Supermarket cakes full of surprises

Many of them are packed with additives, including artificial colours linked to hyperactivity in children. We tell you which brands to avoid.
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  • Updated:23 Mar 2009

01 .Not quite like mother made

girl with cakes

In brief

  • Some supermarket cakes contain more than 20 additives. These can be used by manufacturers to disguise poor quality ingredients.
  • While most additives in cakes appear to be safe, health concerns have been raised about some.

Make a cake at home and you’re unlikely to use more than about six ingredients – butter, eggs, sugar, flour, milk and maybe chocolate, coconut or some fruit. But if you look at the ingredients listed on a cake from the supermarket you might find 40 or more, many of them chemicals you certainly wouldn’t use at home. Worse, they’re likely to include artificial colours that recent research suggests could be linked to hyperactivity in children.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2009 but is still a useful guide today.

What’s in supermarket cakes?

We bought as many different cakes as we could find in Coles and Woolworths stores in Sydney – 97 cakes in total. We then checked the labels and found plenty of ingredients that wouldn’t go into a cake you made yourself, such as egg powder, milk solids, potato or tapioca starch, palm oil, maltodextrin and dextrose. Some of the cakes contained whole eggs and even a little real butter, but nearly all of them included additives identified by numbers.

While a small number of additives in the diet isn’t a problem for most people – and we couldn’t enjoy the convenience of processed foods without them – health and safety concerns have been raised with some of them. Furthermore, additives enable manufacturers to use cheaper ingredients, such as palm oil instead of butter and apple instead of raspberries in jam filling.

The verdict on additives

The Results table gives the average number of additives for each brand (there were too many cakes to list them all).

  • Only one cake, Cottage Cakes Banana Cake, contained no additives other than baking powder.
  • Woolworths Bakehouse Sponge Iced and Fresh Cream Filled topped our list with 27 additives, while Top Taste Rollettes Choc and Woolworths Bakehouse Sponge Single Birthday Fresh Cream both came a close second with 26.
  • We found eight brands to recommend, which average fewer than 10 additives.

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02.Colours and additives list

Colours and additives table

03.How many additives?


coloured cakesUsing information on the labels, we estimated the number of additives you wouldn’t use to make a cake at home. We didn’t count “raising agents”, as you’d probably use these in home baking in the form of baking powder or self-raising flour (see ABC of Additives).

Fewest additives

CHOICE recommends the following eight brands, as they average fewer than 10 additives – and these are also the brands that don’t use food colours linked to hyperactivity in children (see Running Riot).

  • Cottage Cakes
  • Dan Cake
  • Livwell
  • Cake Mark
  • Big Sister
  • Weight Watchers
  • Whittings
  • Mr Kipling

Some of the small brands might be hard to find, but Dan Cake, Big Sister, Mr Kipling and Weight Watchers are available in most supermarkets.

Most additives

Top Taste and Country Delight take the wooden spoon for more additives than other brands – with the big supermarkets’ own brands not far behind (see Results table).

Top Taste and Country Delight both told us that additives prolong the life of their products. But this explanation doesn’t really stack up. Some additives certainly give the convenience of a longer-lasting product, less likely to go mouldy or grow hazardous microbes that could make you sick, but others, most notably food colours (see Colours of the Rainbow), appear to be included to enable manufacturers to use cheaper ingredients.

And it’s not just in the cheaper cakes where you find a large number of additives; some of the more expensive brands were among the heaviest users of additives.

Do they need additives?

You expect fruit cake to last a long time, but we found other cakes containing relatively few additives with impressively long shelf lives. On the day of purchase a Dan Cake Marble cake (a Madeira cake) still had 237 days to go before its best before date, and Livwell Double Chocolate Cake Bars still had 132 days to go. The Livwell cakes are packed in a modified atmosphere, which protects them from oxidation and mould; the Dan Cake product contains alcohol, a natural preservative, and also has foil packaging which helps prevent mould. If some manufacturers can use better packaging to reduce their dependence on additives, why can’t they all?

If we always bought fresh foods there would be no need for additives. But we don’t often have that opportunity and additives are the price we pay for the convenience of manufactured foods.

The national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), has approved more than 300 food additives for use in Australia. FSANZ (and the food manufacturing industry) maintains these additives are safe and that there are good reasons for their use, such as to prevent food poisoning or extend a food’s storage life.

But questions are being raised about the safety of some additives, and any use of artificial colours that raises safety concerns is hard to justify.

Food labels often list additives by the purpose for which they’re added to the food. We’ve listed below those you’re most likely to find in cakes.

