- What are food additives?
- Coding of food additives
- Classification of food additives
- Looking for additives in foods
- Differences between natural and artificial colouring
- Are food additives safe to consume?
- Sensitivity of individuals to food additives
- Useful tips for diagnosis and management
Food additives are chemical substances added to foods to improve flavour, texture, colour, appearance and consistency, or as preservatives during manufacturing or processing. Herbs, spices, hops, salt, yeast, water, air and protein hydrolysates are excluded from this definition.
Confusion has arisen regarding whether or not vitamins and minerals are considered to be food additives. In Australia, Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) classifies vitamins and minerals as a distinct set of food additives, and they are regulated separately in their own standard. For example, the fortification of vitamin C in fruit juice or calcium in milk products is aimed at improving the nutritional quality of food products.
Food additives can be extracted from natural sources. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, (300) is extracted from fruit, and lecithin (322) from egg yolks. Food additives can also be synthesised in a laboratory. Synthetic compounds from the laboratory either do not occur in nature, or are chemically identical to natural materials (known as nature-identical).
In many countries, the use of food additives is regulated, and food additives must be declared on food labels by using their chemical names or numbers. In Australia, food additives are assessed by FSANZ before they are allowed to be used. Before FSANZ approves the use of any new additive in a particular food, they ensure that:
- The additive is safe to consume (at the requested level in that particular food);
- There are good technological reasons for the use of the additive; and
- Consumers will be clearly informed about its presence.
If no adverse health effects are demonstrated on the requested use, FSANZ will approve the food additive and recommend a maximum level of food additive permitted in particular foods. Generally, food additives approved by FSANZ are safe to consume without any adverse reactions, however, some people are sensitive to particular food additives in common use.
The food additive coding system was developed by the European Community (EC). The European food additive code numbers are prefixed by 'E' (e.g. E223). These E-numbers indicate the food additives that are approved for use in Europe.
Countries outside Europe use the numbers but do not add the E prefix. For example, acetic acid is written as E260 on food products sold in Europe, but it is known as additive 260 in Australia. Additive 103, alkanet, is approved for use in Australia and New Zealand, but is not approved for use in Europe and so does not have an E number.
Different types of food additives and their functions are listed in Table 1.
Table 1: Classes of food additives
Class of additive
|Anti-caking agents||Keep powdered products (e.g. salt) flowing freely when poured|
|Anti-foaming agents||Reduce or prevent foaming in foods|
|Antioxidants||Retard or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods|
|Artificial sweeteners||Impart a sweet taste for fewer kilojoules/calories than sugar|
|Bleaching agents||Whiten foods|
|Bulking agents||Increasing the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value|
|Colourings||Add or restore colour to foods|
|Colour retention agents||Retain or intensify the colour of a food|
|Emulsifiers||Prevent oil and water mixtures separating into layers|
|Enzymes||Break down foods (e.g. ferment milk into cheese)|
|Firming agents||Strengthen the structure of the food and prevent its collapse during processing|
|Flavour enhancers||Improve the flavour and/or aroma of a food|
|Food acids||Maintain a constant level of sourness in a food|
|Flour treatment agents||Improve flour performance in bread making|
|Glazing agents||Impart a shiny appearance or provide a protective coating to a food|
|Gelling agents||Thicken and stabilize various foods (e.g. jellies, deserts and candies)|
|Humectants||Prevent foods from drying out (e.g. dried fruits)|
|Mineral salts||Improve the texture of a food (e.g. processed meats)|
|Preservatives||Protect against deterioration caused by microorganisms|
|Propellants||Gases which help propel a food from a container|
|Sequestrants||Bind and remove unwanted minerals that cause oxidation|
|Stabilisers||Maintain the uniform dispersion of substances in a food|
|Thickeners||Improve texture and maintain uniform consistency|
|Vitamins||Restore vitamins lost in processing and storage|
Food additives can be found in the ingredients list on the food label. Food labelling enables consumers to identify the presence of additives in packaged food and to make an informed choice about the foods they buy.
According to FSANZ, food additives are required to be identified by their class name, followed by an individual name or code number. To simplify the food labels, a code number is used to replace the individual name of the food additives. Food additives may be listed in food labels as, for example, thickener (guar gum) or thickener (412).
A list of food additives that are currently used in Australia can be found on the FSANZ website.
Artificial or synthetic colours are synthesised in the laboratory. They can be chemically identical to colours that occurs naturally. Natural colours are derived from natural or biogenic sources (e.g. animal, vegetable or mineral). Both natural and artificial colours are used in food products like ice creams, confectionery, biscuits, sweet meats, fruit drinks, seasonings, pharmaceutical tablets and syrups.
The use of colour additives which might cause cancer or hyperactivity in children has raised concern among consumers. It is possible, but rare, to have an allergic-type reaction to a colour additive. For example, tartrazine (102) is an artificial colouring that has been associated with allergic reactions in some rare instances. Reactions have ranged from rashes and swelling to asthma, and possibly even to behavioural changes. Individuals should read food labels and avoid certain colour additives if they experience allergic reactions.
