Born in Europe, my husband and I were brought up without the fast food chains, on homemade and often home grown food. I watched my grandma and mum cooking and that experience definitely influenced my love of homemade food. Feeding our kids nowadays has so many challenges: food specifically marketed towards children is mostly over processed, laced with numerous, potentially dangerous and unnecessary food additives and has little nutritional value.
Since having kids, my interest in nutrition grew. One day while our first child, then a baby, nibbled on a dry biscuit, I read the ingredients on the packet and searched on the Internet for the food additives listed there. A whole new world opened for me. I couldn’t read enough about the food additives, preservatives, artificial colours and flavours.
Checking the labels and ingredients lists while shopping was a must for me and many products were crossed out. It took a while to finish my shopping initially, but in the long term I narrowed the products I buy and it helped me do the shopping quicker. Having said that, the food our family consumes isn’t completely free from food additives and preservatives. It is unrealistic to eliminate them all, especially when you have kids. Explaining to a 4 year old that bright coloured lollies are bad for her is a complicated task. Not to mention the birthday parties junk food bonanza. But whenever I cook at home from scratch using fresh, natural ingredients, I know I’m reducing the amount of additives we consume.
Cooking from scratch using organic ingredients whenever possible is an important part of sustainable living. In our busy lives when families have little time to sit and eat together, when food outlets are at every corner and shops are full of readymade meals, many are asking: why bother cooking?
Some benefits of healthy home cooking from scratch:
- Eat delicious, freshly prepared food
- Cook using all natural ingredients
- Avoid or reduce food additives
- Avoid or reduce food preservatives
- Avoid or reduce artificial flavours and colours
- Support sustainable living
- Enjoy nutritious food
- Cut on over processed food without nutritional value
- Avoid packaging
- Set an example for children
- Enhance the health
- Control ingredients
- Save money
Of course, there are healthy takeaway options and home cooked meals could be quite unhealthy, too. However, when cooking from scratch there is definitely less food additives and preservatives in there, if any at all.
Food additive categories
Food additives are divided into categories and assigned a number for easier identification internationally and I guess, to shorten and hide the long and in some instances scary chemical names behind those numbers. In Europe the numbers have E in front of them. The categories are:
- 100-182 Colours
- 200-297 Preservatives
- 300-385 Acidity Regulators, Anti-Oxidants, Mineral Salts
- 400-495 Vegetable Gums, Thickeners, Emulsifiers, Stabilisers, Gelling Agents
- 500-586 Mineral Salts, Anti-Caking Agents
- 620-641 Flavour Enhancers
- 900-1521 Thickeners, Vegetable Gums, Humectants, Artificial Sweeteners, etc.
- Flavours, natural or artificial, are not regulated and thus don’t have any numeric identification
Not all food additives are made same: some are natural and ok to use, others, however whether natural or artificial are unsafe for consumption, and have been banned in different countries. While researching the food additives, I came across several food additives tables that listed potentially unsafe additives. Every source was different so I decided to make a table of food additives for myself as my personal shopping guide.
I divided food additives into two groups: green – ok to consume and red – avoid if possible. The additives in green are either natural, regarded as safe for use or derived from natural ingredients. However, some could be either derived from a natural source or made artificially like citric acid 330 or turmeric colour 100. The additives in red have either been proven as unsafe, connected with health or behavioral problems, have not enough information about them or have been added recently to the approved list. My motto here is: if there is a question mark – it’s red.
The black numbers are the worst offenders. They are either banned in Australia or in other countries, or are suspected carcinogens! Just few of them are:
- 102 Tartrazine – Colour. Linked to hyperactivity, skin rashes, migraines, behavioural problemss, thyroid problems, chromosome damage. Used to colour drinks, sweets, jams, cereals, snack foods, canned fish, packaged soups and a dye for wool and silk. Banned in Norway, Austria and Finland. Restricted use in Sweden and Germany.
- 249 Potassium nitrite – Preservative. Linked with behavioural problems, asthma, breathing difficulties, headaches, dizziness, possible carcinogen. Typical products include processed , cured and smoked meat and fish, root vegetables. Not permitted in foods for infant and young children.
