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Food additives: your questions answered

Sue Kedgley MP, Green Party Safe Food Spokesperson

Additives are substances not normally found in foods which are added to extend shelf life, and improve flavour, colour and texture. Most highly processed foods cannot be made without them.

What are they?
Additives include synthetic antioxidants, thickening agents, flavourings, colourings, emulsifiers, coal tar dyes and preservatives such as sulphites and nitrites.

A complete list can be found in the little booklet, “Identifying Food Additives” published by the NZ Food Safety Authority.

More than 4000 additives are added to the processed foods we eat each day. A child eating a diet comprised mostly of processed food could easily be consuming more than 100 different additives every day.

It’s impossible to know what effect this cocktail is having on our bodies.


Preservatives are widely used to extend the shelf-life of food but while they stop food from going mouldy or rancid, some have side effects and question marks surrounding their safety. Thirty preservatives are allowed to be used in NZ food. These include:

220 Sulphur dioxide
221 Sodium sulphite
222 Sodium bisulphate
223 Sodium metabisulphite
224 Potassium sulphite
225 Potassium sulphite
226 Calcium sulphite
227 Calcium hydrogen sulphite
228 Potassium bisulphite

Sulphur dioxide and eight sulphite compounds are used as preservatives in a wide range of foods including dried fruit and vegetables, fruit juices, soups, processed fish, cooked sausages, some brands of biscuits, fruit bars, tomato paste, some jams, instant coffee, gelatine, sauces, gravy and wine and beer.

Because they prevent fruit and vegetables from going brown, they may also be sprayed onto French fries in fast food outlets, and are used as bleaching agents for flour and food starches. They prevent yeast and bacterial growth in food and stop fats and oils from going rancid. Some sulphites are used to sterilize equipment in food factories.

Sulphites have been linked to severe asthma attacks in an estimated 5-10 percent of asthma sufferers and are also linked to stomach problems and symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, irregular breathing and nervous irritability in some people.

Scientists have found treating food with sulphites can reduce its vitamin B1 or thiamine content which is vital to the nervous system.

In New Zealand foods containing more than 10ppm of sulphur dioxide must be labelled to help sensitive people avoid them. Be aware that you could exceed this dose daily by consuming any combination of the many foods containing sulphites.

Information from Eating Safely in a Toxic World, by Sue Kedgley, Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Choose foods that have no preservatives – but be aware they will go off faster or need to be refrigerated.
  • Asthmatics and sufferers of eczema, ulcers and allergies should avoid sulphites.
  • Avoid or reduce your intake of those foods containing the highest concentrations of sulphites; i.e. dried fruits, dehydrated vegetables and some sausages.
  • Be aware that French fries and other potato products in fast food restaurants could be treated, as could salads in salad bars
  • Choose organic wine and beer.

If you choose food without preservatives it must be kept fresh. Use it immediately or follow instructions for refrigeration. Mouldy or rancid food can have significant adverse health effects.

Nitrates and Nitrites

249 Potassium nitrite
250 Sodium nitrite
251 Sodium nitrate
252 Potassium nitrate

Nitrites and nitrates are used to prevent highly toxic bacteria that cause botulism food poisoning from developing in red meat and fish. They also perform a cosmetic function by turning processed meat pink.

They are found in virtually all cooked and cured meat, sausages, bacon, ham, frankfurters, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, pate and luncheon sausage, and may also be used in fresh meat and chicken that has been prepared in some way for sale.

Nitrates can convert into nitrites in the body. When nitrites combine with other chemicals called amines in the gastric juices of the stomach, they can form chemicals called nitrosamines, which have been linked to the development of cancers in many species of animals.

JECFA (the joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives) says it is “highly probable” that nitrites are carcinogenic in humans. Nitrites are heavily restricted in some European countries. They are not permitted in organic foods in NZ.

Information from Eating Safely in a Toxic World, by Sue Kedgley, Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Look for nitrite-free processed meats and avoid or reduce your consumption of smoked, cured and processed meat and fish products.
  • Choose products labelled “preservative free”, or certified organic.
  • If you do eat foods containing nitrites, consume food or drink high in vitamin C at the same time, as there is some evidence that anti-oxidants such as vitamins A, C and E can protect against cancer-causing effects when consumed at the same time.


210 Benzoic acid
211 Sodium benzoate
212 Potassium benzoate
213 Calcium benzoate
216 Propylparaben or Propyl–p-hydroxy-benzoate
218 Methylparaben or Methyl-p-hydroxy-benzoate

Benzoates are tasteless, odourless preservatives used in some fruit juices, cordial, soft drinks, sauces and toppings, margarine, jam, pickles, chutney, cider, coconut milk, non-canned, preserved fish, milk-shake syrups and concentrated tomato juice.

