To modern consumers, it’s a no-brainer that chemicals like arsenic, lead and mercury should be nowhere near food. Such substances are incredibly harmful to humans, and selling products containing them can result in significant legal consequences. In the UK, companies using banned ingredients or found to be in violation of General Food Regulations 2004 can face an unlimited fine and up to two years in custody.
But travel back in time 2,000 years, and even the most learned of Roman society were drinking wine which had been sweetened with crystalline lead. And even as recently as the Industrial Revolution, food manufacturers were adding ingredients like copper arsenate, mercury sulphide and red and white lead to foods – often to give sweets colours that would appeal to children.
Throughout history, food producers have sought ways to make their food more appealing. Even before there was science to prove the matter, makers were adding colours, flavours and preservatives to ensure their food looked and tasted appealing. But as these historic examples prove, sometimes ingredients which were once perceived as harmless turned out to be anything but.
When it comes to restricted ingredients, in recent memory, the best example is the voluntary ban on additives campaign run by the FSA in the mid-to-late 2000s. The aim of the initiative was for food manufacturers, predominantly working in confectionery, to switch their use of potentially harmful colourings to more natural ingredients. The campaign was responsible for several classic British sweets being taking off market for a period of time, while R&D was conducted – of these, blue coloured Smarties are perhaps the best known. Their manufacturer, Nestlé, withdrew them whilst looking for a natural dye to replace the artificial hue – believed to cause hyperactivity – and eventually used spirulina to add blue to the sweets.
As science has progressed, experts have been able to steer food manufacturers away from dangerous food additives. And as a result of this knowledge, governments have legislated to ensure they stay off our plates.
Who decides if ingredients are banned?
Food safety concerns far predate our modern authorities – the Food Standards Agency (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), the European Food Safety Authority and Food Standards Scotland, were established in 2001, 2002 and 2015 respectively. Indeed, from around the time food additive usage exploded during the Industrial Revolution, scientists and food manufacturers have conducted tests to assure the safety of the ingredients used in food for public consumption.
In 2022, it is the FSA which calls most of the shots when it comes to legislating which foods are safe for human consumption (though the Health Minister has the final sign off on potential laws). This said, many of the UK’s food ingredient-related regulations are inherited from its time as a member of the EU.
“Since leaving the European Union, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland have taken on sole responsibility for assessing food and animal feed safety in the UK,” Professor Robin May, the FSA’s Chief Scientific Advisor, tells Food Matters Live. “To fulfil this enormous task, we have developed our own risk analysis process which responds to developments in technology and changes in consumer demand and ensures that food is safe and what it says it is.”
FSA: assessing food safety
Professor May says legislation is informed by a “strong, scientific, and evidence-based approach”. The FSA’s risk analysis framework is a three-step process:
- Risk assessment: this preliminary stage is conducted in consultation with external experts from the independent Scientific Advisory Committees and Joint Expert Groups. Risk assessments will generally be carried out on a four-nation basis, with capacity for nation-specific risk assessments where required, the FSA says.
- Risk management: following on from the risk assessment, risk managers will deliberate on how a risk should be controlled. In terms of food ingredients, they could consider a requirement for prominent on-pack labelling for products containing the ingredient, or a maximum limit to the usage of it, for example.
- Risk communication: this final stage is focused on sharing information on the risk itself and the management approach put in place with the public, businesses, and other stakeholders.
The truth about E-numbers
One of the most well-known events in the history of banned ingredients happened in the 1960s, with the creation of the European Union’s E-Number classification. Colloquially, many in Europe use the term ‘E-number’ as a derogatory reference to food additives – the implication often being that such ingredients are responsible for hyperactivity in children and contribute to unhealthy diets.
In reality, the E-number scale features all substances used as food additives – including those which occur naturally – and runs the gamut from colours and preservatives to antioxidants and glazing agents. The majority of substances on the list are suitable for human consumption – and are incredibly useful ingredients for food manufacturers.
However, there are some notable exceptions. The colour Red 2G (E-number E-128), for example, was banned by the EU and UK in 2007 following research which revealed it could interfere with the body’s haemoglobin and cause anaemia. It was most commonly used prior to its ban to impart a more appealing red colour to meat products and some beverages.
Other E-numbered chemicals are restricted, and products featuring them must come with a warning label which discloses their potential adverse effects. The most famous of these are the so-called ‘Southampton Six’ – named after the 2007 Southampton university study which revealed their potential to cause hyperactivity and inattention in children.