- 621 Monosodium L-glutamate or MSG – Flavour enhancer. Should not be permitted in foods for infants and young children. Some of health problems MSG is linked with include asthma, hyperactivity, depression, mood changes, sleeplessness, nausea, migraine, linked to infertility. To be avoided especially by pregnant women, children, elderly and people with heart disease. Commonly found in potato and corn chips, powdered soup stock, snacks, crackers, sauces etc.
- 951 Aspartame – Artificial sweetener. Present in more than 7000 products worldwide. Linked to many health problems: cancer, asthma, nausea, depressions, hyperactivity, seizures, breathing difficulties, memory loss and many others. It is believed to be the most dangerous food additive on the market. Sold as Equal®, NutraSweet®, Canderal®, Benevia® and Spoonful® sugar substitutes. Commonly found in cordials, juices, snacks, deserts, vitamins, diet and low calorie drinks, and many others.
Sustainable Eco Food Additives List – Free Download!
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Disclaimer: I compiled this table from different sources (some listed below) for my personal use. The content is not intended to constitute professional advice nor it does include all information about every additive. If you find this Food Additive List helpful, you are welcome to download it for your personal use.
I didn’t write the names of the food additives because it would make the table too long. You can see the food additives names listed alphabetically here:
or listed by numbers here:
Manufactures have the choice of listing the food additives as a number or they can print the full name. For example monosodium glutamate or MSG can be identified on the ingredients list as: flavour enhancer (MSG) or flavour enhancer (621).To find out more info about a specific food additive by number or by name go to:
Food Standards Australia New Zealand, FSANZ, states three types of food flavourings: natural, nature-identical and artificial. FSANZ definitions of last two:
“Nature-identical substances means flavouring substances that are obtained by synthesis or isolated through chemical processes, which are chemically identical to flavouring substances naturally present in products intended for human consumption. They cannot contain any artificial flavouring substances.
Artificial flavouring substances means flavouring substances not identified in a natural product intended for human consumption, whether or not the product is processed.”
Unlike other food additives, flavourings aren’t assigned code numbers. They are listed simply as flavour or flavouring because as per FSANZ “It would neither be realistic to require, nor meaningful to consumers to be provided with the chemical names of the individual flavouring substances present, even if they could all be identified.”
To illustrate why it is unrealistic to list all the ingredients the artificiall flavours contain, please read the ingredients list for artificial strawberry flavour:
“amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent. Yummmmy!” Source: http://mbm.net.au/health/guide.htm
One example of different wording: Pear yoghurt should contain pears, but pear flavoured yoghurt doesn’t. I usually buy plain yogurt and mix pureed or chopped fruit in. The best bet is to avoid flavoured products.
But wait, there is more!
There are two instances where food additives aren’t required to be listed:
- 5% loophole: additives in the ingredient that makes up 5% or less of the product.
- Processing aids – not listed although might have traces of it in the food. Example: enzymes used to pump up the bread.
Even if the label isn’t listing any food additives, we might be eating unknown substances.
Next time you go shopping or reach for processed food, please read the ingredients. Arm yourself with the knowledge about the food additives and don’t wait for the food regulation body in your country to ban or declare an additive unsafe. Be your own judge. Very often the authorities play down the research results linking specific food additives with health problems like asthma or hyperactivity. Also, the research is frequently concentrated on one additive at the time. But what happens when we eat dozens of them at the same time as a toxic cocktail, in doses well above the daily recommendations?
My main concern in regards to food is health of our kids and how to reduce the chemicals and additives they eat. The strategies I use range from buying organic whenever possible, growing some of our food, cooking from scratch to reading the labels and limiting the “bad” food, plus risking the cross looks, complaints and occasional tantrums. Hope, our kids will appreciate it one day!
As said previously, to eliminate all food additives, chemicals, pesticides etc. is not a realistic task in 21st century. But with one step at the time, everyone can steer towards healthier food choices. And as a final word in this post: preparing fresh meals shouldn’t be regarded as a chore. It’s rather a way of looking after your health and wellbeing.
P.S. On 10 June 2009 ALDI announced it will reformulate all its exclusive branded food items to remove the six food colours (102, 104, 110, 122, 124, 129) which have been proven to cause hyperactivity in children. Read more: http://aldi.com.au/au/html/company/8821.htm
Eady Julie; Additive Alert – Your Guide to Safer Shopping
Hanssen Maurice; Additive Code Breaker
Wilkinson Giselle; The Conscious Cook