The term ‘food additive’ makes us think of scientists in white coats adding chemicals to our food, perhaps unnecessarily. So what exactly are manufacturers and food processors putting into our food? And should we be worried? Senior nutritionist Rose Carr investigates.
What are food additives?
The main reasons manufacturers use food additives are to slow food spoilage and keep food safe to eat, to help with processing, or to improve the flavour or appearance of food. All food ingredients, including any additives, must be listed on the food label. They will be listed by their class name (such as colour or thickener) followed by either the additive name or code number in parentheses. For example: Thickener (415) or Thickener (Xanthan gum). To find out what additive a code number is referring to, or the number for an additive, go to www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/additives.cfm.
Preservatives are used to keep food fresh and prevent spoilage by mould, bacteria and yeast. Some names or numbers you might recognise are: sodium benzoate (211), calcium propionate (282), sodium nitrate(251), calcium sorbate (203) and potassium sorbate (202).
Ingredient spotlight: Sodium nitrate
What does it do? Nitrates and nitrites are commonly used as a preservative in cured meats, such as bacon and ham, to prevent botulism and maintain the colour of the meats. They are also commonly used in cheese processing.
What to look for on the label: Preservative (251) or preservative (sodium nitrate). Other nitrates and nitrites include potassium nitrite (249), sodium nitrite (250), and potassium nitrate (252).
Is it safe? There is some concern that nitrates and nitrites, from any source, may be involved in the possible development of cancer. Vegetables, however, are the biggest source of nitrates and nitrites in our diet and we know vegetables are good for us. The contribution of nitrates and nitrites from processed foods is small and there is currently no evidence that these preservatives pose a health risk.
This does not mean, however, that processed meats are recommended. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) advises us to avoid processed meats because of their link with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Although the link is clear, the specific reason for the link is not. Higher consumption of processed meats is also linked to higher incidence of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Our advice: Limit processed meats in your diet, including meats containing nitrates.
Flavour enhancers are used to improve the taste of the food. Some names or numbers you might see: monopotassium L-glutamate (622), calcium glutamate (623), monoammonium L-glutamate (624), glycine (640) and L-leucine (641).
Ingredient spotlight: Monosodium L-glutamate or MSG
What does it do? MSG has a unique flavour, which is a savouriness known as ‘umami’. Adding MSG brings out the flavour of foods.
What to look for on a label: Flavour enhancer (621), Monosodium L-glutamate (621) or MSG (621).
Is it safe? For the vast majority of people, MSG is entirely safe. The main component of MSG is an amino acid called ‘glutamic acid’ or ‘glutamate’, which is found naturally in meat, mushrooms, cheese and tomatoes. There is a very small number of people intolerant to MSG and it can cause an adverse reaction for them. If you believe you are one of those people, you should avoid MSG and possibly the other glutamates (622, 623, 624, 625). Keep in mind that MSG is permitted to be added to freshly-prepared restaurant food, so if you are concerned ask whether MSG or other glutamates have been added to the meal or if they are present in any of the ingredients.
Our advice: Most of us don’t need to worry about MSG, but if you think you’re sensitive to it, avoid MSG and other glutamates.
Colours are used to make foods look more appealing. They can help identify flavours, make food look brighter or restore colour lost during processing. Some approved colours are synthetic, but there are also natural colours, mainly derived from plants. Chlorophyll provides green colouring, carotenoids give red to yellow, and flavanoids – some of which are from red grapes and beetroot – provide red to blue colours. Some names or numbers you might notice: curcumin or turmeric (100), chlorophyll (140), caramel 1 (150a), carotene (160a), beet red (162), anthocyanins or grape skin extract or blackcurrant extract (163), saffron or crocetin or crocin (164), tartrazine (102), sunset yellow FCF (110) or brilliant blue FCF (133).
Ingredient spotlight: Cochineal
What does it do? Colours food red.
What to look for on a label: Cochineal, carmines or carminic acid (120).
Is it safe? While it’s true food colours attract controversy (see box, right), all food colours approved by FSANZ for use in Australia have been found to be safe when used within the specified amounts. Cochineal is a natural colour, derived from a small insect native to South America.
Our advice: The colourings in use in Australia are safe. However, they are not a necessary additive, and there are products available without added colourings if you choose to avoid them.
These additives improve the texture of food and include emulsifiers (to keep oil and water-based ingredients mixed together), stabilisers, thickeners, humectants (to keep food moist), raising agents, gelling agents and foaming agents. Some common processing additives added to food are: agar (406), carrageenenan (407), guar gum (412), pectins (440), xylitol (967), isomalt (953) and stearic acid or fatty acid (570).
Ingredient spotlight: Sodium bicarbonate
What does it do? We know it as baking soda – it’s often used as a raising agent in bakery products and as an anti-caking agent, to stop particles sticking together. It’s also used as an acidity regulator, to adjust the acid or alkaline level in food, or to maintain a sour or sharp taste.
What to look for on the label: Anti-caking agent (500), acidity regulator (500), raising agent (500), sodium bicarbonate or sodium carbonate (500).
