Food Additives to Avoid

By: Susan Joy | The JOYful Table

Substances added to food to preserve flavour, enhance taste and improve their appearance and texture are called food additives. Vinegar, salt and sugar have been used for centuries to preserve food but it’s the additives that have been introduced over the last century that have now become a huge concern to our health. Unfortunately, they are generally regarded as safe, I don’t know about you but I’ve seen the affects of added colours and preservatives on children’s behaviour and health.

Manufacturers now have the choice of listing additives by either their number or their name on their products. This means we have to be familiar with both the numbers and names to be able to decipher food labels.

We need to watch out for potentially harmful food additives, as they have been linked to certain health problems. Therefore, it’s important to become savvy when reading food labels. Also, don’t be mislead by healthy-sounding terms for additives. It’s hard enough to understand the labels on packaged food and then food companies make potentially harmful additives seem healthy by making the ingredients seem more natural. For example – Rosemary extract sounds good, right, but it’s actually additives 300 – 321, found in salami, pasta or margarine. Yeast extract is one of the new names for MSG. Rice extract, sounds ok but it’s a chemical stabiliser and emulsifier. You may find the wording caramelised sugar syrup now replaces 150 caramel colour, as most people know now to avoid caramel and I could go on.

Next time you’re at the supermarket look at the front of the food packages and you will see the latest healthy buzzwords plastered on them to entice you, like – superfood, made naturally, real ingredients, gives you energy, no sugar added (but could be made with fruit concentrate or packed full of dried fruit, which isn’t just full of sugar but sulphites). There are many other labeling tricks, for example – Light or lite, could mean low-calorie or even low-fat or it may be light in colour, taste, texture or lightly salted. It’s hard navigating food packaging, don’t feel bad, big food manufacturers pay people to come up with marketing words to get us to buy their products, so skip what it says on the front of the packet and go straight to the back and read the ingredients. Try and shop around the outside of the supermarket where you get a lot more food that doesn’t have labels where you find the fruit, vegetables, meat, nuts, these foods don’t need deciphering.

Let’s have a closer look at the worst food additives I think we should be avoiding for our health:

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

What is it? MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. In its processed form as the food additive MSG 621 it’s a white powder which looks like salt or sugar. It is made from fermenting corn, barley, sugar beets or sugar cane. It can be used to reduce the amount of salt needed in a product, so beware of products advertised ‘salt reduced’ as it may contain MSG to make up for it. MSG is used in food to enhance the flavour, originally used in Asian food and savoury dishes, however, today it’s found in a huge number of products. It can be found in some salad dressings, spreads (even our vegemite), dips, microwave meals, soups, processed meats (like polony, devon etc.), flavoured chips, stocks, stock cubes and seasonings.

MSG is prohibited from being used in baby foods in Australia because of its proven ability to damage the brain and developing nervous system, but this only keeps it out of infant formulas and baby food. It’s still widely used in many foods regularly eaten by young children and pregnant women with no warnings on the labels. MSG was discovered in Japan as a natural flavour enhancer coming from seaweed but today it’s completely man-made and there is nothing natural about it. It is important to understand the difference between natural glutamate that’s found in broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach and cheese and the processed glutamate. Food companies go to great lengths to reassure consumers that MSG is safe but there is a huge difference between the effects of naturally occurring and processed glutamate.

Other names for MSG or ingredients associated with MSG are: Autolyzed Yeast, Calcium Caseinate, Glutamate, Glutamic Acid, Hydrolyzed Protein, Monosodium, Natural Flavours, Sodium Caseinate, Textured Vegetable Protein, Yeast Extract, Yeast Food, Yeast Nutrient.

Health Concerns and Adverse Reactions: Asthma, hyperactivity, depression, mood swings, sleeplessness, migraine headaches, nausea, stomach upsets, flushing and sweating, chest pain and rapid heartbeat.

How to Avoid: It’s a substance you just need to keep away from. If you are going to an Asian restaurant check before hand that they will cook your meals without MSG. Try to avoid buying premade meals and cook from scratch at home as much as possible. Make your own broth or stocks for soups and stews (link to my broth/stock recipe), you can also purchase premade slow-cooked broths or dehydrated in powder form (Nutra Organics have a range of excellent organic – free range varieties and also Broth of Life).


