For millennia man has found it necessary to add a range of substances to food to preserve or to improve its organoleptic (taste, appearance or smell) properties. Early man used salt and smoke to preserve meats and the use of food colours can be traced to the Ancient Egyptian civilisation over 3000 years ago. Today, food additives are used in the manufacture and storage of most processed foods and supplements.
A food additive is now defined as any substance not normally consumed as a food, or as an ingredient in food, which is deliberately added to a food for a technological or organoleptic purpose at any stage of the manufacture, packaging, storage or transportation of a food. A food additive does not necessarily have a nutritive value.
Contaminants such as heavy metals or pesticides are not considered to be additives, neither are substances added solely for the nutritional enhancement of a food. Some substances can have more than one function in a food, in which case the primary purpose for their use defines their functional category. For example, ascorbic acid can have a number of technological functions as a food additive, by acting as an antioxidant, a colour preservative in meat and as an aid in the manufacture of bread. Ascorbic acid is also vitamin C, which is added to fortified foods and drinks and supplements as a nutrient source. Similarly, riboflavin (vitamin B2) can be added as an approved colour or as a vitamin source.Controversy
During the second half of the 20th century there was considerable controversy over the use of additives in food. This was particularly the case in Europe, where a number of pressure groups were formed to lobby for tighter control on the use of additives, especially in foods aimed at young children.
In 1963, the Codex Alimentarius Commission was formed as the result of a joint initiative between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The main objective of Codex Alimentarius was to develop internationally accepted standards for all the scientific aspects of food. To achieve this, a number of specialised Committees were formed to discuss and agree the scientific and technical details. One of these committees was the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants, which first met in 1968. Due to a rapidly increasing work-load, this committee was split in 2006 into the Codex Committee on Food Additives (CCFA) and the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods (CCCF).
The CCFA, which is now hosted by the government of China, has the remit to cover all aspects of additives in food, including the assessment of maximum levels of use in the different types of food and to determine the categories of food which are permitted to contain additives. In determining the maximum safety levels for additives the CCFA is assisted by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the FAO and WHO (JECFA). This committee is composed of international scientific experts selected for their expertise on the toxicology and safety of food additives. JECFA is now required to assess the safety of all new food additives and to re-assess the safety of existing food additives if new data becomes available. Following their assessment of all the available toxicity data for a substance, JECFA determines the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) value for the substance when used in food. The ADI is reported as milligrams of the substance ingested per kilogram of body weight per day. The internationally accepted body weight for an adult human for reference purposes is 60kg (132lb). Therefore, if the ADI is assessed at 1mg/kg body weight/day, the maximum adult intake would be 60mg/day. The ADI is used by the CCFA working groups to assess the maximum levels of use that can be allocated to the different food categories. At present there are 16 main food categories but many have a number of sub-categories. Supplements are a sub-category of food for special nutritional uses.
In addition to developing the ADI for the additives, JECFA will also provide the chemical and physical specification of the substance on which the evaluation was carried out.Essential additives?
The technological need for an additive in any of the sub-categories has to be justified by the industry, who are required to demonstrate that the use of the additive is essential. The industry submission should also indicate the lowest levels of use of the additive that will achieve the required technological effect. Consumption information on the food or food product is also an essential component as it is important to know the expected frequency of consumption and daily intake of the food. For example, a staple food may be consumed more than once a day whereas a particular type of dessert may be consumed infrequently.
Once the ADI, product usage and consumption patterns are available, working parties set up by the CCFA have to calculate the maximum permitted levels for each food sub-category, with the objective of ensuring that the ADI is not significantly exceeded by the population consuming a number of food categories as part of their normal daily diet. The large variations in the dietary habits of populations across the world introduce an additional complexity to the exercise. The proposed permitted uses and maximum levels of use are referred by the working group to the CCFA where they are discussed by the member countries which are represented on the committee. Expert advice is also available at the CCFA meetings from non-governmental observers representing the different sectors of the industry. Once the permitted usages and levels have been agreed by the CCFA the details are sent to the Codex Alimentarius Commission for ratification.Permitted uses
One of the other essential functions of the CCFA is to develop and maintain the General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA). This is the compendium of all the adopted permitted uses and maximum levels and covers all the categories and sub-categories of food. The GSFA is very important in international trade and is increasingly being used by many countries as the basis for their national legislation on food additives. It can be anticipated that over the next decade or so most of the food additive legislation across the world will be based, at least to some degree, on the details of the GSFA. This means that the CCFA is already having a considerable influence not only on international trade in food products but also on the politics surrounding the use of certain additives, such as colours, in foods.Permitted uses
All companies manufacturing food products, food ingredients and food additives will need to keep themselves up to date with the decisions made by the CCFA, particularly if the company is involved in international trade. Codex standards are now the official references in cases of arbitration on disputes brought to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and will have an increasing influence on the international trade in food products.
Peter Berry Ottaway is IADSA technical adviser. IADSA is the leading international expert association regarding the globalisation of food supplement markets and increasing regulatory challenges. Bringing together food supplement associations from six continents, IADSA aims to build an international platform for debate and a sound legislative and political environment for the development of the food supplement sector worldwide.
For further information, visit: www.iadsa.org