Consumers have come to expect that the food they choose from the supermarket shelves will stay fresher for longer. But as the market becomes more aware of the role of nutrition in health and well-being, there is concern about the potential risk posed by preservatives and other additives. Jim Banks speaks to Michelle Maynard, executive director at the Food Additives & Ingredients Association, about the possibility of reducing the use of chemicals while still keeping food fresh.

When food is spoiled and becomes unsafe to eat, it is usually the result of oxidation, which is why the food industry has invested heavily over the years in developing preservatives to increase shelf life and, therefore, convenience. Without additives, what we eat today would look and taste very different. In fact, many of the products we take for granted wouldn’t exist. Additives can even be found in organic products, and some are naturally occurring.

The scientific endeavour that has led to the use of widespread use of preservatives has certainly been successful, but all food additives have come under intense scrutiny as consumers become more attentive to nutrition and look more closely at what they put into their bodies.

This increased awareness of the impact of food on well-being is certainly a good step forward in terms of public health issues, but there are questions over whether it is right to see preservatives and additives in general as harmful. Concerns over additives in food are certainly the dream of headline writers wanting an alarming story about the dangers of food, but beyond its power to sell newspapers, is their concern really justified?

Fear of chemicals

“If there were any concerns, they would probably be along the lines of a general fear of ‘chemicals in food’,” says Michelle Maynard, executive director at Food Additives & Ingredients Association (FAIA).

“However, this does not seem to affect the buying patterns of most consumers, as the majority seem to accept that additives and preservatives are a fact of life.

“Scaremongering in the media, usually fuelled by ignorance of facts and science, obviously isn’t helpful. There may also be a perception that the food industry uses chemicals to sell cheaper foods, with less nutritional benefit – neither of which is true. Is it justified? Absolutely not. There isn’t a specific target. Consumers tend to view all additives equally.

“Concerns over a range of additives are mostly without foundation. The public realises that preservatives play a role in some products though none of the concern is justified, based on a robust regulatory system, regular review of the science, and the amount of data required pre-approval – not to mention case-of-need.”

FAIA works to promote a better understanding of the role of food additives and functional food ingredients in a healthy and safe diet. It represents UK-based manufacturers of these ingredients, providing not only a voice for the industry, but also technical and scientific resources to further the understanding of additives in the food chain. Maynard is also executive secretary for the Council for Responsible Nutrition UK, which is a non-profit trade association that represents companies in the food supplement industry. It was responsible for the production of the first industry review of the safety of vitamins and minerals and the first food supplement sector GMP guide.

“The key role of FAIA is to support member companies in the uncharted waters of future food and ingredient legislation in the wake of Brexit,” explains Maynard. “Another key activity is the production of a consumer attitudes survey every six months. This indicates that unprompted concern with regard to additives has been coming steadily down over the years.”

Behind the headlines

Food additives are not a new phenomenon. Flavourings and colourings have been used by human civilisations for thousands of years, as have preservatives. Saltpetre, for instance, was used at the time of the Roman Empire, and its modern-day derivative – nitrite – is still in use today.

In the modern world, the need for preservatives has grown due to a change in the lifestyles of consumers in developed countries, where there is less likelihood that food will be bought raw and cooked from fresh ingredients.

We rely less on local butchers and bakers and more on meals and ingredients that can be stored for longer and prepared more quickly. Advances in food technology have made this possible, and preservatives are one of the key pillars of its contribution to the diet of a busy, modern and increasingly urbanised population.

Though there are many stories in the press about concern among consumers over chemicals in food, the most recent Biannual Public Attitudes Tracker published by the Food Standards Agency in May, 2017, shows that although food additives are the fourth highest area of concern – after food hygiene when eating out, chemical contaminants such as lead in food, and food poisoning – it is gradually declining in importance for consumers.

“Concerns over additives definitely come down to a lack of understanding, although the necessary information is out there,” says Maynard. “FAIA educates consumers, as does the food industry. In general, additives are not used unnecessarily. So, in this context, concerns are unjustified. All permitted additives are assessed for safety before being approved, so there is absolutely no reason for consumers to be concerned about their use.