What are they? Preservatives are added to foods to extend the shelf life of products. As mentioned above, vinegar, salt and sugar have been used for centuries to preserve but it’s the chemical preservatives that are giving health concerns. The use of them is growing rapidly and we find them in our staple foods like, bread, cookies, fruit juice, margarine and processed meats and fish products. There are two main types of chemical preservatives – Antimicrobial and Antioxidants. Antimicrobial preservatives prevent the growth of bacteria. Antioxidants prevent the oxidation process. The oxidation process spoils food, especially foods with a high fat content. Fats can quickly turn rancid when exposed to oxygen.

Preservatives found to cause problems:

Sulphites (220 – 228) – We get sulphur naturally from vegetables and protein, our body needs this form for good health, but it’s not the sulphur I’m talking about. It’s Sulphur Dioxide 220 and other Sulphites 221 – 228. You find them in dried fruit, wine, jam, bread, cheese and processed meats. Most dried fruit is preserved by the use of sulphur dioxide 220, they are commonly coated in vegetable oil as a preservative too and the oil can contain antioxidants. A big concern is that dried fruit based snacks are eaten by children. Sulphites should be avoided if you are asthmatic, other adverse health problems are: heart damage, behavioural issues, diarrhoea, gastric irritation, liver toxicity, rashes, bronchitis.

Proprionates (280 – 283) – This group of preservatives are a common ingredient found in breads, bakery products and pastas. It’s added to bread to extend the shelf life, make it soft and fluffy and stop mould. Proprionates are associated with an array of adverse health problems including behavioural and learning problems, lethargy, gastro-intestinal problems, migraines, irritability, depression, sleep disturbances and growing pains. These same symptoms can distress babies who are exposed through breast milk. Researching this group of preservatives I found that they were prohibited in foods for infants but many toddlers and young children are given toast for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, which concerns me greatly.

Benzoates (210 – 213) – The preservative benzoate is found in soft drinks and particularly cordials. They are also considered dangerous for asthmatics and people sensitive to Asprin (salicylates). Benzoates have a reputation as one of the worst addivitives that provoke behavioural and learning problems in children. They are also linked to eye and skin irritation and gastric burning. Sodium Benzoate 211, is associated also with liver and kidney health issues.

Antioxidants BHA (320) and BHT (321) – These are probably the most common suspect antioxidants to avoid. (BHA is Butylated hydroxyanisole and BHT is Butylated hydroxytoluene). Food companies use these in products that have oils and fats in their products to prevent oils going rancid and to give them a much longer shelf life for the manufacturer. You find them in sweet and savoury biscuits (cookies), margarine, peanut butter, frozen foods, mayonnaise, even though they’re prohibited in food for infants and young children. They are a particular concern as they accumulate in the body fat, so levels increase over time as more and more is consumed. They are a known animal carcinogen and a suspected human carcinogen. Apart from their strong links to cancer, they can disrupt the body’s hormone balance. (The EU has banned these antioxidants).

How to Avoid: Purchase organic dried fruit or naturally sun-dried fruit with no seed or vegetable oils coating them. Check the ingredients label on your bread, you can purchase from bakeries that don’t use preservatives. Make freshly squeezed juice for your family instead of soft drinks or cordials, you can also freeze the juice to make popsicles. Look for products that use the ‘good antioxidants’, 300 – 309 are safe for most people. However 310 – 309 and 319 – 321 should be avoided wherever possible.

Nitrates and Nitrites

What are they? Sodium nitrate (250) and sodium nitrite (251) are chemicals found commonly in processed and cured meats. You will find them in ham, salami, cabana, polony, bacon, sausages, frankfurters, hot dogs etc. They are used to preserve meat and give it it’s pink/red colour, they can fix the colour in old meat to look vibrant again. They are also used to keep bacteria from growing in meat to prevent it going off as quickly. It’s the synthetic additive that includes sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites that are the big concern, it’s not the natural nitrates that occur naturally in green leafy vegetables, beetroot and celery or in some fruits.

