What are Preservatives, Flavour Enhancers and Food Colours?


It sounds like we are reading from a chemistry book! But all of the above are found in processed foods purchased from the supermarket.

What are they, why are they used and are they safe?

They come under the umbrella of ‘Food Additives’ which are substances added to food to preserve the food and its flavour and to enhance the taste and appearance.  Some additives have been around for a very long time such as vinegar used in pickling, salting meat and preserving fruit in sugar syrup. However with the arrival of processed foods, numerous additives have been introduced, some natural and many artificial.

With their widespread use in processed foods, New Zealand has established legislation regulating their use.  However we still need to be aware of what we are putting into our bodies.

Preservatives: are commonly used to extend the shelf-life of food to prevent it from going mouldy or rancid.  Some have been known to have side effects and there are question marks surrounding their safety. For example Sulphites, used as a bleaching agent and is often sprayed onto French fries to prevent them from going brown, have been linked with asthma attacks, stomach problems and symptoms of dizziness and irregular breathing.  In New Zealand foods containing more than 10ppm of sulphur dioxide must be labelled so sensitive people can avoid them.  Benzoates commonly used in fruit juices, soft drinks, sauces, jams and pickles etc., have been linked to allergies, asthma attacks, skin irritations and migraines. Artificial Sweeteners were originally directed at diabetics and weight loss consumers however they are now found in the majority of diet-drink and diet-food products.  They are cheap to produce but lack the minerals found in unrefined cane sugars and there have been health safety concerns with nearly all of the sweeteners currently available.

Flavour Enhancers: are added to food to enhance the flavour of products. Often flavour is lost as foods go through their treatment process, so enhancers are added to make them more tasty or savoury.  One of the most common enhancers is mono sodium glutamate frequently used in Chinese food, canned soups, vegetables and processed meats. Although it has been classified as ‘safe’ its use remains controversial as it has been linked to headaches, rapid heartbeats, chest pain and nausea.

Food Colours: are used to aid the appearance of food by making it look fresh and more natural. As with flavour, often colour is also lost during processing so to make the food look more appealing colour is added.  They are used a lot in soft drinks, desserts and biscuits. A survey conducted by NZ Safe Food Campaign found children who eat many processed foods like biscuits, chips and soft drinks could easily consume 35-40 different doses of up to 14 various colours every day!  Some food colours have been linked to a varied range of reactions such as asthma, hyperactivity and skin irritations and rashes.

The Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) ensure all food additives go through a thorough safety evaluation before being approved for use in food. However although they may be deemed ‘safe’ for use, they can still cause varying reactions in those that consume a lot of processed food.

To limit your and your family’s intake of food additives, prepare and cook your own food with as many fresh and unprocessed ingredients as possible, and always read the labels so you know exactly what you are buying.



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