These artificial food colours are: tartrazine (E-102), quinoline yellow (E-104), sunset yellow FCF (E-110), carmoisine (E-122), ponceau 4R (E-124) and allura red (E-129). All six were used commonly before the Southampton study, particularly in sweets and soft drinks. In the years since, many food producers and retailers have voluntarily chosen to distance themselves from the ingredients – most likely because of negative public associations.
The multi-faceted challenges of food ingredient legislation
As with all law making, it is hard to ensure a blanket rule is applicable to all contexts. When it comes to food ingredients, situations are often complex. Because there is so much testing that goes into a decision either way, there are several ingredients which have high-profile discourse surrounding their safety.
One example are nitrates and nitrites (E-numbers 249-252). Nitrates and nitrites are used in certain cheeses and processed meats like ham and bacon. However their safety has been called into question often, with the results of several high profile studies suggesting the ingredients are carcinogenic in high enough doses, or can become according to how they are cooked and with what other compounds they are mixed with.
Another is titanium dioxide, a whitening ingredient recently banned in the EU because of its links to cancer. Though some scientific exploration unearthed these links, other studies suggest the levels currently ingested by consumers is not harmful. As a result, the UK has chosen not to follow the EU ban.
What ingredients are banned in the EU and UK?
These ingredients have been banned in the EU and UK and can no longer be used in food products sold in these regions.
Potassium bromate is a white powder which can be used to improve flour. In the US, where it is still legal, it is used to strengthen bread dough, which in turn allows for a higher rise. The substance is classified as a category 2B carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), meaning it is ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’. Alongside the EU and UK, it is also banned in Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, China and India, among others.
Olestra is a fat substitute often used in diet products because it adds no calories to products. The ingredient is banned for use in Europe and several other countries – and where it is still legal, it has largely fallen out of favour because of its side effects. Foods containing olestra can cause stomach cramping and other gastrointestinal problems.
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)
As its name suggests, brominated vegetable oil is a mixture of plant-derived compounds which have been reacted to contain atoms of the element bromine. In Europe and the UK, it is banned for use as a food additive. Elsewhere, including in countries like Canada and the US, it is used as an ingredient in soft drinks – most often for those containing citrus flavours, where it can stop fruit juice from separating and floating to the top of a drink.
High levels of bromine consumption can result in a condition called bromism, which is characterised by neurological symptoms like restlessness, confusion, hallucinations and psychosis, as well as skin rashes and gastrointestinal problems. Additionally, some scientists fear that long-term consumption of BVO could also cause nerve disorders.
Another additive which is used to augment flour, azodicarbonamide is most frequently found in ready meals, some pastas and pre-packaged baked goods. In food, it bleaches flour and is also used to produce bubbles in and strengthen dough. Elsewhere, the ingredient is also used in foamed plastics production, for items like yoga mats and trainer soles. It is banned in the EU, UK and Australia, because of its links to asthma and other respiratory problems.
Sudan dyes – also known sometimes as Azo dyes – are synthetic colouring chemicals which are often used to adulterate certain spices and foods to enhance their colour. Commonly affected foods include chilli powder, curry powder and products containing both. These chemicals are banned from use in food in the EU, as they are a known carcinogen.
Referred to as a ‘whitener’ titanium dioxide is often found as a white powder. It tends to be used in bakery products, confectionery, sauces and soups, and is also added to non food products like paint and sun cream. It has very recently been the subject of controversy, and the European Union removed authorisation to use the chemical in foods earlier this year. Titanium dioxide dust has been classed as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ by the IARC. The UK, however, has since decided not to follow the EU assessment, and authorises its use here.
The future of banned ingredients
With food scientists continuously testing food additives, there is a high likelihood that more ingredients will be added to the EU and UK’s list of banned foods in the future. As science advances, so too does our understanding of potentially dangerous chemicals used in food.
Though it may seem daunting, the FSA suggests it remains well-positioned to keep consumers safe from banned ingredients. It points to the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, as an example of its agility. Though this particular situation is thankfully rare, it nevertheless required an immediate emergency response from decision makers – to flatly ban all food imports from the affected area.
In the years since the accident, this ban has slowly been eased in line with declining nuclear impact in the area – up until late last year when the FSA launched a consultation to finally lift it altogether. The import control was scrapped entirely in June 2022 – the first issue to go through the FSA’s whole risk analysis since the authority took over full responsibility from the EFSA post-Brexit.
“There is often an element of uncertainty in both science and decision-making,” admits the FSA. Nevertheless, a range of tools are in the arsenal of authorities to ensure harmful food stays out of our mouths.