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7 Steps to Avoiding Food Additives

Allergies & Intolerances , Kids and Parenting, Cooking / Recipes, Diets, General Nutrition, Healthy Eating, Infants
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    1. What are food additives? 

Food additives are substances that are used to preserve flavor or improve the taste of a product. Some commonly used additives are flavor enhancers, coloring agents, acid regulators and preservatives. Generally speaking the longer the list of ingredients on packaging the higher the use of additives and evidence that the food is highly processed with a long shelf life.

Check out the long list of ingredients below for a basic roast gravy. Compare this to a few simple ingredients out of your fridge or pantry to create a flavoursome gravy for your roast dinner. Over a medium heat, add a little corn flour, white or red wine, teaspoon of vegemite to your pan juices and combine. If the gravy is still lumpy use the hand blender or drain the juices through a strainer and serve! Much better than flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, E numbers and stuff you've never heard of! 



2. Are all additives harmful? 

 There are foods such as long-life milk, canned and frozen foods do not require additives and not all additives are harmful. These include:

  • Acetic acid 260 is used to give food a sour taste
  • Fructose is a sugar found naturally in honey and fruit
  • Lecithin 322 is a natural substance found in soy beans and egg yolks and is used as a binding agent
  • Maltodextrin: is a starch used as a thickener
  • Beta-carotene 160a is a natural food colour
  • Thickeners 1400 - 1405: these are starches made from natural grains
  • Xanthan Gum 415 helps to give foods structure


3.  Are food additives making me sick?

It is believed by some that food additive found in pre-packaged foods may cause symptoms of physical illness like bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and changes in heart rate.  To detect food additive intolerances, individuals are encouraged to maintain a food dairy to record everything eaten and time and duration of symptoms. This log assists in identifying substances that may be causing physical symptoms. A trial period of eliminating that additive from a patient's diet is recommended if it is suspected of causing adverse reactions.

4. How do I avoid food additives? 

The easiest way to avoid food additive intolerances is to avoid highly processed foods and eat mainly fresh foods or foods which are lightly processed. Try sourcing your shopping from fresh produce markets, a local butcher, deli and grocers. By avoiding the supermarkets you avoid temptation.

However, supermarkets are a convenient option for busy families and often unavoidable. In this case, try to fill your trolley with lots of fresh produce - fresh fruit, veggies, fresh herbs, meat, dairy & eggs. You and your kids are less likely to reach for the packaged stuff if it's simply not there. If you must go for packaged items, supermarkets are much better at providing healthier alternatives than in previous years. Soups for example can either come straight from a packet where you simply add water (and they will last on your shelf for ever) or you can buy fresh, organic soups which last a few days. Check out the difference in ingredients below:

Campbell's dry packet of creamy potato and bacon soup has a list of ingredients which takes up the whole side of the packet and are too numerous to mention; in comparison the fresh Pitango leek and potato soup has 7 ingredients including vegetables, oil, salt and pepper - no e-numbers, flavours or enhances. The choice is simple. 



5. Learn to Cook 

Make shopping for fresh produce, preparing food, cooking and eating together part of your life. The ratio of highly processed package food to fresh produce will naturally start shift.  

A good way to start is by learning to cook the basics - stocks, sauces, marinades and salad dressings. Follow recipes to start with to boost your confidence and to learn what ingredients compliment each other. Buy a few cookbooks which interest you and work your way through them. The internet is also a great resource. 

6. What are the symptoms of an intolerance?

Of all the intolerances due to food additives, MSG sensitivity has a well known genetic and physiological basis. Symptoms include seizures, chest pain, pressure on the head, nausea and tightness of the face. Other food additives and their possible symptoms include:

a.    Coloring agents (Saffron) – Anaphylaxis.

b.    Flavorings (Spices) – allergy similar to pollen.

c.     Preservatives (benzoates, nitrites, nitrates) – hives, runny nose, cancer causing.

d.    Antioxidants (sodium metabisulphite) – asthma and anaphylaxis.

e.    Sweeteners (Aspartame) – headache, blindness, seizures.

f.      Color retention agents (stannous Chloride) – acute poisoning.  

7.   Always read the label:

When choosing between two packets of the same food compare the ingredients.  The one with the longer list of ingredients will generally have more additives. Look for chemical names and code numbers as these are usually the food additives. 

The major culprits include:

  • Snack foods – two minute noodles, packet soups, chips (bbq, chicken, cheese)
  • Bright coloured confectionary (m&m’s, smarties, jubes, sour & fizzy sweets),
  • Instant packet mixes -cake mix, packet pasta meals, instant puddings, gravies, stuffing mixes, and flavor bases.  
  • Salad dressings, simmer sauces, marinades, syrups and topping.



A great example is Doritos corn chip, check out the difference between the packet of Original Corn Chips (3 ingredients) compared to the Nacho Cheese Flavoured Corn Chips (approx 20 ingredients). 






You should consult your Dietitan, Nutritionist or general practitioner if you:

  • suspect an allergy or intolerance to foods or food additives
  • are planning on making significant changes in your diet and you are on a restricted diet
  • are a parent and planning on restricting the diets of children.     

Find a Dietitan or Nutritionist near you

References and Useful Links

n4 food and health have written the above fact sheet based on information from Australian sites including 1- 3 below. They have also used content with permission from Natural Standard who develop evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed 4-6:

1. Additives - Food Standards Australia New Zealand. 2012. Additives - Food Standards Australia New Zealand. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/additives/. [Accessed 21 March 2012].

2. Food additives | Better Health Channel. 2012. Food additives | Better Health Channel. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Food_additives. [Accessed 21 March 2012].

3. CHOICE guide to Food Additives - CHOICE . 2012. CHOICE guide to Food Additives - CHOICE . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/safety/food-additives.aspx. [Accessed 21 March 2012].

4. Bush RK, Taylor SL, Hefle SL. Adverse Reactions to Food and Drug Additives. In: Adkinson NF, Yunginger JW, Busse WW. Middleton's Allergy Principles and Practice. 6th edition. Philadelphia: Mosby Publishing; 2003:1645-1663.    

5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. www.fda.gov

6. Wilson BG, Bahna SL. Adverse Reactions of Food Additives. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2005; 95:499-507. View Abstract


7 Steps to Avoiding Food Additives