To protect consumers from harm caused by food additives, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) in conjunction with the Ministry of Health regulates their use.
Before any food additive is used, the two regulatory bodies ensure that they do not introduce any known or unknown risk to the population.
Consequently, the government has made it mandatory for all companies seeking to introduce food additives to back approval requests by scientific studies proving the safety of the additives.
Mr Peter Mutua, Kebs Principal Standards Officer, notes that the regulation also involves ensuring that food additives are used in required amounts and in specific food products as recommended by the country’s national guidelines.
The law requires that manufacturers label their products and provide a list of all additives included. Some do that using names while others prefer to use a recognised numbering system to identify the additives.
For instance, citric acid may be written as E330, aspartame as E951, and nitrites as E249 or 250 on certain products originating from Europe.
The choice of labelling format may differ from country to country. For example, acetic acid is written as E260 on products sold in Europe but is simply known as additive 260 in some countries. It could also be referred to as INS 260 in other nations using the international numbering system.
Despite the differences in letter prefixes (E or INS) food additives numbers (figures) are similar. Products sold in Kenyan food stores comprise of these different labelling formats, as the country imports goods from various nations, a practice said to confuse to consumers.
To address this challenge, Mr Mutua notes that the country has adopted the CODEX Standards which are championed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). These guidelines are recognised and accepted globally in international trade.
Thus, Kenya’s food additives national standards and regulations are hinged on CODEX standards.
“This will help us to unify the labelling format of products in the country,” Mr Mutua says.
According to the CODEX standards, it is mandatory for manufacturers to include on the ingredients list, the name of each food additive used in their products (and not just give numbers).
“This is the best approach as it enables consumers to know exactly what’s in their food,” states Prof Symon Mahungu, a food science expert at Egerton University.
He adds: “But still, the public needs to be sensitised on various types of food additives so that they can make informed choices on what they consume.”
At a recently concluded conference on food additives, experts stressed the need for regular market surveillance by Kebs to ensure that Kenyans are not exposed to dangerous food additives by shrewd companies.
For instance, delegates were concerned that certain banned additives such as sodium cyclamate (also available as calcium cyclamate) – an artificial sweetener known to expose the bladder to cancer – can still be found in certain products in the country.
Another risky additive is sodium saccharin whose use is only limited to dietetic products.
Despite this, there’s evidence of its rampant use especially as a sweetener in processed juices. Laboratory studies have also linked it to the development of bladder cancer in rats.
Even though food additives included in the CODEX standards are approved for use, they are continuously monitored for safety. If any are found to be hazardous, then they are delisted.
Mr Mutua cautions against abuse of food additives – a problem facing Kenyans – such as using artificial food colours or flavours to camouflage the smell and appearance of expired food. “This is a serious offense with grave repercussions,” he says.
Mr Mutua notes that another challenge hampering the food additives industry is the limited research capability in Kenya.
“In most cases we rely on studies done by international bodies. But it would be good to do our own research so as to determine the effects of certain additives in our local settings.”
Mr Mutua adds: “Unwarranted negative publicity of food additives should also be discouraged since not all are harmful.”