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Colourful, extended shelf life, and flavourful - What does the population think about food additives?

38/2021, 07.09.2021

The BfR publishes a special edition of the Consumer Monitor on the perception of food additives

Whether they are dyes or preservatives, emulsifiers or sweeteners - ingredient lists of sweets, beverages and other processed foods often contain food additives. A current, representative survey by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) shows: 55 percent of the population try to avoid additives when buying food. "Many people worry about possible health effects, at the same time, they do not feel well informed about food additives," says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Food additives undergo rigorous assessments in Europe. They may only be used if their intended use is not linked to any health impairments."

Link to the online PDF of the Consumer Monitor special on food additives

Link to the A-Z index of food additives

Additives are added to food for technological purposes. For example, dyes affect the appearance, emulsifiers the texture and sweeteners the taste of food - properties which most of the respondents of the study rate as being important or very important.

More than half try to avoid additives when buying food. For most of the respondents, the perceived health risk of additives is greater than the rated benefit - in particular, this applies to sweeteners, dyes and flavour enhancers (each more than 40%). Above all, possible intolerances as well as the promotion of cancer and obesity are risks that the respondents associate with food additives.

The results further show that the population rates their knowledge of food additives as low. On the one hand, people do not feel well informed, for example when it comes to the functions or possible health risks of food additives. On the other hand, the results show that even commonly used food additives are unknown to many. Over 40 percent of respondents each state they do not know the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate and the sweetener aspartame. Not all are aware of the primary functional group of individual food additives: Though the majority knows that carotene is used as dye, only about a quarter of respondents knows that lactic acid is mainly used as a preservative.

The term food additive is defined in Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008. According to which it is defined as a substance with or without nutritional value that is added to food for technological purposes. Food additives may only be used in the European Union if they have previously been approved. The prerequisite for this is that the substance is harmless to health for the intended use. Furthermore, there must be a technological need for the additive and consumers must not be misled by its use. A food additive approved in the EU is given an E number and must be specified in the list of ingredients.

About the BfR Consumer Monitor

Whether antimicrobial resistance, microplastics, salmonella or aluminium in foods - which health risks do the population know about and what is it that worries them? The BfR Consumer Monitor, a representative population survey that has been conducted regularly since 2014, provides answers to these and other questions. To this end, around 1,000 people living in private households in Germany take part in telephone interviews conducted on behalf of the BfR. Furthermore, the BfR conducts representative surveys on individual topics of particular current interest, such as tattoos, e-cigarettes, superfoods or food additives.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. The BfR advises the Federal Government and the States ('Laender') on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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