What is a food additive?
Food additives are chemicals added to food and beverages to enhance their colour (colouring), flavour or texture (flavour enhancers), and to keep them fresh (preservatives). They can be derived from natural sources or created artificially.
Food additive safety in Australia
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is responsible for the regulation of food additives in Australia. FSANZ doesn’t approve the use of an additive unless:
- It has been tested for safety.
- There will be no harmful effects if people were to consume it.
- There are good reasons to use it.
- The amount added to the food or beverage is low, reasonable, and safe.
- It will be listed on product labels to inform consumers of the additive.
An additive is also given an Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) amount by FSANZ, which is the amount that people can consume it on a daily basis over a long period of time without the additive causing any harm to them. FSANZ also estimates the expected daily intake, which is the amount a person is likely to eat the additive from food or beverages. This is compared to the ADI amount to determine how much of the additive can be added to a food or beverage.
Types of food additives and their uses
There are different types of food additives and some can have more than one use. In Australia, they’re listed on product labels by their functional and class names (e.g. preservative: sulphur dioxide) or by their code numbers (e.g. preservative 220). Some additives aren’t labelled, however, like flavourings and processing aids.
Here are the different types of food additives and their common uses:
- Anti-caking agents (400, 500 & 900 ranges) stop ingredients from sticking together and forming lumps.
- Antioxidants (300 range) slow or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods.
- Artificial sweeteners (400 & 900 ranges) increase the sweetness in food without adding kilojoules. Intense sweeteners have code numbers in the 900 range, while bulk sweeteners are in the 400s.
- Bulking agents increase the volume of food without majorly changing its available energy.
- Colours (100 range) add or restore colour to foods.
- Emulsifiers (400 range) prevent oil and water from separating, as well as keep fats from clumping together.
- Firming agents and stabilisers (400 range) maintain the even dispersion of substances in foods.
- Flavour enhancers (600, 900 & 1000 ranges) improve the flavour and/or aroma of food. Most flavour enhancers have code numbers in the 600 range, while thaumatin and proteases are in the 900 and 1000 ranges respectively.
- Flavours add flavour to tasteless foods.
- Flour treatment (500, 900 & 1000 ranges) improves the quality of baking.
- Food acids (200 & 300 ranges) influence the function of other substances in foods, e.g. slow the growth of microorganisms.
- Foaming agents maintain the even dispersion of gas in aerated foods.
- Gelling agents change the texture of food via gel formation.
- Glazing agents (900 range) improve the appearance of food by imparting a coating to the surface, which can also protect it.
- Humectants (400 range) retain moisture in food.
- Mineral salts (300-500 range) enhance the texture and flavour of food.
- Preservatives (200 range) slow or prevent the deterioration and spoilage of food by microorganisms.
- Propellants (200 & 900 ranges) help propel food out of a container.
- Raising agents increase the volume of food by releasing gases.
- Thickeners and vegetable gums (400 & 1000 range) enhance the texture and consistency of food. Vegetable gums have code numbers in the 400 range, while modified starches are in the 1000s.
Are all food additives really harmful?
Up to 400 food additives (natural and artificial) are approved in Australia, but only 56 of these are known to cause adverse reactions in some people, especially those who are sensitive to an additive (which is only a small percentage of the population). It has also been reported problems often occur when additives are taken in large doses that can be very harmful to the body. Despite this, people still claim that all additives are harmful.
The following will look at the additives that are considered to be harmful and whether or not ‘all additives are harmful’ is just a myth.
The antioxidant butylated hydroxyanisole (320), which is found in a variety of foods, can possibly be carcinogenic to humans as it causes cancer in mice, rats and hamsters.
Myth busted: The cancer occurs in the fore stomach, which is an organ that people don’t have.
Animal studies have linked intense sweeteners like aspartame (951), cyclamate (952) and saccharin (954) to cancer.
However, further studies and research in humans showed that these additives don’t pose a major risk or any risk at all.
- According to a UK study in 2007, a combination of food colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate (211) caused hyperactivity in young children.
Myth busted: The concentrations of the colours and preservative are higher than those found in Australia, which means this is a case of an overconsumption of additives.
- A study undertaken in the 1980s found that tartrazine (102) can cause allergic reactions, while sunset yellow FCF (110) caused tumours in mice and rats.
Myth busted: These results are not consistent with other studies on mice and rats.
- Two other studies showed that erythrosine (127) increased the incidence of thyroid tumours in rats.
Myth busted: A review of these studies and other data by Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that the additive is actually safe.
- Some tests on mice found that allura red AC (129) caused cancer.
Myth busted: The evidence isn’t consistent or substantial.
- Brilliant blue FCF (133) has also been claimed to be carcinogenic.
Myth busted: The claims are largely unconfirmed.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) (621) can cause asthma attacks and Chinese restaurant syndrome (headaches, flushing, numbness, tingling, weakness, drowsiness and nausea).
Myth clarified: Only some asthmatics and people who are sensitive to MSG will experience these effects if they consume a lot of it.
All humectants can cause nausea or diarrhoea.
Myth clarified: Only people sensitive to humectants will be affected, and usually only when the additive is ingested in large amounts.
- In soft drinks, the mixture of sodium benzoate (211) or potassium benzoate (212) and ascorbic acid can lead to the formation of a carcinogen called benzene.
Myth clarified: Although this is true, cancer can be avoided by not taking more than the ADI for benzoates.
- In processed meats, the preservatives sodium nitrite (250) and sodium nitrate (251) can also possibly be carcinogenic to humans as they can be converted to nitrosamines, a known carcinogenic.
Myth clarified: The risk of getting cancer from these preservatives is small.
- In bread, calcium propionate (282) has been associated with migraines and behavioural and learning problems.
Myth busted: The reports are largely subjective and therefore unreliable.
- In wine, beer and dried fruit, preservatives containing sulphur (220-228) are known to cause asthma attacks and migraines.
Myth clarified: Only people who are sensitive to sulphites can be affected. Also, the 2008 Australian national diet survey found that children who ate a lot of foods containing sulphites could be consuming more than the ADI for sulphites.
Carrageenan (407), which is used in yogurts, ice creams and other dairy products, has been linked to cancer.
As you can see, additives aren’t all harmful – some will only cause serious harm to the human body when taken in large doses or if someone is sensitive to a particular additive. However, if you’re still concerned about the effects of additives, consult your doctor or, better yet, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Not only will you reduce your additive intake from processed foods, but you’ll also dramatically reduce your risk of getting cancer and other diseases.