Health Concerns and Adverse Reactions: These additives are widely considered to be toxic. Nitrites are capable of entering the bloodstream and change the nature of red blood cells. Nitrates are also known to cause problems to the liver and pancreas and when sodium nitrate combines with stomach acid, it can produce nitrosamines (these have recently been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic and colon cancer). Hyperactivity, behavioural issues, asthma, headaches, dizziness, kidney inflammation, suspected carcinogenic. Prohibited in foods for infants and young children but it’s in polony, sausages, hot dogs and lunch meats that young children eat.

How to Avoid: You can make easy swaps, use leftover roast meat in place of cold meat cuts and purchase additive and preservative-free sausages (butchers supply these frozen). I buy free-range bacon that contains celery or beetroot extract to keep it fresh, it is grey in colour as it contains no chemical nitrates but has so much more flavour.

Artificial Food Colours

I think most people would be aware of the link between artificial colours and hyperactivity, but people may not be aware that many colours widely used in foods today are proven or suspected carcinogens (cancer forming).

What are they? Many colours are made up from industrial chemicals such as coal tar, petroleum and propylene glycol (commonly know as antifreeze). The range of ‘Coal Tar/Petroleum’ dyes include 102, 104, 110, 122, 123, 124, 132, 133, 142, 151 and 155. Studies have showed that these colours don’t just have adverse effects on children prone to hyperactivity but on all children (study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency and conducted by the University of Southampton).

It’s a big concern when colours are only added by manufacturers to make their product look better and appealing to the consumers (like raspberry flavour should look red). It serves no purpose except for cosmetic reasons. We seem to see the most artificial colours in children’s foods. When looking out for colours in food the numbers go from 100 – 199. Some natural colours will come from food, for example, carrots and beets but some that maybe classed as ‘natural’ may still be harmful to children, see 150c and 160b further below.

Lets take a closer look at this first number 102:

102 – Tartrazine. This is a synthetic lemon yellow dye manufactured using petrochemicals. It’s used in processed commercial foods that have an artificial yellow or green colour. It’s found in imitation ‘lemon’ fillings in baked goods, ice cream, popsicles, confectionery, puddings, custard powder, jelly, cake mixes, breads and wraps, pastries, biscuits, pickles, mustard, soft drinks, sports drinks, cordials, corn chips, potato chips, popcorn, cereals, instant rices, noodles, cosmetic products, mouth washes, tanning lotions, household cleaning products, pet foods, crayons and so much more. Tartrazine appears to cause the most allergic and intolerance reactions of all the azo dyes (vivid colour of reds, oranges and yellows), particularly among asthmatics and those with an aspirin intolerance. Symptoms can occur by either ingestion or exposure to substances containing tartrazine. Linked to hyperactivity, migraines, skin rashes, thyroid problems and chromosome damage. Banned in Norway and Austria, products with tartrazine must carry a health warning in the EU.

104 – Quinoline Yellow colour dye. Found in the same foods as above and linked to hyperactivity, skin rashes, asthmatics should avoid. Banned in USA and Norway (and was previously banned in Australia).

110 – Sunset Yellow colour dye. Found in the same foods as above and is a suspected carcinogen, linked to allergies, hyperactivity, hay fever, upset stomach, vomiting, skin rashes (eczema) and chromosomal damage. Prohibited in foods for infants. Banned in Norway and product labels in the EU must carry a health warning.

122 – Azorubine/carmoisine Red colour dye. Found in cheeses, dried fruits and some alcoholic beverages. Suspected carcinogen, mutagen, skin rashes, fluid retention, hyperactivity. Banned in Sweden, USA, Austria, Japan, Canada, Norway and food products must carry a health warning in the EU.

123 – Amaranth Black colour dye (not the grain). Found in soft drinks, blackcurrant juices, jelly, lollies, packet cake mixes and so much more. Suspected carcinogen, mutagen linked to hyperactivity, asthma, eczema. Banned in USA, Russia, Austria and Norway.

124 – Ponceau 4R Red colour dye. Found in jelly, lollies, packet cake mixes, biscuits, ice cream, cake icings and sprinkles, canned strawberries, just to name a few. Suspected carcinogen and linked to hyperactivity, asthmatics should avoid. Banned in USA and Norway.

