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What’s really in our food?

Many of our favourite foods these days contain a long list of additives. So, are you putting your health at risk? Nutritionist Zoe Wilson has the answers.

Unlike our ancestors who had to visit the village market every day to buy fresh foods for dinner, we want the ease of foods that last in the fridge for weeks, sometimes months. We won’t settle for products that look less colourful or taste less flavoursome. And  so we process our foods adding flavours, preservatives and colours.

In New Zealand, there are more than 300 approved additives. Along with enhancing taste, they can make a food easier to use, that means no more gluggy or separated sauces or caking baking powder. They also make food last longer — can you imagine a bottle of tomato sauce lasting only three days? Sometimes additives contain extra nutrients, such as vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and fibre.

“Additives don’t automatically mean that a food is unhealthy —excess fat, salt and sugar also do that. However, they are usually an indicator that a food is over-processed, cheap and manufactured,” says nutritionist Catherine Saxelby. The food industry is taking note.

“We have definitely seen a trend away from the non-natural colours and flavours. So much so that rarely would we now develop a product that doesn’t have all natural colours and flavours,” says Chris Cester, marketing manager at The Flavour Makers, a company that supplies additives to the food industry.

Cester says consumers are pushing the food industry towards ‘clean labelling’, or making products that have simple ingredient lists and less additive numbers. In other words, a product as close to homemade, or natural, as possible.

And so, more products are touting the words ‘all natural’ on the pack, or in the brand name.

“All natural foods help us feel we’re doing something to help us eat right,” says Saxelby, who adds, “These foods are not automatically more whole or pure.”

Take, for example, lollies by The Natural Confectionery Company. They use natural colourings such as fruit juice concentrates, a plus, and lots of sugar, which is still natural, but not such a plus.

Saxelby says the brand name psychologically “gives parents permission to give their kids lollies.”

So, when we see a label that boasts ‘natural’ claims, we need to ask ourselves: ‘what’s not being said?’.

Similarly, the phrase ‘no artificial additives’ doesn’t mean a food is free from added fat, salt or sugar — as these are all natural. So, it’s important not to regard these product claims as a health endorsement.

It’s also wise not to assume a food containing artificial additives is always a bad choice — you need to look at what else is in the mix.

At some point, there’s a limit to how much we can reduce the additives in our foods. Cester believes we are not heading towards an ‘additive-free future’. As long as we’re living in a fast-paced world where we shop just once a week, we will continue to demand food that stays fresh in the fridge for more than a few days. We will also continue to seek out foods that don’t brown with age. And we’ll still demand quick and easy dinners that require minimal time or effort.

While it’s important to demand the best health standards of our food, it’s worth remembering all food additives have passed a rigorous government approval process. Eating additives is not a problem for most people. Sensitivities, while extremely unpleasant, are not common (see ‘Symptoms of intolerance’, below).

The real issue? Foods containing lots of additives are often high in fat, kilojoules and salt and low in nutrients (ie. cakes, chips, lollies and biscuits).

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) controls the use of food additives in New Zealand. Before any additive is given the green light for use, FSANZ thoroughly assesses it to determine if the food additive is safe.

“We base our decisions on gold standard science and all additives undergo an incredibly thorough review before being approved,” explains Lorraine Belanger, a spokesperson for FSANZ.

“If there are serious concerns [about a particular additive] that are raised by new science, then [FSANZ] will conduct a review. However, there are currently none under review at the moment.”

While FSANZ has deemed all approved food additives safe to eat, it’s a different story if you are one of the few people who are sensitive to certain additives.

Liz Beavis is a Sydney-based dietitian specialising in food intolerance. Here’s her list of the most common offenders.


Red, yellow and blue have been reported to cause symptoms, particularly in children. Chief offenders are annatto (160B), which being orange-yellow gives processed food a ‘natural’ colour; also tartrazine (102) (a yellow colouring), sunset yellow (110), amaranth (123) (a red colouring) and brilliant blue (133).

Sulphite preservatives

Common in dried fruit and wine and used to stop fruits, such as apples and apricots, from browning. Many preservatives can cause symptoms in sensitive people, but sulphites are one of the most common.

