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

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.


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