Many consumers wrongly associate additives and E-numbers with artificial products obtained by chemical synthesis. In turn, the term “chemical” is unfairly demonized, by associating it with substances that are not beneficial or even harmful to health. These beliefs are largely motivated by a lack of rigorous consumer information and reinforced by advertising campaigns that offer a distorted view of additives and chemical products. Throughout this article, we will try to clarify these misconceptions about chemistry and additives by providing a little information that will help to understand them better.
Let’s start with chemistry! One of the most recent definitions would be the one proposed by Professor Raymond Chang, who says that chemistry is “the study of matter and the changes involved”. Food is made up of different ingredients and these in turn are made up of different components. For example, the most basic of ingredients, water, is made up of millions of simpler molecules composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The more complex an ingredient is, the more components its molecules will have. And this scheme happens in all living beings, where the union of small units – cells – eventually gives rise to a complete individual. Chemistry is therefore in charge of studying how all these small components come together and arrange themselves to develop themselves into other more complex ones. In other words, everything is and we are all… chemistry. There is therefore nothing negative in the term and everything, both the natural and the artificial, the living and the inert, is explained and ordered through chemistry.
Now it is the turn of additives. A food additive is a substance that a priori does not form part of the ingredients of a food and is added to it for a technological purpose. For example, colorings are added to improve the color of products and make them more palatable, and preservatives are added to protect foods against pathogenic and/or spoilage bacteria and to make them safe and longer lasting. Additives can be of natural origin, i.e. obtained as they are found in nature, or obtained by artificial synthesis.
Among the additives we find what are called hydrocolloids. Hydrocolloids are substances with a high affinity for water, that are added to food mainly to achieve effects on texture, and how the food behaves under various conditions such as baking and freezing/thawing. One example is locust bean gum, which is added to ice cream to prevent formation of water crystals during freezing so then the food remains creamy when eaten, and also it melts slowly and gradually when thawed.
Below we explain the origin and method of obtaining some of the most commonly used hydrocolloids in food:
- Agar (E 406), Carrageenan (E 407) and Alginate (E 401) are obtained from different species of algae. These compounds are found inside the algae. During the manufacturing process, they are extracted from the body of the seaweed by a treatment that dissolves them in water. The water is then removed by freezing, pressing and drying.
- Locust bean gum (E 410), Tara gum (E 417) and Guar gum (E 412) are obtained from the endosperm of legumes. To obtain them, the outer husk and the germ are removed and the endosperm is milled. The flour obtained is subjected to an extraction and filtration process to purify the gums and eliminate the rest of the endosperm components.
- Xanthan gum (E 415) and Gellan gum (E 418). They are obtained by bacterial synthesis, like antibiotics. The bacteria are fed on sugars that ferment and, as a result of this fermentation, secrete other metabolites, including these hydrocolloids, which are then separated from the growth medium and purified.
- Konjac gum (E 425) is obtained from the root of the Konjac tree. It is washed and ground to obtain Konjac flour from which the starch is removed and then dried and ground again.
- Pectin (E 440) is obtained from the peel of fruits, mainly citrus and apple. To obtain it, the pectin contained in the cell wall of the fruit peel is extracted and then subjected to purification processes to separate it from the rest of the components.
The products obtained in all these cases are of 100% natural origin. All of them are also authorized as food additives and therefore have an E number. The E number of an additive, therefore, does not indicate anything about its more or less natural origin, but is a guarantee that this substance complies with the legal requirements to be used safely in food production.