Food additives are simply ingredients which are added to our food and drink to preserve the flavour and shelf life, enhance the taste, retain the moisture content or improve the appearance. Some food additives, such as salt in preserving and curing foods, vinegar in fermenting vegetables and baking powder in cakes and biscuits, have been used for centuries. However, in today’s food and drink synthetic preservatives are widely used. Often listed with their chemical name or number, additives can leave parents completely confused as to their purpose and effect on their children.
Additives and processed food go together. The more highly processed foods you eat, the more additives you’ll eat too. Take an average child’s lunch box comprising of processed foods – it can contain up to 40 additives, some of which could have side effects on your child’s health if they have a sensitivity to a particular additive or if they overconsume them. Around 5 per cent of the general population in Australia are sensitive to one or more food additives.
The use of these different food additives is regulated in Australia by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). A safety assessment is carried out on each food additives before it can be used to check whether the food additive is safe (at the use levels being proposed). In addition, there must also be a good technological reason for using the additive, such as preventing food poisoning.
The easiest way to avoid any ingestion of additives is to eat homemade or lightly processed food, and of course, look for products free from additives, specifically artificial ones. These will generally have an easy to read and understand, short ingredient list – like all of Whole Kids’ products.
The potential health risks
A number of different health risks including asthma, allergies, migraines, hyperactivity and even cancer, have been linked to additives and whilst there is a lot of inconclusive evidence there are some instances where the health risk is justified. Some of the main additive groups which are linked with health concerns are listed here.
Sulphites (including sodium bisulphite (222), sodium metabisulphite (223) and potassium bisulphite (228)) found in some dried fruit, are known to trigger asthmatic episodes and cause migraines in people who are sensitive to them. Sodium nitrate (251) and sodium nitrite (250), which are used in processed meats, have been classified as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ by the International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC).
Flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) (621): some people experience symptoms such as headaches and thirst if they eat a large amount of MSG in a single meal. This is often associated with Asian food but can be hidden in savoury snacks.
In terms of artificial colours, a UK government-funded study concluded that a mixture of colourings such as tartrazine (102), allura red (129) and ponceau 4R (124), and the preservative sodium benzoate (211) could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children. The colours don’t have a functional purpose and are often used simply for marketing purposes. Within the EU, foods containing these colours are now labelled with a mandatory warning: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”3 However, at present FSANZ say dietary exposure to added colours in food and beverages doesn’t pose a public health and safety concern for children in Australia.
Whole Kids’ policy on additives: if it’s not in the pantry, it won’t be in our food
Whole Kids is aware of the potential side effects of eating additives and would never want to subject your kids to these, that’s why we keep our ingredients list short, avoid the use of artificial additives – we only ever use baking powder and salt, which you would commonly find in your pantry.
It’s also another benefit of organic products; to be certified organic means to grow or manufacture a product free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics.
 How Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) ensures the safety of food additives, updated July 2013. http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/additives/additivecontrol/Pages/default.aspx (accessed 28 Feb 2017).
 Choice. Food additives you should avoid, 2014 https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/food-warnings-and-safety/food-additives/articles/food-additives-you-should-avoid (accessed 18 April 2017)
About the Author
Diana Austen works for Whole Kids as a Nutrition Advisor. With a Master’s degree in nutrition, she has over six years’ experience working with a range of companies on innovation, strategic insight and regulatory and scientific affairs. Fascinated by the nutritional requirements of infants and young children she focuses specifically on products for this age group.