In Australia, there are more than 300 food additives which are approved for use including those synthetically made from petrochemicals. Each food additive is identified by its name and a number; and classified by the functions it performs. For a comprehensive list, click here.
Additives are used in foods to replace the nutritional value and taste lost in processing, enhance their texture or appearance, prolong shelf life, stop food from decaying and facilitate the preparation of processing.
They are also used to replace ‘real’ ingredients to enhance flavour, giving extra taste to otherwise bland products and to make junk foods more appealing.
Are food additives safe?
Most of their long term safety is untested and questionable, especially the combined effect of literally hundreds of synthetic chemicals found in food.
Many have been linked to allergic reactions, rashes, headaches, mood problems, asthma, behavioural changes in children, obesity, heart disease and cancer.
Who regulates the use of food additives?
The use of food additives in Australia is governed by the Food Standards Code and regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
If an additive is approved for use by FSANZ, it is considered safe. However, there are some food additives approved for use in Australia when they are banned in other countries.
Under the current legislation, manufacturers are not required to list food additives if they are present in an ingredient that comprises 5 per cent or less of the product. Manufacturers also do not have to specify whether additives are natural or synthetic on the labels of products.
Some manufacturers like to use the word ‘natural’ whenever possible to attract customers. Food additives derived from natural sources are not necessarily safer than other additives. Be aware of this when choosing food products and don’t be swayed by deceptive marketing tactics and claims of natural ingredients.
Artificial colourings serve no purpose in food. They are only used by manufacturers to enhance the appearance of their products especially those marketed to children.
Would you feed yourself or your children petroleum? Do you know that artificial food colourings are made from coal tar and petrochemicals?
Many artificial colourings such as Tartrazine (yellow, 102), Quinoline Yellow (104), Sunset Yellow (110), Azorubine or Carmoisine (red,122), Amaranth (123), Ponceau 4R (red, 124), Allura Red (129), Green S (142), Brilliant Black (151) and Brown HT (155) are azo dyes which are derived from coal tar.
Several degradation products of azo dyes are known to be mutagenic (causes mutation) and carcinogenic (causes cancer).
In 2007 a study conducted by the University of Southampton UK, published in medical journal ‘The Lancet’ found that Tartrazine (102), Quinoline Yellow (104), Sunset Yellow (110), Azorubine or Carmoisine (122), Ponceau 4R (124) and Allura Red (129) could cause hyperactivity and behavioural changes in children.
Even though these six colours have been removed from all foods in the UK and banned in other countries, they are still used regularly in hundreds of products in Australia, including cheeses, soups, sauces, cordials, soft drinks, snack foods, ice creams, yoghurts, lollies, breakfast cereals, jelly, fruit juices, fruit snacks and more!
Look out for other synthetic food colourings such as Erythrosine (cherry-pink, 127), Indigotine (blue, 132), Brilliant Blue FCF (133) and Fast Green FCF (143) as they are all derived from petrochemicals.
Are natural colourings safe?
Natural colourings are often marketed aggressively using the label ‘No Artificial Colouring’ but they are not necessarily safer than synthetic ones.
Carmine or cochineal (120) is a dye made from ground-up husks of beetles which gives the red colouring, commonly used in ‘strawberry’ flavoured yoghurt and snacks. Some people can have extreme allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock resulting in coma or death.
Annatto extracts (160b) is derived from the seed of the Achiote tree to produce a yellow to orange colouring, often used for cheese and butter. It can cause allergic reactions for some, usually hives.
Even though manufacturers describe Caramels (150a to150d) as natural colours on labels, they are produced synthetically.
- 150a Caramel I – plain
- 150b Caramel II – caustic sulphite process
- 150c Caramel III – ammonia process
- 150d Caramel IV – ammonia sulphite process
10 tips on how to avoid artificial food colourings
1) Read the label and don’t buy products that include 102, 104, 110, 122, 123, 124, 127, 129, 132, 133, 142, 143, 151, 155 on their ingredient list.
2) Avoid foods with a lot of different bright colours such as lollies and breakfast cereals.
3) Avoid processed and packaged food as much as possible.
4) Avoid flavoured milk or yoghurt (strawberry milk does not have strawberries in it).
5) Don’t be fooled by the term ‘No Artificial Colouring’. Watch out for Caramels (150b to 150d as they are often described as natural colours even though they are produced synthetically.
6) Look for foods that use genuine, natural food colourings such as beta-carotene, beet powder, paprika, saffron, turmeric, real vegetable and fruit juice.
7) Choose certified organic snacks as they do not have artificial colourings. Beware of foods labelled ‘made with organic ingredients’ as some might still have artificial colourings.
8) Eat fresh, organic and whole foods.
9) Remember artificial colourings are not only found in foods, but also in personal care products such as toothpaste and mouthwashes. Read the labels carefully.
10) Most paediatric medicines are also artificially coloured. Ask your doctor if there is an additive-free substitute that would work just as well.
Yours to healthy eating,
Dr Esther Lok
Disclaimer: All advice may not be construed as medical advice or instruction and is not meant to replace the advice of your medical practitioner. Information has been compiled from the author’s personal experiences and own research into multiple existing public references and previously published scientific studies. While all care is taken, information is not warranted as accurate and The Organics Institute and Dr Esther Lok cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions.