Food additives you should avoid

Which ones pose a health risk?
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  • Updated:2 May 2008


Colours and hyperactivity

  • Additives used to colour foodThe concern over artificial colours was fuelled recently by a UK government-funded study which concluded that a mixture of colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate (211) could affect children’s behaviour.
  • The colours studied were tartrazine (102), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow FCF (110), carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124) and allura red AC (129).
  • The Food Standards Agency, the UK’s food regulator, recently advised that it’s recommending to UK ministers that industry takes voluntary action to remove these colours by 2009 and is pressing for action at EU level.

Other health concerns associated with colours

  • In the 1980s, the concern centred on tartrazine, an artificial colour that can cause mild allergic-type reactions; sunset yellow FCF can have a similar effect. Some animal studies have indicated sunset yellow can cause tumours, but the results aren’t consistent with other studies on rats and mice.
  • Two long-term feeding studies demonstrated that erythrosine (127) increases the incidence of thyroid tumours in rats, but a review of these and other available data by JECFA, an international scientific expert committee administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO), concluded the colour is safe. Even so, its use in Australia is restricted to glacé cherries.
  • Tests have linked allura red AC (129) with cancer in mice but evidence of harm isn’t consistent or substantial. Claims that brilliant blue FCF (133) is carcinogenic are largely unsubstantiated.
  • Natural additives aren’t necessarily safer than artificial ones. The natural colouring annatto (160b), for example — typically found in margarine, Cheshire cheese, smoked fish and cakes — can cause allergic-type reactions in some people.

CHOICE verdict

Often overused and generally unnecessary, colours aren’t used in processed foods to do anything functional, but purely for looks. In other words, they don’t contribute anything useful to the food — they’re there for the marketing.

And given that they’re most often found in foods like cordials, lollies, cakes and soft drinks, which we’re recommended to have only as an occasional treat anyway, it’s easy enough to avoid colour additives by only eating these foods rarely, if at all.

In light of the UK food regulator’s decision to push for industry action to remove certain colours by 2009, we’d like to see FSANZ review the situation in Australia.

In the meantime, if your child shows signs of hyperactivity, cutting out foods that contain these colours from their diet could help. However, if you think you or your child has an intolerance or allergy to any food or food additive, seek advice from your medical practitioner or dietitian — just cutting out certain foods may not be the answer.


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