives that does exist could be related not only to the sensitivity of the person but also to the level of consumption. If this is the case, then it might be expected that susceptible children with a low tolerance threshold might react adversely to the foods they enjoy, such as sweets, snacks or soft drinks.

    Removing or substituting additives is likely to create more problems than it solves. For example, if preservatives and antioxidants are not used, health risks are likely to arise.

    There is also a common misconception that just because an ingredient is ‘natural’ it is automatically safe. However, it has been known for many years that some natural substances can cause intolerance. Indeed, in the UK study two out of the three cases of intolerance were actually caused by a natural ingredient.

    While intolerance to additives certainly exists, it is part of a much wider problem of intolerance to foods in general. The greatest safeguard that people with an intolerance of any kind can have is accurate information about precisely what affects them. Accurate information on the composition of food products is essential so that the problem ingredients can be avoided. Labeling plays an important role in this.