Food additives are commonplace in processed foods and beverages. These include dyes that affect the appearance of products, preservatives that extend shelf life, emulsifiers that improve texture, and sweeteners that aim to improve flavour.
In Europe, if a food additive is evaluated and deemed safe it receives an E number. While E numbers are also given to natural additives, growing consumer demand for ‘clean label’ products suggests shoppers believe E numbers are best avoided.
To investigate how consumers in Germany currently perceive and understand food additives, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) conducted a nationwide survey. And the results are in.
Food additive perceptions
Findings revealed that a majority of consumers in Germany have a negative perception of food additives.
Of the 1,015 representative sample of respondents in the survey, more than half (55%) said they try to avoid certain additives when buying food. Forty percent said the presence of additives does not influence their purchase decisions.
Flavour enhancers, sweeteners, and dyes were amongst the most avoided, with 84%, 69% and 64% of respondents saying they actively try to avoid these categories when shopping for food. A significant 60% said they look to avoid preservatives, and 43%, emulsifiers.
Conversely, some consumers try to consume certain additives. A total of 47% said they seek out vitamins, 25% try to consume minerals and trace elements, and 10%, proteins.
The BfR also asked which health risks consumers believe food additives pose. Naming up to three risks each, 27% of consumers noted intolerances, 26% responded cancer, 23% obesity, 17% diabetes, and 10% cardiovascular diseases.
Concerning specific additives, 33% of consumers said they were very concerned about monosodium glutamate (E 621), 24% were very concerned about aspartame (E 951), and 12% for lecithin (E 322).
Many people worry about possible health effects associated with the consumption of food additives, noted BfR President Professor Dr Andreas Hansel, who stressed such additives are proven to be safe.
“Food additives undergo rigorous assessments in Europe. They may only be used if their intended use is not linked to any health impairments.”
Understanding food additives
At the same time, Dr Andreas concluded shoppers ‘do not feel well informed about food additives’.
A significant 42% of consumers said they do not feel well informed at all about the labelling of additives on food, 49% do not feel well informed about the functions of additives, 58% about the health risks of additives, and 60% about the manufacturing process of food with additives.
The aspect people most felt informed about was the labelling of additives of food, yet less than a quarter (24%) feel this way.
Further, results indicated consumers are unfamiliar with specific food additives. While knowledge was strong for lactic acid (E 270) and carotene, 75% said they had never heard of titanium dioxide (E 171) before.
This is an interesting finding, given that after much contention, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) deemed titanium dioxide was ‘no longer considered safe’ as a food additive earlier this year.