132 – Indigotine Blue colour dye. Found in ice cream, sweets, baked goods, confectionery and biscuits. Suspected carcinogen, linked to hyperactivity, nausea, breathing difficulties, blood pressure, skin rashes. Banned in Norway and the European Food Safety Authority is currently re-evaluating the safety of E132.

133 – Brilliant Blue colour dye. Found in ice cream, canned processed peas, packet soups, bottled food colourings, icings, icy popsicles, blue raspberry flavoured products, dairy products, lollies, drinks and liqueurs. It’s also used in soaps, shampoos, mouthwash and cosmetics. Suspected carcinogen, suspected neurotoxicity, skin ailments (eczema, dermatitis etc), linked to hyperactivity, asthmatics should avoid. Banned in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway.

142 – Green S colour dye. Found in mint sauce, desserts, gravy mixes, lollies, ice cream and tinned peas. Linked to hypersensitivity, allergic reactions, asthmatics should avoid. Banned in Canada, US, Japan, Sweden, Norway and UK.

151 – Brilliant Black BN or PN colour dye. Found in desserts, lollies, ice cream, red fruit jams, cake icings, mustard, soft drinks, flavoured milk drinks and more. Linked to bowel disorders, hyperactivity, asthmatics should avoid. Banned in US, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden Austria and Norway.

155 – Brown HT colour dye. It’s used as a substitute colour for cocoa or caramel. Found in chocolate cakes, jams, fruit products, drinks, cheese, milks, yoghurt, fish products and more. Suspected carcinogen and mutagen, hyperactivity, skin irritation and linked to asthma. Banned in US, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway.

127 – Erythrosine Pink colour. Found in custard and pudding mixes, canned fruit, bakery products, snack foods, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, luncheon meat, salmon spread, pate and more. Linked to thyroid issues, hyperactivity, light sensitivity and brain dysfunction. Banned in Norway.

129 – Allura Red AC Red/Orange colour dye. Found in confectionery, soft drinks, condiments, cosmetics, medicines. Suspected carcinogen, skin rashes, hypersensitivity. Banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Norway.

150c – Caramel colour (ammonia caramel). Found in alcoholic beverages, soft drinks (cola drinks), apple drinks, gives colour to brown bread, biscuits, olives, sauces, dressings, vinegar, gravy, custards, fillings, black spreads (like vegemite), chocolate, lollies, store-bought roast chickens and so many more. It’s added to turn food and drinks brown, it sounds natural, harmless and even appetizing but in no way does it resemble real caramel (caramel colouring is not the same as the confectionery). It is made by heat treatment of highly processed carbohydrates (can be GMO ingredients) made from either, wheat, barley, corn, rye, oats, sugar, starch hydrolysates (dextrose, maltodextrin, glucose) in the presence of acids, alkalis or salts, making a chemical reaction where oxidation happens. Reported reactions for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, skin rashes, headaches, migraines and behavioural changes in children.

160b – Annatto colour. This vegetable dye is made from the seed coat of the tropical Annatto tree and classed as a ‘natural‘ colour additive (however, not everything classed as a natural product is harmless, what about arsenic?). Annatto is believed to be associated with behaviour and learning impairment, especially in children. Skin irritations, allergic reactions, sleeplessness, asthma and is known to increase symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Annatto is becoming more popular by manufacturers because they can list it as ‘natural’ on their labels. It’s found in numerous food items that are coloured cream to yellow-orange: processed breakfast cereals, flavoured chips and snack foods, dairy products (ice cream, cheese, yoghurts), flour products (biscuits, cakes, pastries), fruit juices, margarine, frozen chips, salad dressings, medicines. Annatto is deemed ‘likely safe’ for most people when used in food amounts. ‘Food Amounts’ refers to the amount safe in a serving of food but the problem is it’s now consumed in so many foods that are eaten daily. You could be eating it up to 7 – 8 times a day (in your cereal, snacks, cheese slices, yoghurt, biscuits, margarine, fruit juice, ice cream). Look for beta-carotene (160a) which is a safer alternative.