Research conducted by FSANZ published in 2005 found a small number of people, particularly children aged between two and five years-old, were actually eating more than the recommended daily limit of sulphite preservatives (numbers 210-213).

A possible reason for this? You will find these preservatives used in dried fruit so they’re in muesli, other breakfast cereals and snack foods containing fruit. With more and more pre-made fruit snacks and health food bars available, it’s even easier to increase our intake.

This is why, Beavis warns, even if you and your children eat a healthy diet, you may still be overdoing it if you’re sensitive.

“Sulphites are not a new additive. They have been used for centuries in things like wine, but now you end up having a little at meals and snacks during the day as well as with your glass of wine at night which all adds up without you being aware,” she says.

Flavour enhancers

These are added to savoury snacks and sauces to boost the flavour of foods. The most widely known is monosodium glutamate (MSG). Flavour enhancers likely to be a problem include glutamates with the numbers 621–635 (this includes MSG which is number 621).

Glutamate is found naturally in many foods, it is a building block of proteins and enhances the flavour of food. This is why foods naturally high in glutamate such as tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and stock are used as the foundation of many meals.

Savoury snacks and stocks, simmer and stir-fry sauces may contain flavour enhancers.

Beavis says the number of products using flavour enhancers has increased substantially over the past decade or so. We are also eating them more often than we used to, as we look for quick shortcuts to making a family dinner.

Food colourings

The most common symptoms of an intolerance are behaviour problems in children and headaches or an upset gut in adults.

Sulphites and flavour enhancers

Key symptoms are asthma, breathlessness and again, headaches or an upset gut.

Other sensitivity symptoms

The range of possible reactions is varied. Symptoms include recurrent hives and swellings, sinus trouble, mouth ulcers, nausea, or getting unusually tired for no apparent reason.

The good news

With some of these additives, it all comes down to how much you eat.

“You may not have to avoid the particular additive, simply cutting down the amount will help,” says dietitian Liz Beavis.

“Be careful not to cut out entire food groups, [you risk missing out on key nutrients], rather look for an alternative within that food group that is free of the additive that causes you a problem,” she says.

If you are worried you may have a sensitivity, then it could be worth trying an elimination diet with the help of a dietitian. This involves removing all potential problem foods for a period of time then slowly reintroducing them to see which particular additives may be the issue.

Q. Are all additives harmful?

No, in fact some additives may even be good for you. Vitamins and minerals are added to some foods to help increase our daily intake. Vitamin D which aids bone, muscle and brain health, is added to some dairy foods.

Folate is added to cereals. It is essential for metabolism as well as being vital for pregnant women to protect against neural tube defects in unborn babies.

In addition, vitamins E and C are powerful antioxidants that help to keep food fresh and can support your immune system and healing. These vitamins may be added to margarine, dips, juice, bread, and cereals.

Q. Is MSG really toxic?

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG (621), has a bad rap for causing reactions such as IBS and migraines. In fact, MSG is one of a widely-used group of flavour enhancers called glutamates which are found in many packet foods like soups, flavoured noodles, Asian sauces and savoury snacks as they enhance the ‘umami’ or hearty flavour.

For most people, MSG and other glutamates are harmless. Glutamates, however, may cause problems for a small number of people, so if you are sensitive to glutamates, check labels for the numbers 621-635 and try to reduce how much you have.

Q. Do diet soft drinks cause cancer?

No. Reviews of the scientific evidence on saccharin and aspartame have led to their continued approval for use by FSANZ and many regulatory bodies across the world. In saying that, there is a small minority of people with a rare condition (known as PKU) that makes them unable to digest aspartame.

Many soft drinks and even other ‘light drinks’ from cordials to fruit-flavoured drinks, are now being sweetened by flavourings which are derived from the stevia plant.

Q. Do colours cause hyperactivity?

A survey by FSANZ in Australia found that kids actually eat and drink less than five per cent of the acceptable daily intake for colours (even those who had the most). In occasional cases, however, people have sensitivities to some colours (see above).

The most notorious, red food die erythosamine has been restricted since 1997, and is now used only to colour maraschino cherries.

Wakefulness at night has also been linked to tartrazine (102).

