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This article was first published by IEG Policy  on May 29, 2019.

ANALYSIS

For the past few years, ever more European industries have been following the ‘clean label trend’, in response to consumers’ demand for more natural and authentic foodstuffs. This approach focuses, in particular, on the declaration of ingredients, to make it as clear and as natural as possible for the final consumer.

The food information to consumers Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 requires any prepacked food to carry a list of ingredients. Any substance used in the manufacture or preparation of a foodstuff must be designated by its specific name, i.e. its legal name, or, if that does not exist, its customary name, or, in the absence of such name, a descriptive name.

Food additives, explicitly considered as ingredients by the FIC Regulation, are subject to specific technical rules. They must be labelled by the name of the category corresponding to the principal function they exert in the foodstuff, followed by their specific name or E number – for instance: ‘antioxidant: acid citric’ or ‘antioxidant: E 330’.

Within the EU, a food additive is defined in Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 by three cumulative requirements. It is added to another food to perform a technological function in it (such as preservative, colouring, anti-caking etc), it is expected to become one of its components, and most importantly, a food additive is “any substance not normally consumed as a food in itself and not normally used as a characteristic ingredient of food”.

Importantly, only food additives authorized and included in the EU list of food additives may be used as ingredients of other foods, in compliance with specifications laid down in Commission Regulation (EU) No 231/2012.

Determining the legal status of a given substance – whether it is a common ingredient or a food additive – is crucial for food business operators, considering the consequences on legal conditions of use and final labelling.

At the same time, since the food additive definition requires three cumulative requirements, one way to make them disappear from a list of ingredients is to replace them with food ingredients able to perform the same technological function. For instance, lime juice can be used to avoid cut fruits from turning brown, instead of as citric acid – E 330 as antioxidant.

However, in practice, this task is far from easy. Even if recital (5) of the food additive Regulation does not fall within the scope of the food additives Regulation, it also adds that “preparation obtained from foods and other natural source material, that are intended to have a technological effect in the final food and which are obtained by selective extraction of constituents (e.g. pigments) should be considered as food additives”.

In this context, the border between food ingredients with technological properties and food additives is far from clear: to what extend can an ingredient be processed to be still considered as “normally consumed as food”?

Whereas lime juice could obviously be considered as a characteristic ingredient of food, but also as a citric acid and thus as a food additive (E330), the use of a concentrated lime juice can easily be considered a grey area.

SCOPAFF’s recent statement of 18 September 2018 did not make things clearer. It considered that any use of extracts of vegetal origin which, when added to foods, achieve a level of constituents (or their precursors) capable of performing a technological function, were deemed to be a deliberate use of food additives, with all legal consequences applicable.

Even while SCOPAFF’s opinions are not legaly binding, in practice it serves as guidance for national control authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis the legal status of individual products. In this context and taking into account the high risk of being challenged for misleading labelling, food business operators must, more than ever, secure the legal positioning of the ingredients used for technological purpose, to prevent them from falling within the food additive legislation.