Wendyl Wants to Know: The food additives you need to avoid

Long Lunch 05/03/2018

Flavouring 101 by Wendyl Nissen

Food additives:
When you’re choosing food for your children it can be difficult to know what additives you should allow and which ones to avoid. We all have a vague idea that some food colourings, flavourings and preservatives might be bad for our kids, but as long as the New Zealand Food Safety Authority allows them in our food, why should we worry? What it really comes down to is natural versus chemicals.  The food additives in your child’s food might not kill them, nor may it give them eczema or asthma, but more and more parents are opting to choose more natural whole food alternatives just to be on the safe side.


The New Zealand Food Safety Authority allows some common colourings and preservatives into our food, yet health campaigners say parents need to be aware that more than 4000 additives are added to the processed foods we eat each day. A child eating a diet comprised mostly of processed food could easily be consuming more than 100 different additives every day. It's impossible to know what effect this cocktail is having on our child.  We have all noticed some children get over excited and on a “sugar rush” after a birthday party but recent science tells us that is a myth so could this just be some of the many preservatives and additives found in traditional Kiwi party food like cocktail sausages, lollies and soft drinks?  If you’re concerned about what additives you are feeding your children here are some tips on what to look out for on the labels. No one is suggesting you charge around the supermarket with a list in your hand, but take some time to look at the labels for the foods you commonly have in your pantry and put in your child’s lunch box and you may be surprised at what you discover:

·      Preservatives. Sulphur dioxide and sulphites are common preservatives in dried fruit, preserved meats, some biscuits and fruit juices. Sulphites have been linked to severe asthma attacks and also stomach problems. They will be listed on the label as anything from sodium sulphite to calcium or potassium sulphite.  The numbers to look out for are 220 to 228. Choose foods which have no preservatives, but be aware that their shelf life will be reduced.

·      Nitrates and Nitrites. These are found in virtually all cooked and cured meat, sausages, bacon, ham, frankfurters, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, pate and luncheon sausage, and may also be used in fresh meat and chicken that has been prepared in some way for sale. According to Sue Kedgley the joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives says it is "highly probable" that nitrites are carcinogenic in humans. Nitrites are heavily restricted in some European countries. They are not permitted in organic foods in NZ. Try to reduce your child’s consumption of smoked, cured and processed meat products such as bacon and sausages and look out for preservative free labelled products or organic products.  The numbers to look out for on labels are 249 to 252. See this recent story from the Guardian: 

·      Benzoates. These are tasteless and odourless and can be found used as a preservative in fruit juice, soft drinks, cordials and jams and chutneys. They can provoke allergy and intolerance in some people, especially those who suffer from asthma, hyperactivity and urticaria. Look out for numbers 210 to 213, 216 and 218 and  try to purchase products labelled preservative free.

·      Antioxidants. While natural antioxidants are great, artificial ones with the numbers 320 and 321 are used in oils and fats to stop them going rancid and to stop food going brown or developing black spots. They have been linked to hyperactivity and allergic reactions such as rashes and asthma and the Japanese Government banned them after a study found it caused cancerous tumours in the stomachs of rats and mice. Use products labelled “no artificial antioxidants”, use good quality vegetable oils like extra virgin olive oil which contain natural antioxidants and eat fresh produce that doesn’t need additives.

·      Food Colouring. Coloured foods tend to be marketed at children. There are 10 artificial colours allowed into New Zealand food which health campaigners advise parents to avoid because of links a wide range of allergic reactions including asthma, hyperactivity and skin rashes. Some colours have been linked to carcinogenic tumours in laboratory animals. They are numbered 102, 110, 122, 123, 124, 129, 133, 142, 151, and 155.

·      Artificial sweeteners. The use of saccharin and aspartame is common in many soft drinks, lollies and desserts.  Their use is the subject of much controversy which you can view by typing their names into Google.  But arguments aside, why would let your child eat something artificial when natural sugar products are available? Look for the numbers 950 to 955 and use natural sweeteners such as honey or sugar within moderation. If weight loss is necessary a natural low calorie alternative is a product called Stevia.

·      Caffeine. Children are particularly sensitive to caffeine and can become hyperactive, nervous and have difficulty sleeping. Caffeine affects the nervous system and some scientists are concerned that brain growth and development may be affected in children who consume too much. Caffeine is present in many soft drinks and smart drinks and children drinking several of these products could easily consume the equivalent of four to six cups of coffee a day. Check all labels of drinks you purchase for your child, even if they look healthy.


Artificial flavours:
The  only real difference between natural and artificial flavorings is the origin of the chemicals. Natural flavours (typically) are created from anything that is edible, while artificial flavours come from ingredients that are not edible (i.e petroleum). Although natural flavours sound better, they can still be processed in labs and other chemicals can be combined to imitate real flavors. Currently, “natural” is too vague of a definition and is not closely monitored in the food industry. Don’t rely on the term natural on your packets, use common sense when buying your food, avoid processed foods, read the label and buy products with ingredients that you recognize. Avoid any kind of flavoring, but if you must choose between the two, choose natural.

The Long Lunch with Wendyl Nissen, 12pm - 3pm on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.