Is it safe? While we wouldn’t recommend ingesting large amounts in one sitting, baking soda is considered very safe: dissolved in water, it can even be used to relieve indigestion.
Our advice: These additives typically improve the texture of foods, and don’t pose any health problems.
Antioxidants are used with foods containing oils or fats to keep them from oxidising and going rancid. They also slow down colour or flavour changes. Some names or numbers you might see include: ascorbic acid (300), also known as vitamin C, alpha-tocopherol (307), also known as vitamin E, butylated hydro-xyanisole (BHA) (320), butylated hydroxytuolene (BHT) (321), lecithin (322), citric acid (330) and tartaric acid (334).
Ingredient spotlight: Ascorbic acid
What does it do? Ascorbic acid helps food retain colour during processes such as canning (eg. of fruits and vegetables). Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) may also be added to replace nutrients lost in processing; for example, fruit juice that has been dehydrated and rehydrated.
What to look for on a label: Antioxidant (300) or antioxidant (ascorbic acid). Related compounds which are also antioxidants are sodium ascorbate (301), calcium ascorbate (302), potassium ascorbate (303) and ascorbyl palmitate (304).
Is it safe? Like many ingredients, vitamin C can be toxic in very high doses, but at levels approved for use in our food there are no safety concerns. In drinks that contain both ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate (preservative number 211) a trace amount of benzene, which is classified as a carcinogen, can be formed. A 2006 investigation by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) found a small number of non-alcoholic drinks (such as soft drink) had benzene levels above the standard for drinking water. Since then, reformulation recommendations have helped minimise benzene formation, so this is not something we need to be concerned about.
Our advice: There is no cause for concern with these ingredients.
What is the wax coating on apples made of? Is the wax good or bad for your health? Someone told to me it was a resin, is this true?
Apples produce a natural wax to protect their high water content. Without wax, fruits and vegetables lose their vital crispness and moisture. After being harvested, apples are washed. This cleaning process removes the fruit’s original wax coating, so to protect the fruit, wax is reapplied. According to a spokesperson from Apple and Pear Australia Limited (APAL), “The most common type of wax used on apples in Australia is carnauba wax, from the leaves of a Brazilian palm.” And it’s safe, they say. “This wax is also approved for use as a food additive for sweets, such as chocolate bars and pastries.” If you’re concerned, wax can be scrubbed off in lukewarm water – just rinse before eating.
What is the most dangerous food additive?
Some nutrition experts would argue salt (sodium chloride) is the most dangerous food additive in our food supply. While it’s true we need some salt in our diets, most of us get much more than the recommended limit of just one teaspoon a day.
We get over 75 per cent of our salt from manufactured or prepared foods, where it’s used as a preservative, processing aid and flavour enhancer. There is strong evidence that the amount of salt consumed in a typical Western diet is linked to the development of cardiovascular disease.
The good news? We can train our palates to prefer less salt, and some manufacturers are gradually reducing the amount of salt in their processed foods. But this is one additive we should all be looking to reduce in our diets.
Are we still using additives here that are banned overseas?
Up until recently, there were no food additives banned overseas that were allowed here. In November 2008, however, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) instituted a voluntary ban on six food colours, all of which are permitted in Australia. Research suggested that consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children.
The artificial colours implicated were: tartrazine (102), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow FCF (110), azorubine or carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124) and allura red AC (129). These colours have been used in a wide range of foods that tend to be brightly coloured, including soft drinks, sweets, cakes and ice-cream. However, in this study, it’s very difficult to hide food colouring from parents, so their expectations and beliefs have the potential to strongly influence how they rated children’s behaviour. The FSA advises that “it is important to remember that hyperactivity is also associated with many other factors, [such as] premature birth, genetics and upbringing.”
It’s also worth remembering that the types of foods which contain colouring often have high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat – foods we should all limit anyway.
Surely a natural product (like butter) is better for me than one full of chemicals (like margarine)?
While we are great fans of unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, it’s not always true something ‘natural’ must be better for us. Salt is natural, but it is one of the few food additives where there is good evidence that it’s harmful to our health in large amounts.
It’s been well documented that a diet high in saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. Less saturated fat in our diets is one of the important factors in the dramatic reduction in our rate of heart disease since the 1970s. Butter contains 55 per cent saturated fat, whereas the saturated fat content of a reduced-fat table spread may range from less than one to 16 per cent.
We recommend you be wary of claims that ‘natural’ is always better for you.
The bottom line
In order to have food that’s safe, convenient and inexpensive, food additives are a key part of our modern lives. After carefully reviewing the research, we are reassured that most of us are safe from the adverse effects of additives in our food. However, there are some ingredients – including natural ones – which can cause problems for some people. If you suspect additives are affecting you, check with your doctor.
Food safety is essential, but some additives, like colourings, are not always essential. If you feel that unnecessary food colouring is affecting your health, check the labels and avoid products containing them. In general, it’s more important to pay attention to the things that are proven to be doing harm: excessive amounts of saturated fat, salt and sugar.