Although safety assessments of food additives are carried out by FSANZ before the food additives are approved for use, food additives can still induce adverse reactions in some sensitive individuals. According to FSANZ, it does recognise the adverse reactions to food additives in a small proportion of the population. These reactions are not the same as allergies, but may include rashes and swelling of the skin, irritable bowel symptoms, behavioural changes in children, and headaches.
Two major groups of food sensitivity are known as food allergy and food intolerance. Food allergies are abnormal immunologic responses to a particular food or food component. In contrast, food intolerances are non-immunologic responses. Generally, total avoidance of the culprit food is necessary for true food allergies. Food intolerances can be managed by limiting the amount of the food or food ingredient that is eaten. Total avoidance is usually not necessary for food intolerances.
Some commonly used food additives that tend to induce adverse reactions are:
Aspartame (951) is an artificial sweetener that is used to replace sugars in foods and beverages. The long term effects of aspartame on health have been studied intensively, but results were inconclusive. It is noted that aspartame induces carcinogenic effects in a dose-related manner. Contradictory results were shown in studies which reported that aspartame consumption in foods and beverages does not raise the risk of brain or other cancers.
Although inconclusive results were shown in several studies, FSANZ and other international regulatory agencies concluded that aspartame is safe to consume. Aspartame is approved for general use in tabletop sweeteners, carbonated soft drinks, yoghurt and confectionery.
The acceptable daily intake (ADI) of aspartame is currently 50 mg/kg body weight in the United States, and 40 mg/kg body weight in Australia and the European Union for both children and adults.
Sodium benzoate (211) is used as a food colouring and preservative in foods. Children who consumed a mixture of food colourings and preservatives from soft drinks and confectionery at high levels were found to be more hyperactive than those who did not have the colourings and preservatives. Colourings and preservatives can be minimised in diets by including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and eliminating processed foods.
Monosodium glutamate (621) is often added to food as a flavour enhancer but it can also occur naturally in food. While in the past MSG has been implicated as the causative agent of Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) and asthmatic attacks there is insufficient evidence to support this at the levels consumed in food.
Nitrates or nitrites are added as a preservative, antimicrobial agent or colour fixative to processed foods such as meats and cheese. Nitrate also occurs naturally in water, vegetables and plants. The human body converts nitrate in food into nitrite. Nitrite has been implicated in a variety of long term health effects, including gastric cancer.
Sulphite sensitivity is a food intolerant reaction. Sulphites exist in several forms (e.g. sodium and potassium metabisulphite, sodium and potassium bisulphite, sodium sulphite, and sulfur dioxide). Sulphite has many functions, including as a antimicrobial agent. It inhibits enzymatic and nonenzymatic browning, whitens foods, and serves as a dough conditioner. Manifestations of sulphite sensitivity include anaphylaxis and asthma.
Tartrazine (102) is an approved artificial food colour. Tartrazine has been implicated in the aggravation of both asthma and chronic urticaria in some people. However, the association of tartrazine in the provocation of asthma and chronic urticaria is controversial. Some studies have shown a cause-and-effect relationship, whereas other studies have not. Both asthma and chronic urticaria are chronic illnesses with symptoms that tend to flare up at unpredictable times.
Food additives used in food products are approved by FSANZ. However, some individuals are sensitive to specific food additives. The degree of sensitivity varies from person to person.
There has been a debate regarding the detrimental effect of artificial colours and preservatives on the behaviour of children. It has been suggested that artificial food colours and other preservatives may produce overactive, impulsive and inattentive behaviours in children. However, the sensitivity of each individual to artificial colours is different. Some children have positive changes of behaviour when artificial colours are eliminated from their diet, while others do not.
Children who have hyperactive or hyperkinetic behaviour are to a larger extent diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although ADHD is normally present at birth and tends to run in families, a study showed that food additives also predispose school-aged children to hyperactive behaviours. A child with ADHD has difficulty focusing his attention or engaging in quiet passive activities, and has educational difficulties, especially in relation to reading.
Some food colours and preservatives (e.g. sulphite, tartrazine and MSG) can induce asthma. Therefore, asthmatic individuals should beware of these components in food products and beverages.
- Keeping a list of suspected foods allows easier identification of the culprit foods.
- Record all foods consumed, and any symptoms that occur coincident with ingestion, in a food diary.
- Showing the food diary to physicians will aid the diagnosis of adverse reactions to certain foods.
- If the test confirms an allergic reaction, avoid the substance that caused it.
- Read the food label carefully and beware of the allergenic agents in food products.
For more information on food groups and components, see Types and Composition of Food.
For more information on nutrition, including information on nutrition and people, conditions related to nutrition, and diets and recipes, as well as some useful videos and tools, see Nutrition.
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|Modified: 15/2/2012||Reviewed: 7/7/2008||Created: 3/3/2006|
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