Benzoates have been linked to allergies, asthma, skin reactions, hyperactivity, gastric irritation, and migraines. When used in combination with sodium bisulphate (222), the reactions for asthmatics may be even more severe.

Benzoate can affect the natural balance of bacteria in the intestines. Tests have found benzoates produce toxic effects in many species and the Soviet Union, heavily restricts their use.

Regulatory bodies such as JECFA (the joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives) acknowledge that benzoic acid can provoke allergy and intolerance in some people, especially those who suffer from asthma, hyperactivity and urticaria.

Information from Eating Safely in a Toxic World, by Sue Kedgley, Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Choose food labelled as preservative free, or certified organic, but be aware of the need to prevent food going rancid or mouldy.


Antioxidants stop oils and fats from going rancid. They also stop food going brown or developing black spots, and they prevent artificial flavourings and colourings from decomposing. Twenty-four different antioxidants are permitted for use in New Zealand food, including:

320 Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
321 Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

BHA and BHT are used in hundreds of processed foods and it is easy to consume more than the recommended daily amount. Synthetically manufactured, petroleum-based and fat-soluble, these antioxidants are found in chips, fried snack foods and baked foods such as biscuits.

They are also found in some vegetable oils, shortening, lard, fat, margarine, carbonated drinks, cheese spreads, chewing gum, ice cream, dry breakfast cereal, cosmetics, animal feeds and drugs.

They have been linked to hyperactivity and other allergic reactions such as rashes and asthma as well as other ill-health effects in humans. They accumulate in body fat.

In animal tests, BHT has caused liver cancer and lung tumours, increased blood cholesterol, reduced growth rates and body weight and been linked to birth defects in rats.

A Japanese study found BHA caused cancerous tumours in the fore-stomachs of rats, mice and hamsters leading to the Japanese Government banning it from food.

Some European countries heavily restrict use of BHA and BHT, but in New Zealand it can be used up to 100ppm in food.

Information from Eating Safely in a Toxic World, by Sue Kedgley, Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Choose food and drinks labelled with “no artificial antioxidants.”
  • Use good quality vegetable oils like cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil which naturally contains antioxidants such as vitamin E.
  • Eat fresh produce that doesn’t need additives.

Artificial Sweeteners:

There are 15 different artificial sweeteners permitted in New Zealand food, including:
950 Acesulphame K (or potassium)
951 Aspartame
952 Sodium or Calcium cyclamate
954 Saccharin
955 Sucralose

Initially targeted at diabetics, artificial sweeteners have boomed on the food and drink market as the demand for diet-food products has increased.
Cheaper to produce than sugar, they are found in foods marketed as ‘low-calorie’, ‘lite’, ‘diet’, and ‘low-sugar’ such as biscuits, sweets, jams, soft drinks, sauces, breath mints and diet desserts.
These controversial sweeteners lack the minerals found in unrefined cane sugars and there have been health scares and safety concerns about nearly every one of them available on the market.

Saccharin has been found to cause bladder cancer in male rats and is considered a possible carcinogen by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the US, food containing saccharin must be labelled with a warning that use of this product may be hazardous to health and has caused cancer in laboratory animals. In New Zealand no label warning is required.

Cyclamate is banned in the US and Canada and many other countries after animal testing linked it to liver damage, bladder cancer, birth mutations and defects, reduces testosterone and can shrivel testes.

It is permitted in New Zealand where it is often mixed with saccharin.

Aspartame is widely used in New Zealand despite some people claiming it triggers head aches, blurred vision, epileptic fits and brain tumours, as well as eye problems, numbness, insomnia, memory loss, nausea, slurred speech, personality changes, loss of energy, hyperactivity and hearing problems.

There have been more consumer complaints about aspartame than any other additive. The Aspartame Consumer Network has received more than 10,000 complaints of adverse reactions to aspartame from all over the world and more than 75% of complaints to the US Food and Drug Authority’s Adverse Reaction Monitoring System are about adverse reactions to aspartame.
180-times sweeter than natural sugar, it is found in diet, low-calorie, lite, or sugar-free products and in anything with the NutraSweet or Equal logo.

Acesulphame K is a sugar substitute sold under the brand name “Sunnet”. Used in many processed foods, it leaves a bitter after-taste so is often combined with sugar, aspartame or other sweeteners.

It was approved for use in New Zealand food and drink in 1991 despite overseas animal tests linking it to lung tumours, leukaemia and chronic respiratory disease.

Acesulphame K can stimulate insulin secretion and aggravate hypoglycaemia.

