- We look at the latest research into additives that health questions have been raised about - and give CHOICE’s verdict on which ones you’d do best to avoid.
- The less highly processed food you eat, the fewer additives you’ll eat too. And if you replace it with fresh food you’ll be on your way to a healthier diet.
Please note: this information was current as of May 2008 but is still a useful guide today.
Over 300 food additives are approved for use in Australia
Reader feedback to CHOICE shows that this use of additives in food is a major concern for consumers. Individuals and consumer advocacy groups have issued warnings about certain food additives, saying they’re unsafe and should be avoided.
In contrast, the food manufacturing industry and food regulator say there are good reasons to use additives — to prevent food poisoning or extend a food’s storage life, for example.
The bottom line is that additives and processed food go together — you rarely get one without the other. The more highly processed foods we eat, the more additives we eat too. So the easiest way to avoid them is to eat mainly fresh and only lightly processed foods (such as canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables).
You can’t easily avoid eating additives altogether: even packaged bread often has several. And a small number of additives in their diet isn’t a problem for most people. The safety evidence for food additives is reviewed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) before they’re approved for use — see How additives are regulated below. But some people still argue that some approved food additives lead to health problems.
The additives in question are from the following key categories:
Colours (code numbers in the 100 range) add or restore colour to foods.
Preservatives (200 range) help protect against food deterioration caused by micro-organisms.
Antioxidants (300 range) slow or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods, such as when fats and oils go rancid.
Artificial sweeteners (including intense sweeteners in the 900 range, and bulk sweeteners such as sorbitol, 420) impart a sweet taste for fewer kilojoules than sugar.
Flavour enhancers (mainly in the 600 range) improve the flavour and/or aroma of food.
Other key additives
Emulsifiers (mostly in the 400 range) help prevent oil and water mixtures (in mayonnaise, for example) from separating.
Stabilisers (mostly in the 400 range) maintain the uniform dispersal of substances in a food.
Thickeners (including vegetable gums, which have code numbers mostly in the 400 range, and modified starches, with code numbers in the 1000 range) increase the viscosity of food to a desired consistency.
The use of food additives in Australia is governed by the Food Standards Code and regulated by FSANZ. When applying to use a new additive, a manufacturer must provide evidence to FSANZ of its safety, as well as the technological reason for its use. FSANZ reviews the safety evidence before an additive is approved for use and reviews new research as it becomes available, but doesn’t undertake safety testing of its own.
In addition, an exposure assessment estimates the likely amount that would be consumed if the food additive was permitted for use. This amount is compared to the acceptable daily intake (ADI) recommended by scientific experts, which is the amount you can consume every day without damaging your health. FSANZ then recommends a maximum level of the food additive permitted in particular foods, based on technological need and providing it’s within safe limits.