How to Avoid: There are safer alternatives to colour food. We should look for plant-based fruits and vegetables for colour, like 160a beta-carotene that is derived from carrots, pumpkin or tomatoes (colours orange – red). Ground turmeric, lemon zest, saffron (yellow colour). Beetroot, raspberries, strawberries, chilli powder, red cabbage, red wine, acai berry powder (colours pink, red – purple). Spinach, spirulina, wheatgrass, kale, lime zest (green colour). Blueberries and blackberries (blue colour). Espresso coffee, raw cacao or cocoa powder, cinnamon, activated charcoal powder (colours brown – black).

Aspartame and Artificial Sweeteners

The artificial sweetener aspartame is found in Equal and NutraSweet, these aren’t just used in ‘diet’ drinks and ‘diet’ foods. You can find them in some rice crackers, yoghurts, snacks, desserts, mints, cordials, juices, vitamins and medicines, which consumers wouldn’t be aware of. Aspartame is considered by some to be the most dangerous additive on the market that is able to be added to our foods. Aspartame is an excitotoxin like MSG, excessive exposure to them can cause damage to the brain cells, children, infants and pregnant women (to protect the fetus) are most at risk and should never be given to children.

Reactions: headaches, migraines, dizziness, seizures, skin rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, vision problems heart palpitations, breathing difficulties slurred speech, vertigo, tinnitus, memory loss and joint pain.

The most common artificial sweeteners in Australia are aspartame, saccharin, acesulphame potassium, sucralose and cyclamates but food manufacturers will show better sounding names on their labels, such as NutraSweet, Equal, Splenda, Sweet and Low. Artificial sweeteners are suspected carcinogens and as people get more concerned, food companies are using some new sweeteners and labeling them ‘natural’. Sorbitol 420, Mannitol 421, Isomalt 953, Lactitol 966, Xylitol 967, Erythritol 968 and Polydextrose 1200, all of these sugar-free sweeteners are known to cause gastric upsets and diarrhoea in moderate consumption. They are called sugar alcohols or polyols but they don’t contain sugar or alcohol. It may be sensible to avoid consuming these on a regular basis as there is conflicting information about the long-term safety of these substances (I know they cause me terrible stomach cramps and diahorrea).

How to Avoid: Personally I would use a little of a real food to add some sweetness, like fruit, unprocessed honey, 100% maple syrup, organic coconut sugar, Medjool dates, a sweet spice like cinnamon or vanilla. If all natural sugar needs to be avoided you could use the plant Stevia. The green stevia is said to be more nutritious, with a stronger licorice flavour, the white stevia is made after most of the leaf contents are removed, leaving only the sweet containing mixture (purchase from health food stores).

I know, this looks all pretty daunting – I don’t want you stressing!

I just want to pass knowledge on without making anyone feel overwhelmed or guilty, I want to help you do the best you can at this point of time in your life. Our lives are filled with pressures already but being informed about food additives and making swaps where possible could also help to take some pressure off too. I would love to hear from any of you that have started removing additives from your families food and have now started seeing changes in their behaviour. Life may just get easier for you, especially if your children are calmer, not agitated, sleeping better, concentrating at school and taking instructions well. As you replenish food in your pantry start replacing with additive free options, they are out there you just need to look and get use to reading ingredients labels. Just do the best you can and try not to get overwhelmed, it gets easier, I promise.

Making it easier: There is a very helpful APP you can download to your phone called “The Chemical Maze” by Bill Statham. It will help you recognize safe foods and help with navigating the maze of additives in food, cosmetics and personal care products or you can purchase his books online at A book by author Julie Eady called “Additive Alert” is an excellent guide to safer shopping for your family, it can be purchase from bookstores (its been a great help to me through my health journey). There is a lot of information I’ve packed into this blog, I suggest you print it off and keep it handy to refer to and get familiar with the names and numbers of food additives.

Research recourses: ‘The Chemical Maze’ by Bill Statham, ‘Additive Alert’ author Julie Eady, ‘Changing Habits Changing Lives’ author Cyndi O’Meara, The Food Intolerance Network

Article supplied with thanks to The JOYful Table.

About the Author: Susan Joy is author of The JOYful Table cookbook containing gluten & grain free, and Paleo inspired recipes for good health and well being.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply