Food Additives

Food additives are often perceived to be unsafe and to be avoided. On the flipside, the food manufacturing industry and regulators say there are good reasons to use additives – to prevent food poisoning or extend a food’s storage life, for example.

The more highly processed foods you eat, the more additives you’ll eat too. So the easiest way to avoid them is to eat mainly fresh and only lightly processed foods, such as canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables.

Below is a quick guide on food additives so you can be better informed when selecting foods.

Controversial additives

The additives in question are from the following key categories:

  • Colours (code numbers in the 100 range), which add or restore colour to foods.
  • Preservatives (200 range), which help protect against food deterioration caused by micro-organisms.
  • Antioxidants (300 range), which slow or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods, such as when fats and oils go rancid.
  • Artificial sweeteners (including intense sweeteners in the 900 range and bulk sweeteners such as sorbitol, 420), which create a sweet taste for fewer kilojoules than sugar.
  • Flavour enhancers (mainly in the 600 range), which improve the flavour and/or aroma of food.

Other key additives

  • Emulsifiers (mostly in the 400 range), which help stop oil and water mixtures from separating (in mayonnaise, for example).
  • Stabilisers (mostly in the 400 range), which maintain the even dispersal of substances in foods such as ice cream.
  • Thickeners (including vegetable gums, which have code numbers mostly in the 400 range, and modified starches, which have code numbers in the 1000 range), which are used for foods such as thickened cream.

Breaking them down



Colours in foods have no other function than to make the food look more appetising. In other words, they’re used for marketing reasons.

If you show signs of hyperactivity or food additive intolerance, cutting out foods that contain added colours from the diet could potentially help, but it would take a lot of micro-managing (eating the same foods daily and then trialling foods with colours added) to know for sure.


Preservatives help to give a food a greater shelf life.

There can be some cancer concerns around preservatives however it is more of an assumption than a fact, and dosage and overall consumption would be a big factor.

People with asthma should avoid sulphur dioxide (220).


Antioxidants are added to help to preserve the shelf life of oil/fat based foods.

BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole (320), is typically added to margarine and spreads, salad dressings, walnuts and pecans, and instant mashed potato.

It may be considered safe at the permitted low levels, but BHA can be replaced in foods by safer chemicals (such as vitamin E), safer processes, or simply left out completely. Check labels if you want to avoid it.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. They’re typically used in diet and low-sugar foods and drinks. Some reports link them to cancer, but it can also be a dose dependant consideration.

Artificial sweeteners help to lower your total calorie intake by replacing sugar with something sweet, so they can be of a great benefit during a calorie restriction phase.

Being overweight is certainly a bigger risk to your health than eating artificially sweetened products.

Those who should definitely avoid aspartame are people with the rare metabolic disorder phenylketonuria, or PKU, who must limit their intake of phenylalanine, an amino acid in aspartame.

Flavour enhancers

Flavour enhancers such as glutamates (621-625) are found in many foods, including packet soups, flavoured noodles, sauces and savoury snacks. When glutamate touches the taste receptors on our tongue, it gives food a savoury taste. Mixed with a meal, glutamate balances, blends and enhances the total perception of flavour.

People sensitive to monosodium glutamate (MSG, 621) may have short-term reactions such as headaches, flushing and numbness when they eat foods that contain large amounts of MSG, and some asthmatics may also be susceptible.

For most people MSG and other glutamates are harmless. If you’re sensitive to MSG, check labels for it.


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