A UK study in 2007 prompted a worldwide review of the safety of colours but authorities, including FSANZ, all reviewed the scientific evidence and found the UK study was flawed and that there was no reason to make changes to food laws.

Sometimes we may read that a particular additive is allowed to be used here, while it is ‘banned overseas’. But FSANZ says this is often misleading, and the additives actually haven’t been banned overseas at all. In some cases manufacturers in other countries haven’t ever applied to use certain additives because there are alternatives they can use. Sometimes additives are not approved because of circumstances unique to a country, such as different levels of possible exposure. And some additives were banned many years ago, and scientific evidence since then has proven them to be safe. Currently the EU is conducting a re-evaluation of additives approved before 2009; reviews are carried out here too when new science draws attention to a particular additive.

Four ways to cut additives from your shopping trolley

Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby shares her smart shopping tips.

Steer clear of things in packets. Avoid products with a long list of ingredients with lots of chemical names or code numbers. Common culprits are cordial, soft drinks, crisps, corn chips or noodles that are flavoured (including nacho cheese, French onion, barbecue, chicken), soup mixes, simmer sauces, salad dressings, meal bases, coloured lollies (M&Ms, Smarties, jellies such as snakes), muesli bars, supermarket biscuits, cake mixes and instant puddings and desserts.

Cook from scratch and use flavourings made from herbs, fresh vegetables, meat, fish, a little oil, flour or low-fat yoghurt. Make your own pasta tomato sauce as well as pesto, stock, salad dressings and marinades and you are sure to consume no additives.

Know the numbers. Read the ingredient list on the back of the pack for additives. Don’t just believe all the claims on the front. Get familiar with the code numbers that are potentially a problem for you. If you are concerned, keep the list (see below) in your wallet to double-check when you’re at the supermarket.

Eat the ‘classics’. Compare two products side by side and buy the one that has the shorter ingredient list or the fewest additives on the label. Usually it’s the plain, unflavoured version, often dubbed ‘original’ or ‘classic’, eg.

  • 4 ingredients in Eta Upper Cuts – Sea Salt
    Corn, sunflower oil, poppy seeds (3.5%), salt
  • 26 ingredients in Eta Upper Cuts – Feta and Garlic
    Corn, sunflower oil, flavour [salt, milk solids, dehydrated garlic, flavour enhancers (621, 635), sugar, cheese powder, onion powder, tapioca starch, acidity regulators (270, 327, 262), flavours, yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein {(soy, wheat), colour (150c)}, herb, vegetable oil [antioxidants (319, 306)], anticaking agent (551), emulsifier (433), spice extracts], poppy seeds (3.5%).

Here’s a list of additives most likely to cause symptoms to those who have particular sensitivities.


  • Artificial: 102, 107, 110, 122-129, 132, 133, 142, 151, 155
  • Natural: 160B (annatto)


  • Glutamates: 621-635 (soups, pasta sauces, stocks, Asian sauces, curry pastes and savoury snacks)


  • Sorbates: 200-203 (mainly in juices, cheese spreads and dips)
  • Benzoates: 210-218 (mainly in cordials, fruit drinks and fruit sauces)
  • Sulphites: 220-228 (mainly in wine, pickled onions and dried fruit)
  • Nitrates, nitrites: 249-252: (mainly in cured meats, bacon, ham and salami)
  • Propionates: 280-283 (mainly in confectionary, bread and biscuits)
  • Antioxidants: 310-312, 319–321 (mainly in table spreads, dips, mayonnaise and salad dressings)
Sunreal Dried Apricots, with preservatives (sulphur dioxide, potassium sorbate) Pams Ready To Eat California Raisins, with none
Bazaar Tortilla Wraps — wholemeal, with baking powder (450,500,341), acidity regulator (297), emulsifier (472e), preservatives (200, 202, 282) Jabal Lebanese bread — wheatmeal, with none
Arnott’s Harvest Wheat Wheat Cracker, with raising agents (341, 500), flavour enhancer (621), food acid (330), emulsifier (322) Arnott’s Vita-Wheat 9-grains, with none


Did you know? Of all the additives in processed foods, the most harmful for most people is sodium chloride, aka salt.


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