The “non-foods” we eat

17 Oct 2012

Additives: unwelcome guests
Many foods that end up on our plate are often technologically rich but poor in taste and nutritional value, the result of a food industry that prefers to offer processed products perceived as cheap and convenient, rather than whole foods free from unnatural ingredients and additives.
How much time do you spend reading labels when you go shopping? For most of us, the answer is (unfortunately) little or very little.
However, reading labels is one of the most important things we can do when choosing food product. Labels provide information on a product’s origin and producer and of course the ingredients, including additives – if you can find them hidden among the ingredients in small print. According to the official definition, an additive is “any substance not normally consumed as a food in itself and not normally used as a characteristic ingredient of food […], intentionally added to food for a technological purpose in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packaging, transport or storage of such food”.  width=
Among the many functions of additives, three are particularly relevant: to extend the product’s shelf life (preservatives, antioxidants), to facilitate processing (anti-caking agents) and to improve the product’s features (colorings, sweeteners, flavor enhancers).
Around 400 additives are currently permitted for use in food processing in the European Union. Each of these has been assigned a code beginning with the letter E followed by a three, or more rarely four, digit number.
With such a high number of additives in the food system, it is inevitable to wonder if and how these substances may damage our health. For each additive, an ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) has been defined. The value is expressed in milligrams of consumed preservative per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg). The higher the ADI value, the more likely it is that the additive is harmless; the lower the ADI value, the higher the likelihood that the substance is dangerous. The ADI may not be specified (no limits) if the additive is presumably safe, or not assigned if the additive is toxic even at low concentrations or if there is no sufficient data to determine whether it is toxic or not.

Fewer additives, more taste!
How can we protect ourselves from the excessive use of additives? Choosing organic products helps, however it does not solve the problem (50 additives are allowed in organic products, although almost all have a high or limitless ADI). We must learn to read labels, avoid products that typically contain a high number of additives (industrial sweets, candies, chewing gums, alcoholic and alcohol-free mixed drinks, sauces, ready-made meals) and favor fresh products. Fresh foods have the highest levels of nutritional, taste and health properties, while processed products drop significantly in all values. Furthermore, the use of additives to obtain a certain product means that the raw ingredients and/or processing and preserving processes used are of poor quality. Buying additive-free food is simply healthier and tastier!

At Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre the topic will be explored at the conference How Much “Non-Food” Do We Eat? on Saturday 27 at 12:00 am

M.Giannattasio, «Gli additivi alimentari: questi sconosciuti», published in Valore alimentare magazine, 30, 2010 M. Giannattasio and C. Rucabado Romero, Gli additivi alimentari: una guida, 2nd edition. Edizioni L’Aratro, Naples, 2010 (

To conclude, here you can find a list of additives with the lowest or non-specified ADI levels, which are therefore the most dangerous to our health.

Giorgia Cannarella

[email protected] 

Blog & news

Change the world through food

Learn how you can restore ecosystems, communities and your own health with our RegenerAction Toolkit.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Full name
Privacy Policy