Do we need to worry about food additives?

family doing grocery shopping

Do you need to be worried about food additives?

All it takes is a 3 second search on google about additives in kids’ food to see why this topic is so confusing (and also alarming!).

From your google search you might see that additives do everything from cause autism and hyperactivity to increase cancer risk. Of course you would want to steer clean from them.

After the initial guilt of feeding your bub something this morning that likely had additives in it starts fades, you will also probably wonder…if these things were unsafe, then why are they in our food?

This is an excellent question.

Firstly, let’s chat about why we even use food additives and what they are. Food additives are often used to prevent food from spoiling and increase the shelf life (which means they are safe to eat for longer). Additives are also used to enhance the taste or flavour, improve the quality or to even thicken food.

 Types of Additives:

In Australia, there are more than 300 food additives approved for use. These include:

  • Preservatives-help food to remain fresh and last longer
  • Colours- enhance appearance
  • Antioxidants- help food to remain fresh and last longer
  • Flavour Enhancers – improves taste
  • Artificial Sweeteners- adds the sweetness without as many calories
  • Stabilisers and Emulsifiers- help ingredients mix and remain the right consistency

We have not listed each additive and the number used on packaging to identify them here because this would be one big post! However, if you want to learn more about the different types, the way they may be labelled on ingredient lists or their numbers take a look at the link under the next section.

Are they safe?


Food additives have been around for a long time, and yes, they haven’t always been safe, so we can understand why people worry about what additives are in their food.

FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) are responsible for deciding what food additives can be used in our food here in Australia but also just how much. Overall, if there is an additive in your food then FSANZ has found it to be safe to consume. To read more about the process they use to assess food safety of additives take a look here:

The process to approve an additive is pretty rigorous and they are regularly reassessing safety based on new information. Some products are even tested every single time they are brought into the country.


So why are people so worried?

Hyperactivity-A lot of the concern comes from a 2010 UK Government Funded Study which concluded that some additives (some food colourings and a preservative) could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children. The likelihood is low and contrary to what some people online say, Australia is not using additives that are banned and considered toxic in Europe.  FSANZ also acknowledges that some individuals may be more sensitive to additives, and this is why labelling is so important. Food chemical sensitivity is definitely real but should be managed by an experienced health professional to determine exactly what is causing the issue.

Carcinogenic- The other big one. Cancer is scary and any food additives that may increase the risk of cancer are understandably ones to watch out for. There is some good research showing that some food preservatives are “probably carcinogenic”. These are preservatives that are often used in cured and processed meats. The World Health Organisation and Cancer Council Australia both recommend limiting or avoiding processed meats (i.e sausages, salami, ham etc) because of the cancer risk.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded there's "sufficient evidence" that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer in humans.  Yes this is scary to hear out of context but it is the relative risk that increases over a life time. So, over the long term, consuming a 50g portion of processed meat daily (that's two slices of bacon) increased the risk of bowel cancer by 18%. That takes the lifetime risk from 8.2% to 12%. Yes, an increase but when you break it down, it is less scary. It is also important to know that it is consistent intake over many many years.

However, this doesn’t mean we should NEVER have these foods. Limit them, sure. Enjoy a pizza with salami and ham on them, absolutely. Offer them daily to your bub, probably not.

There are also other additives like artificial sweeteners, flavour enhancers and antioxidants. The take home with these is that there is really no good quality evidence (especially in humans) to tell us that they are unsafe. In fact, there is lots of research to show us that they are safe and we don’t need to be worried.

But what about research in children I hear you ask!

Well, the research in children is limited, because it would be unethical to conduct this type of research. FSANZ has concluded additives are safe even for children from the evidence that is available. But, if you don’t feel comfortable including them in your bub’s diet that is completely a choice for your family BUT you don’t need to be anxious and stressed about them either.

So, do you need to avoid them?

No, you don’t HAVE to avoid them. There a now many Apps and Instagram pages that allow you to search for additives in food. Many parents now feel so stressed about buying food at the supermarket that they need an App to tell them what is “safe” or not and what to buy. We talk about these types of trackers in out post here if you want to learn more (link).

At the end of the day there are very few things you need to be fearful of when it comes to feeding kids. If you want to pick foods with less additives, that is totally fine and your choice, do what you feel comfortable doing. However, you also don’t have to go out of your way to avoid them.