Food additives: how bad are they really?

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The rise in popularity of organic food has put food additives under the spotlight, as Australians become increasingly wary of what is in their foodi. Food additives are substances added to food to increase shelf life or improve taste and appearanceii. Although food additive use is regulated in Australia by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ)iii, there is still concern in the community about the use of controversial additives like aspartameiv.

The term 'food additive' can sound alarm bells in supermarket shoppers' minds.

Food additives

Many people are concerned about the amount of food additives present in our food, but according to Food Standards Australia's chief scientist, Dr Paul Brent, some are vitaliii. Indeed, certain additives are necessary to make some foods safe to eat, and many are used to enhance the flavour, colour and consistency of productsiii,v. For example, sorbitol humectant (420) is sometimes added to dried fruit to keep it soft and moistiv. Similarly, preservatives such as calcium propionate (282) are used in products like bread to prevent mould growthvi.

That said, some food additive groups have been known to cause health problems. Preservatives are problematic for people with intolerances; for example some people are allergic to additives such as sulfites found in wine, beer and dried fruit that can trigger asthmatic episodes or headachesiii. Public concern about the potential risks of other food additives like nitrates, nitrites and aspartame have been investigated by FSANZ to determine their suitability for use in foods. FSANZ found that nitrates and nitrites in food were 'not considered to represent an appreciable health and safety risk'vii, while aspartame was found to be safe for consumption at 'specified levels' when used as an 'intense sweetener'v.

Food additives such as sulfites found in wine, beer and dried fruit can trigger asthmatic episodes or headaches.

Despite findings of a 2007 UK study that food colourings are often linked to an increase in hyperactivity in children, multiple food agencies around the world including Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have found this link to be weakviii.

Manufacturers are required by FSANZ to label their food with the additives used in their product so that people who are sensitive to certain additives can avoid themiii,ix. Useful tools and reference materials are also now available to help consumers stayed informed about the presence of additives when making food choices, such as the 'Additive Alert' app and online communities for people with sensitivities to food allergies., 2 July 2014, 'Allergies and GM fears drive Australian 'free-from' food movement', viewed 19 June 2014,

iiNogrady, B 2013, 'The hard facts on food additives', ABC Health & Wellbeing, 14 February, viewed 17 May 2014,

iiiFood Standards Australia New Zealand 2013, About FSANZ, viewed 16 July 2014,

ivFood Standards Australia New Zealand 2013, Aspartame, viewed 16 July 2014,

vFood Standards Australia New Zealand 2013, Additives, viewed 17 May 2014,

viChoice 2008, Food additives you should avoid, 2 May, viewed 16 July 2014,

viiFood Standards Australia New Zealand 2013, Nitrates and nitrites, viewed 16 July 2014,

viiiFood Standards Australia New Zealand 2013, Food colours, viewed 17 May 2014,

ixBetter Health Channel, Victorian Government 2014, Food additives, viewed 17 May 2014,