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Additives – Colours, Preservatives & Flavours

General | October 8, 2017 | Author: Naturopath


Additives – Colours, Preservatives & Flavours

We have the scoop on health risks associated with additives, and what you can do to navigate tricky ingredients labels:

What is an “Additive”?

A food additive is anything that a manufacturer adds to a product in order to:

Improve the quality of the food.
(e.g. humectant to prevent icing from drying out)

Preserve food to extend its shelf lift. [1]
(e.g. sulphur dioxide to preserve dried fruit or processed meats)

Improve the taste and appearance of food.
(e.g. beeswax coating to make apples look shiny)

Additives include preservatives, colours, sweeteners, antioxidants, and more.

Anything beyond the fundamental ingredients of the food itself is considered an “additive” – e.g. water, sugar and lemon juice are the key ingredients for lemonade, but manufacturers could add additives like preservatives to prevent the growth of mould and extend shelf life; colours to make it look bright; flavours to enhance the taste; and artificial sweeteners to make it even sweeter.

Understanding Additives on Australian Ingredient Labels

In Australia, most additives need to be identified on the ingredients label and are usually designated by a specific number [1].

The most controversial additive classes are:

  • 100 – 199: Colours
  • 200 – 299: Preservatives
  • 300 – 399: Antioxidants
  • 400 – 499: Mostly emulsifiers (to stop water and oil from separating), stabilisers, and thickeners (some thickeners are in the 1000s range)
  • 420: Sorbitol, an artificial sweetener
  • 600 – 699: Flavour enhancers (sometimes written as “Flavour”)
  • 900 – 999: Intense artificial sweeteners

Other additives include acidity regulators, anti-caking agents, bulking agents, foaming agents, gelling agents, glazing agents, humectant (which reduce moisture loss), and raising agents.

Click Here for a full list of all the food additives used in Australia, ordered by their label number.

How Additives Got Into The Food Supply

Additives are a new addition to our food supply– preserving and colouring used to come from natural ingredients like salt and vegetable dyes.

In the early 1960's, chemical additives became more common as supermarkets rose in popularity. 

These additives allowed big markets to stock bulk amounts of products with less spoilage and waste, and longer shelf life. Simultaneously, there was a rise in dual-income families which increased the demand for meals that could be quickly and easily prepared, and food that could be stocked in bulk in the home. 

Now days, most packaged food labels have at least one additive number – some read more like a university level chemistry exam.

It's important to note that not all additives are dangerous. For example, additive 406 is agar, a natural gum that is often used in macrobiotic cooking and gluten free baking. As an additive, it is used to thicken food or add chewy or goopy texture. Food manufacturers aren't out to cause harm to their consumers – they only use additives if they believe it will genuinely improve the safety and quality of their products. As a safety measure, all additives and colours are assessed by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand authority before they are approved for use.

That being said, some research suggests that certain additives may pose a threat to health. Here's how to spot them and why you might want to avoid them:

Controversial Food Additives

Food Colours

Colour additives can be natural or artificial. Artificial colours are lab-created, often derived from petroleum, and contain molecules that never appear in nature. Natural colours are  either taken directly from the natural source (e.g. beetroot or turmeric powder), or are re-created in a lab to be “nature identical” - that is, they create molecules that are identifical to how they appear in nature.

Food Colours & Health

Could artificial food colours cause hyperactivity, migraines and cancer? Frankly, the jury is out.

Three landmark published in 2004 to 2007 called the “Southampton Studies” concluded that certain artificial colours could be linked to hyperactivity in children when combined with predisposing factors like genetics [2][3]. However, more recent reviews concluded that many past studies on ADHD and food colours were heavily biased [4].
Further research suggests that artificial colours may cause tumours, nerve toxicity, allergies and even cancers [5]. At the same time, plenty of other studies conclude that artificial colours prove no threat to health, or are only dangerous if eaten in high amounts.

It's also important to note that even natural colours can cause severe allergies in some people.

Here are the artificial colours in the Southampton studies that are found in many Australian food products:

  • Sunset yellow FCF (110)
  • Quinoline yellow (104)
  • Carmoisine (122)
  • Allura red (129)
  • Tartrazine (102)

Other controversial artificial colours in Australian foods include:

  • Amaranth purple (123)
  • Black (151)
  • Brilliant blue (133)
  • Brown (155)
  • Erythrosine cherry red (127)
  • Green (142, 143)
  • Indigo blue (132)

In the EU and the UK, products containing the Southampton colours must now display a warning: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. However, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) found that most Australians consume less than 5% of the Acceptable Daily Limit of all artificial colours and that this low exposure “does not pose a public health and safety concern for Australians” [6], so there has been no extra labelling in Australia.

