30 September 2021

Sustainable additives support climate-friendly food production


The word “additives” grates in the ears of many consumers – almost 40% of us try to avoid additives in food. Therefore, researchers have been searching for more natural additives for years. And in recent years, the research has intensified as additives are an integral part of developing a climate-friendly food system. The University of Copenhagen will publish a report later in the autumn that gives an overview of the university’s research in this area.

Picture of food ingredients
Photo: Joanie Simon, Unsplash

Additives can be used to extend the shelf life of food, which consumers may not always see as a benefit. But it is this property that has enabled us to create a society where food can last long enough to be distributed through the retail trade system and does not have to be bought and consumed directly from the barn, farm or commercial kitchen. Extending the shelf life with the help of additives has therefore basically always been about preventing resource or food waste. However, many consumers associate additives, especially the classic E-numbered ones, with synthetically created substances that are often considered undesirable, even though today they have largely been replaced by natural or nature-identical additives. Many consumers would rather buy “clean label” foods that are made as simply as possible from natural ingredients.

“Therefore, in recent years, researchers have studied how to replace the classic additives with naturally produced ingredients, or how to use fermentation to create the same properties in the food,” says professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD) Mogens Larsen Andersen.

Beetroot juice can be an additive

For example, you can choose to colour a food with beetroot juice instead of using a chemical, E-numbered dye.

“Here, the beetroot juice can then be perceived as a common ingredient in the food, but in food industry context, it will still be an additive, because the sole purpose of the juice is to create a certain functionality in the food – in this case to give it colour. But it is then a question of “utilising a naturally colouring food,” explains Mogens Larsen Andersen.

Natural additives can also be made synthetically, but in that case, they are made nature-identical, which means that they are chemical compounds that already exist in nature.

Processed foods, including convenience food, can in many cases be produced exclusively using additives. 

Picture of research kitchen at UCPH FOOD
Research kitchen at UCPH FOOD. Foto: Claus Boesen

New food system with new requirements

New processing method such as the 3D printing of food as well as new types of raw materials, such as algae and new types of plant-based foods, require that you can control the texture, taste and other properties of the food in a new way, and this is typically done using additives.

“This requires that we get new natural additives and that we understand how they can be used in new types of food. The additives we know, natural or classic with E-numbers, do not necessarily have the known interactions when we add them to new types of plant-based foods, and that is what we have to grapple with right now,” says Mogens Larsen Andersen.

Many of the natural additives can be produced in a climate-friendly way, using residual products from food productions that would otherwise be used for animal feed or discarded.

“This could be, for example, proteins from side streams, which can be upgraded to create certain properties in new foods, including proteins that are extracted from blood from slaughterhouses,” says associate professor at UCPH FOOD, Jeanette Otte, who has collected material for the report.

“It could also include adding microorganisms that can be used to process food using fewer resources with a lower CO2 emission than if you use chemical reactions or heat treatment.” 

Climate friendly additives

“But in addition to extending the shelf life, additives are also traditionally used to create improved flavours, colours textures. That is what we need when we have to create new types of plant-based foods that, in addition to spoiling quickly, typically do not taste of as much as animal-based foods,” says Jeanette Otte

For example, this could be creating umami taste (meat taste) and kokumi (mouthfeel).

“These are two taste expressions that are important – both in terms of giving a greater satiety, but also adding extra flavour. Kokumi, for example, creates a good aftertaste and can sometimes enhance other flavours in the product and thus give a synergy effect,” explains Jeanette Otte.

Research is also being done to stabilise dyes, nutrients and microorganisms so that they become more stable in the food and possibly also when we eat the food.

The report was commissioned by Food & Bio Cluster Denmark under the auspices of Innovationskraft supported by the Danish Ministry for Higher Education and Science.