“The difference between ingredients and additives is subtle – all ingredients are 'chemical' – and there is little difference from a toxicological, safety and regulatory perspective between naturally occurring and human-made molecules.”

It is a positive sign that more consumers are considering carefully what goes into the food they eat. They should be concerned about food safety – just as the industry is – and they should be informed about what constitutes a healthy diet for their individual lifestyles, but raising unnecessary concerns could be detrimental to their efforts to eat better and feel healthier.

One key reason why preservatives should not be so high on the agenda when assessing risk, according to Maynard, is that there is a lack of viable alternatives that can perform as well in terms of extending shelf life.

While a lot of work has been done by the food industry to formulate products that can remain edible for as long as possible but with a reduction in the need to rely on chemical additives, there have been relatively few successes.

Preventing spoilage means targeting every stage of the food production at which a risk might arise – harvest, slaughter or manufacture – and there are many preservation techniques that can be used to inhibit microbial growth – from chilling and freezing to curing and vacuum packing – but the addition of preservatives plays a big role.

Newer techniques for the inactivation of microbial growth such as ultra-high pressure, electroporation and the addition of bacteriolytic enzymes are unlikely to change this in the near future.

“The food industry is continually looking at ways to achieve less reliance on chemical additives, but often without success,” says Maynard. “However, preservatives are needed to maintain a complex supply chain that can be vulnerable. Work in this area is ongoing. Some progress has been made, but it is generally difficult to find alternatives to match the effectiveness of additives and preservatives.

“It is difficult to see how most of today’s food products could continue to exist without preservatives. To do so may mean more so-called ‘natural’ products but with a drastically reduced shelf life. What people may also not realise is that preservatives and chemicals add to the cost of a product and, therefore, food manufacturers already use the minimum amount necessary to achieve the required effect.

“The EU-permitted maximum levels take the safe level into account and ensure that it is not exceeded, particularly by vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. There are very few, if any, benefits from efforts to reduce the use of preservatives further. Shelf life would ultimately be much shorter, and that would not be of benefit to consumers.”

The regulatory regime governing food additives is very stringent. Most additives are only permitted to be used in certain foods and are subject to specific quantitative limits, and the focus of regulation is to protect consumers from any potentially harmful effects of chemicals in food.

The food industry is well aware of the regulatory requirements and has a good track record of compliance, but there remains a vocal minority of consumers who feel that the risks of additives outweigh the benefits.

Educational role

The challenge for the industry, therefore, is to work hard to inform and educate consumers about the safety of preservatives and the role they play in delivering a wide range of fresh food with extended shelf life. Surveys show that concern among consumers is steadily declining over time, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.

“Educating consumers is incredibly important and FAIA plays a major role in that,” says Maynard. “It is important that consumers have clear information in order to be able to make an informed choice. In the FSA tracker surveys, between 44 and 52% of consumers have no concerns about food on any level, and spontaneous concerns about ‘additives and preservatives’ tend to hover at just under 10%.

“FAIA does not have a direct role in the formulation of new products. As an association, it keeps members updated with regulatory requirements, which may occasionally lead to member companies having to reformulate certain products. The food industry’s priority has always been to deliver safe, nutritious food, accessible to everyone – and that includes confectionery, ice cream, soft drinks and food-on-the-go.

Additives and ingredients facilitate this priority and help fuel innovation. Scaring people about additives and ingredients that are safe to use could well be one of the biggest risks to innovation in the sector. Consumer understanding is a key goal for FAIA and always has been.”

The subject of health and nutrition can be divisive. That the topic has been brought more into the spotlight has been a major step forward in recent years and it has caused more people to think about whether they eat food that is good for them, or simply choose a diet based on convenience. It is interesting, however, that the major cause for concern at the moment is the presence of a ‘natural’ ingredient – sugar – in the food we consume.

The UK Government is among those seeking to regulate the content of sugar in food, but preservatives and other additives already have a strict regulatory regime that is there to promote food safety, so perhaps it is time to reframe the debate about health, nutrition and additives.