Food Additives - A Quick Explanation

Australians generally enjoy some of the best food in the world with a ready supply of fresh and processed food moving through our supply networks every day. We are spoiled for choice in terms of variety, quality and price and the most important characteristic of our food supply is that, most of the time, it is safe to eat. Exceptions are usually the result of poor storage or preparation, or lack of knowledge about things like safe serving temperatures or cross-contamination by other foodstuffs. We have been fortunate that nothing like the “mad cow disease” epidemic that swept Britain in the 1990s has happened here. One of the reasons for this security is our food standards.

FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) are responsible for the development of standards for both primary production and processed food in Australia, including those for food additives. A major issue of concern for consumers is that while they know that additives are necessary, they don’t know how to find out what they are. They don’t realise that all food packaging must clearly disclose all ingredients in the product, in a standardised ingredients list, including additives.

Food additives are chemical substances, similar to the thousands of chemical substances occurring naturally in food. The human body can’t tell the difference between the natural chemical substances and the chemical additive. Because the names given to these additives are generally long, scientific ones, the name is followed by a number or code which makes the substance easier to identify.

For people wanting further information, the FSANZ website has food additives listed in both alphabetical and numerical order, so it is possible to identify a chemical additive from the ingredient list, then look it up to get its name and research its composition and usage. This is particularly useful for people who have allergies to some additives, or for the curious among us who just need to know what they are eating.

There are a number of reasons for the use of additives. One is to improve the taste or appearance of processed food, another to improve the keeping quality and stability of food and a third to extend its storage life. Before they can be passed for human consumption, additives must be approved by FSANZ and only after extensive testing. The testing determines if the additive is safe in the quantity requested, if there are sound technological reasons for its use and to ensure that consumers are advised of its presence in food.

Food additives can be a complex and confusing area, and consumers should be aware that packaging suppliers are willing to answer any questions about the additives mentioned in the labelling on their packaging.