What are food additives?
Food additives have been a hot topic for many years now with both negative and positive arguments for their use.
Firstly, what exactly is a food additive? A food additive can be any substance that is added to food to enhance its qualities in some way. The main categories of use are described below:
1. Improve the taste or appearance of a food e.g. colour, flavour, texture. An example is beeswax (glazing agent) used on apples to make them shiny.
2. Improve the quality or stability of a food e.g. to maintain the moisture content of a food item until consumption – such that is seen with dried fruits
3. Preserve food to extend its storage life e.g. to limit microbial growth on meat.
Food additives are seen as quite important to our food supply as they ensure food safety and that the needs of consumers are met, all year round.
Many food additives can also occur naturally in foods e.g. ascorbic acid (found in such things as fruit) or lecithin (found in egg yolks and soya beans). In addition, the body is not able to distinguish between the same chemical that has been added to a food versus one that is naturally present.
Are food additives harmful to our health?
Before companies gain permission to use additives in a food product, the additives must undergo rigorous testing to prove that they are safe for human consumption in both the short term and long term. This process is undertaken by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). They also ensure that the additives use is justified and necessary.
The maximum quantity that FSANZ allows is always the lowest possible amount required for the additive to perform its function successfully. It is illegal for food companies to exceed the predetermined level, even if the additive is not deemed to likely to pose any safety concerns.
An Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is set which is the quantity of that additive that can be consumed over a lifetime, on a daily basis with no risk of adverse health effects occurring. FSANZ will estimate how much of the additive will be consumed on average in a day; this is then compared to the ADI and determines the allowable amount that can be added to food. If the average amount being consumed changes with time, the acceptable levels will be adjusted accordingly e.g. if more soft drink is being consumed on average, the artificial sweetener content will be reduced.
It is also the role of FSANZ to keep up to date with current scientific literature on the safety of food additives. Other international agencies all do this including the European Food Safety Authority, the United States Food and Drug Administration and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). Between these agencies, any alterations in the safety of an additive will always be accounted for. As soon as new evidence comes to head that may affect the safe levels of consumption, FSANZ will evaluate the information and amend the acceptable levels as required.
Reactions to food additives
It is very rare that someone has a reaction to a food additive; however, it is possible for some people to be more sensitive to them. Some of the reactions experienced may include hives, asthma or diarrhoea/irritable bowel symptoms.
How are they labelled?
Food additives are listed on the ingredients list. They are listed in descending order by weight so that those listed first are used the most and those following are used in lesser amounts. A number is also allocated to each food additive and either the number or name must be listed in the ingredients.
Key: Functional class Additive identifying number Additive name
Common additives and their functions
|Acids, acidity regulators, alkalis||Help to maintain a constant acid level in food. This is important for taste, as well as to influence how other substances in the food function. For example, an acidified food can retard the growth of some micro-organisms.|
|Anti-caking agents||Reduce the tendency of individual food particles to adhere and improve flow characteristics. For example, seasoning with an added anti-caking agent flows freely and doesn’t clump together.|
|Antioxidants||Retard or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods. For example, in fats and oils, rancid flavours can develop when they are exposed to oxygen. Antioxidants prevent this from happening.|
|Bulking agents||Contribute to the volume of the food, without contributing significantly to its available energy. For example, sugar often contributes to the volume of lollies, while some low-joule foods need bulking agents added to them to replace the bulk normally provided by sugar.|
|Colourings||Add or restore colour to foods, e.g., icing mixture is coloured to make it more attractive on cakes.|
|Emulsifiers||Facilitate or maintain oil and water from separating into layers, e.g. emulsifiers may be used in margarine to prevent oil forming a layer on top of the margarine.|
|Firming agents / stabilisers||Maintain the uniform dispersion of substances in solid and semi-solid foods.|
|Flavour enhancers||Enhance the existing taste and/or odour of a food|
|Foaming agents||Maintain the uniform dispersion of gases in aerated foods|
|Gelling agents||Modify the texture of the food through gel formation|
|Glazing agents||Impart a coating to the external surface of the food, e.g. a wax coating on fruit to improve its appearance.|
|Humectants||Reduce moisture loss in foods, e.g. glycerine may be added to icing to prevent it from drying out.|
|Preservatives||Retard or prevent the deterioration of food by micro-organisms, and thus prevent spoilage of foods|
|Raising agents||Liberate gases, thereby increasing the volume of a food and are often used in baked goods.|
|Sweeteners||Replace the sweetness normal provided by sugars in foods without contributing significantly to their available energy.|
|Thickeners||Increase the viscosity of a food, e.g. a sauce might contain a thickener to give it the desired consistency.|
The table above was adapted from Food Standards Australia New Zealand .
In summary, the levels of additives that are used have been proven to be well within the realm of safety and the safe amount is much less than the potentially toxic concentration. All additives are constantly being studied, regulated and monitored at a very scrupulous level.
Food additives help to play some important roles in the prevention of food borne illness and quality preservation. However, some individuals feel that any chemical with the ability to cause toxic effects at any level should be avoided. It is therefore understandable that some consumers find the more natural options appealing, opting for organic foods that are additive free.
Additionally, it is important to note that foods with longer lists of additives can often be the unhealthier option due to other factors such as fat and sugar content. Preparing food from fresh ingredients will always be a better option regardless of the safety status of food additives.
For further information:
The FSANZ website can be used to find out more information on the safety protocol that food additives must undergo, the numeric values given to food additives and other general information.
For more information specific to food additives please take a look at my other blogs ‘Artificial sweeteners’ and ‘Whether food additives affect children’s behaviour’.
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This article was written by our nutritionist Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian.
If you have any nutrition related questions, contact your local doctor or ENT Wellbeing and they will arrange for you to see Belinda. For healthy eating advice, Contact us today!
Food Standards Australia New Zealand. What do Food Additives do? Updated 18th Jan 2013. Available from: Food Standards Australia New Zealand