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What are food additives?

A food additive is any substance which is added to food for a specific purpose. They are not normally eaten on their own as a food or used as a core ingredient in food. Food additives are generally used to preserve, colour or flavour food products. Food additives may be natural products or may be artificially created. There are more than 300 approved food additives in Australia.

food_ingedients_panelBefore being used in commercially produced food products all food additives must undergo a safety assessment in accordance with the Australia and New Zealand Food Satndards (FSANZ). Only after this assessment are they allowed to be used. Food additives which have been assessed as safe to use are assigned an 'E' number. The safety assessment of food additives does not include an assessment of the additives affect on behaviour or learning outcomes which is viewed by many who suffer from food additive related health issues as a significant shortcoming of the assessment regime. There are also approved food additives which are known or suspected of being cancer causing agents (carcinogens) and others which are known to have negative impacts on the consumer's health. Australia allows the use of many additives which are completely banned or have significant restrictions placed on their use overseas.


Categories of food additive

Food additives can be categorised into 6 broad classes:

  • antioxidants
  • colours
  • flavours
  • preservatives
  • sweeteners
  • emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners


Oxidation causes discolouration and damage to the nutritional value of food. Antioxidants are added to food to preserve and extend the shelf life of food products.


Synthetic food colouring agents are widely used and are used to 'improve' the look of food. Most people 'taste' food with their eyes long before they put it in their mouth so an appealing look and colour is an important food marketing tool.


Flavourings are added to food to give, enhance or alter the taste of food.


Most preservatives act to stop the growth of fungi, moulds and yeasts. They are often used in a combination to provide antibacterial properties. 


 Sweeteners are used as a sugar substitute. Sweeteners are often many times stronger than sugar so are used in relatively low quantities. Sweeteners also have a much lower energy or kilojoule rating than the sweetening equivalent amount of sugar.

Emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners

 Emulsifiers are used to stop emulsions (oil and water combinations) from separating. They have a big effect on the look and texture of foods in which they are used.


Identifying food additives 

Identifying the food additives used in food products has been made much easier in recent years with the introduction of requirements for all additives to be listed in the food packaging ingredients list. Food additives are shown using their assigned 'E' number. 


Like to know more?

If you would like to know more about food safety why not complete a food handlers certificate with the Australian Online College.  The college offers a general safe food handling certificate course and a food safety supervisor training course. Why not enrol in a safe food handling certificate course now? 

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This page is about food additives, food safety and identify food additive.

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