TIP: Hyperactivity in children may be due to a variety of reasons, so speak to a nutritionist and your GP before making any major diet changes.


Preventing food spoilage is important for public safety. Most preservatives are considered safe, but there are three preservatives that are clear-cut dangerous for some consumers:

Benzoate (212) + Ascorbic Acid (330) → Benzene

Commonly found in soft drinks

Some soft drinks contain a volatile combination of preservatives: sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate (212) and ascorbic acid (naturally occurring or as an additive 330). Yes, even natural vitamin C can pose a threat!

Benzoate and vitamin C react to form a dangerous carcinogen called benzene
Benzene is a crude element of oil and the petroleum industry has even limited its use of benzene because it's so carcinogenic – not the tastiest ingredient for a beverage!

As well as potentially causing cancer, benzene has been linked to headaches, migraine, anaemia, and harming bone marrow [7]. 

TIP: Cigarette smoke (including passive smoking) is a major source of benzene exposure. Other sources include art supplies, petrol, car exhaust and solvents [7].

Nitrite (251) & Nitrate (250) 

Commonly found in bacon, ham, salami and other processed meats

Processed meats like bacon and ham are often preserved with sodium nitrate (251) and sodium nitrite (250), two chemicals that can convert into nitrosamine during digestion. While nitrate and nitrite aren't carcinogenic themselves, nitrosamine is. The World Health Organisation has declared nitrate and nitrite preservatives to “probably cause cancer in humans” [8] – eat with caution!

Sulphites (220 – 228)

Commonly found in wine and dried fruits

Sulphites (220 – 228)Sulphur has been used as a food preservative since Greek and Roman times. It preserves food's natural colours, prevents bacterial and yeast growth, and stops fresh produce from spoiling.

Unfortunately, sulphur can also trigger asthma attacks!

Sulphite additives are most commonly found in high amounts in wine and dried fruits, and sulphur dioxide (220) is the most notorious for triggering asthma.

Artificial Sweetners

Sugar is public enemy #1 at the moment, but replacing it with certain artificial sweeteners can be dangerous for some people. FSANZ says that sweeteners such as sucralose (955), saccharine (954) and sugar alcohols (e.g. xylitol) are safe for consumption at the current levels found in the food supply [9], but they may cause some people to experience allergies, migraines, and gastrointestinal upsets. The most controversial sweetener of all is aspartame.

  • Aspartame (951) is a sweetener that has been linked to over fifty reported side effects [10]. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and is created by joining two amino acids together – phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Rodent studies have found that aspartame can cause nerve damage, obesity and cancer in rats, but human studies are still battling it out between serious calls to ban aspartame and others (including FSANZ) saying it's totally safe [11] [12].  Aspartame is most commonly found in “diet” or “low sugar” food and drinks.


Get your hands on a copy of The Chemical Maze Click Here for link, a pocket-sized book that guides you through each additive found in Australia, how it's made, the risks, and summarises its safety. Even better, download the app!
Click Here for link

TIP: Making sudden, major dietary changes can sometimes cause more harm than good. If you suspect you are suffering from symptoms caused by additives, a qualified nutritionist can help to identify which ones may be responsible and help you to make targeted, healthy dietary changes. Australia’s best online discount chemist


[1]  Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2016) Additives.

[2] McCann, D., et al. (2007) Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, 370:9598 , 1560 – 1567.

[3] Bateman, B., et al. (2004) The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. Arch Dis Child., 89:6, 506 – 11.

[4] Nigg, J. T., et al. (2012) Meta-Analysis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms, Restriction Diet, and Synthetic Food Color Additives. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry., 51:1, 86 – 97.  

[5] Kobylewski, S., & Jacobson, M. F. (2010) Food Dyes – Rainbow of Risks. Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

[6] Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2012) Food colours.

[7] American Cancer Society (2016) Benzene.

[8] International Agency for Research on Cancer - World Health Organisation (2015) IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat.

[9] Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2017) Intense Sweeteners.

[10] FDA Dockets Submission (2003) Reported Aspartame Toxicity Reactions.

[11] Rycerz, K. & Jaworska-Adamu, J. E. (2013) Effects of aspartame metabolites on astrocytes and neurons. Folio Neuropathologica, 51:1, 10 – 17.

[12] Palmäs, M. S., et al. (2014) Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. PLoS ONE, 9:10, e109841.

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