  • Antioxidants These are added to prevent oxidation of fat, which gives cake an unpleasant rancid, cardboard-like flavour. Fifty-two percent of the cakes contained tocopherols (306, 307), one form of which, alpha-tocopherol (307), is better known as vitamin E. But another antioxidant in 19% of the cakes is butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA, 320). While some studies show this additive to be safe, others suggest it may cause cancer.
  • Emulsifiers They help to disperse fats and oils with water, and prevent them from separating again over time. The egg yolk does this for you when you make cakes at home. Most factory cakes contain fatty acid esters of glycerol (471) or polyglycerol (475) which are cheaper. They seem to have no adverse effects.
  • Gums These are used for thickening or forming gels; they’re mostly used in cake fillings. The ones most often used are guar (412, extracted from the seeds of the guar plant that grows in India and Pakistan), xanthan gum (415, produced by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris) and chemically modified starch (1422). They’re all believed to be harmless – but if you are vegetarian you might want to check labels carefully because about a quarter of the cakes contain gelatine, a protein extracted from animal hides and bones.
  • Humectants These are added to prevent the cake from drying out. The chemicals used are either sorbitol or glycerol (sometimes both). They seem to have no adverse effects.
  • Preservatives They’re added to help stop food from going mouldy and to prevent the growth of bacteria. Most of the cakes (87%) contained sorbic acid or potassium sorbate (200, 202). Sorbic acid is made artificially but occurs naturally in some plants and is believed to be safe. The second most frequently used preservative (in 27% of the cakes) is sulphur dioxide (220), which can also be added in the form of sodium metabisulphite (223). While sulphur dioxide at the very low levels used in food is safe for most people, it destroys vitamin B1 (thiamine) and can trigger asthma attacks.
  • Raising agents These produce small bubbles of carbon dioxide that give the cake a soft and fluffy texture. The chemicals most often used are sodium bicarbonate (500) with sodium pyrophosphate (450), which combine to produce carbon dioxide when water is added to the cake mix. These are the same chemicals you’d use at home – they’re in baking powder and self raising flour.

Fewer additives, better in class

Emma and Ian’s son Timothy, aged seven, was struggling at school. A very active little boy, he found it difficult to sit still long enough to focus on his lessons – and often his teacher had to keep him back at lunch time to complete his work. Emma and Ian took Timothy to a paediatrician who specialises in behavioural issues.

He recommended a three-month elimination diet, initially taking out all foods containing preservatives, colours, artificial flavours and also fruit and vegetables high in salicylates. Timothy’s teacher reported an immediate improvement. He was completing his work, his reading improved dramatically and he was generally more settled.  

05.Artificial colours


Colours of the rainbow in your cake

More than 80% of the cakes we bought contain artificial colours – Woolworths Bakehouse’s “Sponge Single Birthday Fresh Cream” and “Sponge Iced and Fresh Cream Filled” contain no fewer than 11 different colours.

Food colours serve no purpose other than to improve the cake’s appearance. And, even more than other additives, they enable manufacturers to get away with using cheaper ingredients. We found plenty of cakes filled with “jam” made from apples (one of the cheaper fruits) coloured red to resemble raspberries (much more expensive fruit).

The jam in Top Taste Sponge Roll Raspberry Jam contains only 11% raspberries; the rest of the fruit is apple coloured red with carmoisine (122). And Woolworths Bakehouse Cherry Buttercake is made with “cherries” that contain some cherry, but also sugar, preservative (sodium benzoate), cherry flavour and the dye allura red (129).

Running riot

There’s growing evidence that some children’s behaviour can be adversely affected by food colours. In 2004, an overview of 15 well-designed clinical trials concluded their “results strongly suggest an association between ingestion of [artificial food colourings] and hyperactivity”. And more recently, in 2007, a carefully designed UK study published in the medical journal The Lancet found increased hyperactivity in some children given drinks containing artificial colours and the preservative sodium benzoate (211). These colours were:

  • Tartrazine (102)
  • Quinoline yellow (104)
  • Sunset yellow (110)
  • Carmoisine (122)
  • Ponceau 4R (124)
  • Allura red (129)

CHOICE found at least one of these colours listed on more than half of the cakes we bought, and 10% had more than three of them.

In the UK, the government’s Food Standards Agency has proposed voluntary action by food manufacturers to stop using these colours by the end of this year, and next year any foods sold in the European Union that still contain these colours will be required to display a warning on the label saying “Consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. Many Australian parents would prefer that they just weren’t there.

CHOICE sees no reason why our national regulator shouldn’t take similar action to its European counterparts. So far, though, Food Standards Australia New Zealand has limited its response to suggesting parents use label information to identify when the additives included in the UK study are in their children’s diet. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. Ingredients can be listed in small print and with poor contrast. It requires persistence and good eyesight to pick out the critical numbers in a long list of ingredients – certainly not an easy task when you’re shopping with small children.

Smarties heading in the right direction

SmartiesIf you eat Smarties you may have noticed some slight changes in some of the colours. The manufacturer, Nestlé, has stopped using the artificial colours linked with hyperactivity and replaced them with plant-based alternatives such as turmeric (yellow), carotene (orange) and spirulina (green).

Cake shop chain Michel’s Patisserie told us they’re developing new recipes for their cakes which reduce, and in some cases totally eliminate, the use of artificial colours.