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Goodbye food additives!

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Food additives are substances that are used to preserve flavor or improve the taste of a product. Nearly every processed food in the supermarket contains some sort of additive or preservative. Today, there are over 14,000 man-made preservatives and preservatives added to consumables. However, recent years have seen an increasing demand for natural and organic products that include fewer or no additives.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approves which food additives are allowed to be added to Australian Foods. An additive undergoes extensive testing to determine if it is safe. Once approved, FSANZ recommends Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for that additive. ADI is the amount which can be consumed every day without damaging health.

Fast facts 

1. The list of ingredients on a package will give you an idea of food additives in a product. Food additives will be listed by their class name followed by chemical name or code number. An over-processed food item will generally have a long list of additives, increasing its shelf life by the use of flavor enhancers, acidity regulators, stabilisers, preservatives and emulsifiers.

2. Contrary to a common misconception, all processed foods do not contain food additives. Some popular processed foods, such as long-life milk, canned foods, and frozen foods may not require additives.

3. Not all additives are harmful:

  • 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

4. Some products may not list food additives on their packaging, even if additives are present. For instance, margarine might be a listed ingredient, and margarine usually contains food additives. 

5. Many consumers believe that a correlation exists between food additives or preservatives and undesired medical symptoms.  Scientific evidence for adverse effects after the ingestion of some additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), exists. However, much information on intolerance is anecdotal. 

6. The easiest way to avoid food intolerances caused by food additives is to eat mainly fresh foods or foods which are lightly processed. Consumption of highly processed foods increases the likelihood of food additive ingestion. 

Allergy or Intolerance

It is believed by some that food additives or preservatives found in pre-packaged foods or pre-prepared food from restaurants may cause symptoms of physical illness inclduing abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, facial flushing, weakness, breathing problems and changes in heart rate. These reactions can be allergic, although a majority of them may be intolerances.

Food Additive Allergy: The diagnosis of an allergy to food additives is suspected when a person experiences various reactions to prepared foods at restaurants, but not from foods prepared at home. In such cases, an allergy test is done to formally diagnose the patient.

Food Additive Intolerance:  In the case of an intolerance, the body’s immune system does not usually attack the offending additive as if it were a virus or bacteria that could cause illness. The body is unable to distinguish between a chemical which is naturally present in a food and that same chemical present as an additive. The symptoms are similar to getting sick or having an allergy to pollen.  Food additive intolerances are more difficult to classify because the way they cause feelings of illness and discomfort in the body is not well understood. Testing is not available for food additive intolerances.

In such cases, individuals are encouraged to keep a food diary to record everything eaten and time and duration of symptoms. This log assists in identifying substances that may be causing physical symptoms. 

Common Food Additives

Flavor Enhancers: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer added to many foods, but is also naturally occurring in some foods, such as cheese. MSG sensitivity has a well-known genetic or physiological basis and symptoms attributed to it include pressure on the head, seizures, chest pain, headache, nausea, and tightness of the face.

Coloring agents or Dye: These agents are used in processed food products to make them more appealing but may not always be individually labeled. Many food colorings are claimed to be toxic or carcinogenic. Saffron is a yellow food color, obtained from the flower of the Crocus sativa plant and has been reported as a potential cause of anaphylaxis.

Flavorings : Spices like chili peppers, celery, caraway, cinnamon, coriander, mace, garlic, parsley, and pepper are the aromatic part of various weeds, flowers, roots, barks, and trees. Because, they are derived from plants, spices have the ability to cause allergic reactions similar to pollens, fruits and vegetables.

Preservatives: Benzoates are preservatives used in meat products, drinks and cereals. Health problems associated with benzoates may include hives, runny, congested nose.  

Nitrite and nitrates are preservatives used in cured meats and canned meat products. These are thought to produce cancer-causing chemicals when heated and eaten. 

Antioxidants: they are used to preserve the freshness of foods. Anecdotal evidence has linked antioxidants like Sodium metabisulphite to asthma and anaphylaxis.

Color-retention agents: Stannous chloride (tin) is an antioxidant and color retention agent used in canned and bottled foods and fruit juices. Ingestion of fruit juices containing concentrations of tin greater than 250 mg per liter may cause acute poisoning.

Sweeteners : Aspartame is a sugar substitute present in many diet sodas and drinks and makes the symptoms of PKU (phenylketonuria) patients worse. Anecdotal reports indicate both long and short term effects like headaches, blindness, seizures, mental retardation and menstrual problem.

Saccharin and its salts is another sweetener added to diet and no-sugar products. Safety of saccharin is under scrutiny with The International agency for Research on Cancer concluding saccharin a possible carcinogenic to humans. However, other major health organizations, such as U.S FDA, disagree with these claims.

Top 3 tips to help you avoid additives

1.    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.

2.    Keep your kitchen stocked with fresh produce

If you have lots of fresh produce in your kitchen you are your family are less likely to reach for the packaged stuff. Minimize the packaged food which goes into your trolley and focus on fresh fruit, veggies, fresh herbs, meat, dairy & eggs. Not only will this be a healthier option but fresh home made meals taste better and are cheaper in the long run.

3.    Learn to cook the basics

Rather than reaching for the packets or bottles of white sauce, BBQ marinade, Thai / Asian sauces, salad dressing or powdered gravy; practice making a few simple sauces from scratch. Once you learn to make these you can change them slightly depending on what you have in your fridge to suit any occasion.  The secret is to keep fresh produce in your fridge so you have natural flavors to add to your dishes. Garlic, ginger and herbs such as coriander, basil, parsley or mint are wonderful to use in dressings, salads and stir fries. They add so much flavour and are rich in phytonutrients.


Most of the evidence supporting the existence of intolerance to most commonly used food additives is anecdotal.

Large scale clinical trials have not been conducted to evaluate the validity of claims for most types of food intolerances.

A 2005 article by Wilson et al. claimed that intolerance or allergy to food additives may be under reported because doctors do not usually suspect these agents as the possible causes of symptoms. A trial period of eliminating an additive from a patient’s diet is recommended if such an agent is suspected of causing adverse reactions.

You should consult your Dietitan, Nutritionist or general practitoner if:

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

Find a Dietitan or Nutritionist near you


Useful Links and references


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 develope 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

Goodbye food additives!