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Additives in food: unnecessary or a good idea?

Additives are used to help jam spread easily, aerate bread and make certain products last longer. The use of additives is a good idea for most products and can be essential for product safety. This is because many additives prevent the multiplication of bacteria and fungi that are harmful to health. Find out everything you need to know about additives here.

What are additives?

Additives are also known as E numbers. The "E" stands for "Europe", and also for "edible". A lot of people think that additives are artificial. It's true that they can be produced using synthetic chemical substances or with the help of microorganisms. But there are also lots of additives that are derived from natural materials such as plant or animal substances. One example of these is pectins (E440), which are derived from the peel of apples or citrus fruits.
Lots of bees on a honeycomb
There are only a few E numbers that can be derived from animal substances alone. The following three additives are the only ones that are always of animal origin: true carmine (E120), beeswax (E901) and shellac (E904). Around 40 additives can be produced from either plant or animal substances, primarily emulsifiers derived from fatty acids. These help to bind ingredients that would usually repel each other, such as water and oil.
The European V label is used to denote vegan or vegetarian products
You can't tell from the E number whether the additive is of plant or animal origin. However, if a product is marked with the official V label, this guarantees that it contains only vegetarian or vegan additives. In all other cases the manufacturer can provide more information.

Food or additive?

Fresh tomatoes, onions and rosemary
Used as a seasoning, rosemary can give a product like a tomato-based sauce a distinctive flavour. In this case, it will be listed in the ingredients as rosemary. However, if rosemary extract has been used, this appears in the list of ingredients as "antioxidant (E 392)". This is because due to having been processed and used as an antioxidant, rosemary extract is an additive according to the Swiss Food Additives Ordinance. It can be used, for example, to prevent potato croquettes from turning brown.

Do additives pose a health risk?

Many people are wary of additives. They don't want to be eating "chemicals". Consumer organizations and experts also warn us of the supposed health risks posed by additives. However, these concerns are generally unfounded, because all additives are carefully checked before they are approved. E numbers are also re-tested regularly: if there is concern after a re-test that an E number may no longer be harmless to health, then it is banned. The Swiss Ordinance on Additives outlines which additives may be used in which foods. It also specifies the permitted quantities.

How to identify additives in food

A lady is standing in the supermarket and looking at the additives in a product
Additives are listed in the ingredients and are categorized according to their use. The category (e.g. antioxidant or acidifier) is always given. The manufacturer is free to decide whether to give the specific name of the additive (e.g. citric acid) or the E number (e.g. E330). Coop declares all additives with the corresponding E number.

Can additives cause allergies and intolerances?

A person is holding a glass of wine which contains sulphur to prevent discolouration and unwanted fermentation
Intolerances to additives can develop, but are rare. Allergic reactions to foods such as celery, nuts, milk or fish are much more common. If an additive is derived from declarable allergen such as egg, sulphur or a cereal containing gluten, the allergen must be listed: e.g. preservative (E1105 from egg white), preservative (E220 [sulphite]) or modified wheat starch (E1404).
Find out more on this topic in our article on "Certification & allergen labelling".

Additives in organic food

Even organic food may contain additives. The Swiss Organic Farming Ordinance outlines which additives may be used in organic foodstuffs. For Coop Naturaplan products, only E numbers that are essential for production, preservation, product quality and product safety are permitted.

Is glutamate harmful?

Glutamate is a constituent of protein which occurs naturally in many foods, for example in cheese or tomatoes. When added to food as a flavour enhancer, glutamate (E620 - E625) is absorbed and metabolized by the human body in the same way as naturally occurring glutamate, and converted into glutamine. Contrary to the widespread belief that glutamate could be harmful to health, it is harmless from a health perspective. However, the fact remains that in rare cases, large amounts of glutamate can lead to intolerance reactions among sensitive people.

Use of additives at Coop

Coop uses additives according to the philosophy, "As much as necessary, as little as possible". Coop has also defined over 50 E numbers that are undesirable in its own-label brands. These are additives that consumers are wary of due to perceived health risks, or which can lead to intolerances.
Coop does not use azodyes in its own-label brands. This is because it has been suggested they may promote hyperactivity in children. Coop also refrains from using additives containing aluminium in its own-label brands. Moreover, Coop avoids preservatives containing sulphites (E220 to E228) where possible.
Would you like to find out more about the information on product packaging? We have summarized all the important points for you in our "Food labelling" article.