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

04.ABC of additives

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.  


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