Additives are substances added to food to confer functions such as colour or to improve shelf life.
Over the years there have been many anecdotal claims of symptoms caused by food additives. Many of these have not been substantiated. As this debate extends beyond allergy, we recommend you visit the Food Standards Agency website: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/food-additives
Allergic reactions to additives may occur if the additive is of natural origin. For example, there have been a few reports from allergy clinics of allergic reactions to annatto, a natural colour extracted from a seed. Furthermore, the medical literature contains reports of allergic reactions to cochineal, a colouring derived from the dried bodies of cochineal insects. We are aware of a case where an allergic reaction occurred to a red velvet cupcake coloured with cochineal.
Non-allergic symptoms to additives could come under the heading of food intolerance, or there may be some other mechanism responsible. As stated above, many anecdotal claims are unsubstantiated.
Legislation ensures that additives must be clearly labelled. All additives must have an E number. Additives allocated an E-number must be declared in ingredient lists as the functionality followed by either the E-number or the chemical name (e.g. “Preservative: E210” or “Preservative: sodium benzoate).
If you believe you are suffering symptoms triggered by additives, you should seek medical advice.
Sulphite sensitivity: Sensitivity to sulphites certainly does exist. Sulphites are preservatives added to food and drinks to extend shelf life. The term “sulphites” is a general term for a group of chemicals including sulphur dioxide and sodium or potassium metabisulphite. In sensitive people, sulphites can cause unpleasant symptoms including lung irritation and asthma. See our separate fact sheet on sulphite sensitivity. (Note to comms dept – please include link to sulphites fact sheet).
Key message: Any adverse symptoms believed to have been caused by food should be reported to your GP at first instance.
This article has been reviewed by Dr Isabel Skypala, Clinical Lead for Food Allergy, Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.
All the information we produce is evidence based or follows expert opinion and is checked by our clinical and research reviewers. If you wish to know the sources we used in producing any of our information products, please let us know, and we will gladly supply details.
Publication date: March 2020
Review date: March 2023