Fewer additives means greater safety, higher quality and better taste
Carrefour has banned no fewer than 100 additives from the compositions of all of its own-brand products. Or how to reconcile the industrialised production of food for everyone, food safety requirements, nutritional quality and taste.
At Carrefour, we've been trying to cut out additives and questionable substance for a good thirty or so years now. As Cécile Gillard-Kaplan, Carrefour’s head of food safety, remembers: "When I started working at the company in 1998 in the quality department, we already had a complete list of additives that we did not use. In fact, suppliers found it tough working with us!” Twenty years later, Carrefour has managed to do away with 58 additives from its own-brand products.
Today, Carrefour, which tasks its suppliers with manufacturing its own-brand products and meticulously selects each ingredient and additive used in making them, is speeding up and bolstering its efforts: no fewer than 100 additives are now banned from its recipes. These include colouring agents, antioxidants, preservatives and texturing agents.
"Carrefour's aim has always been to be a market leader in terms of food quality, by manufacturing good, healthy and responsible products", Cécile Gillard-Kaplan reminds us. A key challenge at a time when the media and various associations are regularly reporting on the dangers to consumers' health that such and such an additive poses. And there is no consensus among scientific studies regarding the actual levels of risk that a particular substance poses.
One thing, however, is certain: more than ever before, consumers want natural products. A product's ingredients is now the main thing that they think about, while the Open Food Facts database and applications such as Yuka help them to read labels more easily, identify additives and take swipes at bad products.
But how can we do without additives? Admittedly, these often-questionable substances have no nutritional value, but when added to foodstuffs, they can improve their taste, texture and colour. They can also help them to keep for longer. But what exactly are their impacts? How do we make sense of them? What are the facts?
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has drawn up a list of 400 authorised additives. On food labels, they are either referenced with the letter E followed by the additive's code, or by its name in full. In both cases, the letter E or the additive's name is preceded by its purpose: colouring, preservative, antioxidant, texturing agent, etc.
They may be authorised, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not harmful. An additive can become suspicious if it is combined with one or several others. That's when we start talking about the "cocktail effect". And certain substances can, as new scientific studies are published, give rise to concerns.
What's the story with aspartame, for example? This artificial sweetener with a very high sweetening power (codified as E951) is authorised, but has been linked to various health problems, ranging from headaches to cancer. Information or speculation? In the absence of hard facts, Carrefour has decided to withdraw it from its recipes.
And what about nanoparticles, such as titanium dioxide (see 171)?“In 2016, we were warned by the "Act for the environment" association of the dangers that this possibly carcinogenic additive poses – one that is used to whiten or increase the shininess of sweets and certain ice creams”, says Cécile Gillard-Kaplan. Carrefour took action immediately: it was withdrawn from its food products.
"Each and every time, the precautionary principle prevails", adds Séverine Fountain, head of food quality at Carrefour. “As such, we are sometimes known to take action before new regulations are brought in". This was the case with titanium dioxide: Carrefour banned it in 2017, but the government has demanded that it be withdrawn from food products by the end of 2018 (although it is currently authorised in other European countries).
The fact still remains that withdrawing an additive is far from straightforward! "Finding alternative solutions is a long-term undertaking that we embark on alongside our suppliers", explains Séverine Fontaine. It’s possible to use fruit juice extract instead of colouring agents, but in other cases, we have to turn to new ingredients, or even other additives that don't have any impact".
Replaced colouring agents with fruit or vegetable juice extracts, and completely stopped using titanium dioxide – that's what Carrefour has done with Shiny’Acid firefly candy, for example – a sweet the composition of which was altered in June 2017 and which is now even better.
Glutamate, which is used in aperitif products, is an extremely complicated additive to replace. As are nitrites, which are used in ham, for example. Carrefour is currently working on reducing their use or even doing away with them altogether, but as well as being a preservative and a colour/flavour fixer, it is also an antimicrobial agent. This means that there may be risks involved in doing without it. Successfully reconciling the industrialised production of food for everyone, food safety requirements, nutritional quality and taste is a long-term aim. That's why, in addition to these 100 prohibited additives, Carrefour is currently working on doing away with or reducing the use of 31 additional additives.