Sucralose is a non-caloric sweetener created from sugar that is permitted in New Zealand foods aimed at diabetics and in some yoghurts and confectionary. In one animal experiment, the thymus in rats fed a sucralose-rich diet shrunk by up to 40-percent.

The thymus gland plays a key role in the functioning of the immune system. Liver and kidneys were also negatively affected by consuming this product.

Information from Eating Safely in a Toxic World, by Sue Kedgley, Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Avoid or reduce your intake of artificial sweeteners and diet drinks containing aspartame, saccharin, or cyclamates. Use sugar, honey, molasses or maple syrup in moderation instead, unless you are diabetic – in which case the natural sweetener herb Stevia can be used.
  • Check labels – artificial sweeteners are found in breath mints, sweets, chewing gum, diet drinks, ice cream and many processed foods.
  • Check all Weight Watchers products for artificial sweeteners.


Colours are used to give the appearance of freshness, to make foods look more natural, to replace colour lost during processing, and to make foods more appealing.

Colours are often mixed together in desserts and sweets and some packets of biscuits can contain up to seven different colours in them.

Coloured foods tend to be marketed at children and in terms of body weight, it is estimated children eat considerably more colour than adults.

Overseas estimates suggest children could consume about 59 to 300 mg of artificial colouring a day while a survey by the NZ Safe Food Campaign found children on a diet containing many processed foods such as chips, soft drinks and biscuits could easily consume 35-40 different doses of 14-different colours every day.

Our government allows 47 colours in our food, including 10 controversial synthetic dyes banned overseas because of concerns about their safety.

There are two types of food dyes: natural or nature-identical dyes, and synthetic dyes that are mostly coar-tar derivatives. These are formed from chemical compounds produced when coal is distilled, and are used in textiles, inks, paints, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and pesticides as well as foods.

We recommend you avoid the following dyes, which are linked to a wide range of allergic reactions including asthma, hyperactivity and skin rashes. Some colours have been linked to carcinogenic tumours in laboratory animals:
102 Tartrazine
110 Sunset Yellow
122 Carmoisine or Azorubine
123 Amaranth
124 Ponceau 4R
127 Erythrosine
129 Allura Red
133 Brilliant Blue
142 Green S
150 Caramel
151 Brilliant Black
155 Brown HT
173 Aluminium

Flavour Enhancers:

There are 14 of these, of which the most well known is:
621 Monosodium Glutamate

This controversial flavour enhancer is widely used in processed foods. It is added to bland food to enhance the flavour, and to restore flavour lost in food during processing. It stimulates the taste buds on the tongue and gives food the impression of being more flavoursome than it really is.

MSG is added to hundreds of food products including most processed and packeted soups and sauces, flavoured noodles, fast foods, canned foods, ready-made dinners, seafoods, meat products such as sausages and pies, processed cheeses, soy sauce and miso. It is also widely used in restaurants, take-away foods and Chinese foods.

MSG has been linked to heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, muscle-tightening, nausea, numbness radiating from the back of the neck, tingling in the face, back and arms and symptoms similar to migraines.

It can also trigger asthma in asthmatics. In animal studies, it’s been linked to the destruction of brain cells and nerve cells in newborn rats and mice. Because children’s brains do not have properly developed blood/brain barriers, MSG is banned from foods prepared especially for babies and young children.

Information from Eating Safely in a Toxic World, by Sue Kedgley, Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Children and pregnant women should avoid MSG or food that contains ingredient 621 on the label.
  • Be aware that the following additives contain MSG or free glutamate: hydrolysed vegetable protein, hydrolysed protein, hydrolysed plant protein, yeast extract, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, hydrolysed oat flour.
  • Be aware that the following ingredients frequently contain MSG (even though it may not be declared on the label): malt extract, malt flavouring, bouillon, stock, broth, natural beef or chicken flavouring, seasoning, spices.

Processing aids:

925 Chlorine
926 Chlorine dioxide

These are not listed in the government’s food additives guide.

Chlorine dioxide is used to bleach flour white and chlorine residues can be found in some breads, cakes and puddings. There have been concerns raised about the safety of chlorine bleaches because chlorine is a highly reactive gas that combines rapidly with organic matter to produce toxic organochlorine compounds.
When chlorine is used to bleach flour, it destroys much of the vitamin E content and may produce toxic residues. Many overseas bread manufacturers no longer use bleached flour in their white bread.


Children are particularly sensitive to caffeine and can become hyperactive, nervous and have difficulty sleeping. Caffeine affects the nervous system and some scientists are concerned that brain growth and development may be affected in children who consume too much.

Caffeine is present in many soft drinks and smart drinks and children drinking several of these products could easily consume the equivalent of four to six cups of coffee a day.

Sourced from the green party web site. http://www.greens.org.nz/searchdocs/other6462.html

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