Thanks to Grace Inman (Year 11 student at Norwood Morialta High School, South Australia) who asked the following questions (July 2015):

What do you believe is the main reason we use food additives? For profit, taste or aesthetics?

I would say profit, because when it became obvious through consumer surveys all over the world that about 80% of consumers are making a determined effort to avoid food additives, the food industry developed a sneaky strategy (called Clean Label - NOT Clean Food) to hide the additives so that consumers would be misled into buying them. However, obviously taste and aesthetics are part of the equation too, because food processing removes the taste and colour of natural foods, which is why food manufacturers want to use additives to make the food appeal to consumers so that they can make more profits. 

I have found a lot of research regarding the 'cocktail effect' of food additives, do you agree that this is a growing concern for consumers and one which has been overlooked by food safety authorities.

I agree that the cocktail effect has been entirely overlooked by the current food regulations - food additives are nearly always tested one at a time. Yet testing a mixture is obviously relevant to the way that additives are consumed. This problem was highlighted by a recent study showing that many carcinogens in foods are much more toxic in combination than could have been anticipated by adding their effects together 

Do you agree that there is a strong link between food additives and the growing rate of modern illnesses, such as IBS?

I think the link that is recognised is between the Western diet and modern illnesses such as IBS. Obviously, food additives are one part of that. From our point of view, naturally occurring food chemicals including salicylates, amines and glutamates can cause as many problems as food additives. These tend to be concentrated in highly processed foods, e.g. in strong fruit or "chicken" flavours in children's flavoured snacks.

Are certain people more susceptible to the harmful effects of food additives and if so, who?

According to researchers at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) Allergy Unit, children are the most vulnerable to the harmful effect of additives and other food chemicals.  This is because the effects of food additives are related to dose per kilo of bodyweight, and children have low weights but due to faster metabolism eat and drink more relative to their bodyweight than adults do.  Obviously babies and smaller children are more vulnerable than bigger children. Women of child-bearing age are also vulnerable to the effects of food chemicals due to the effects of their female hormones. Least vulnerable of all are men in the prime of their lives. Though not mentioned by RPAH researchers, I suspect that the elderly and people with early onset dementia are as vulnerable as children. It has only become recognised in the last few years that people with early dementia have porous blood brain barriers, which suggests that they are likely to be affected by chemicals such as food additives. Anecdotes from our members would seem to confirm this.

What do you believe are the most harmful food additives which I should focus my research on?

There are approximately 50 additives in 4 groups (colours - all artificials plus annatto; preservatives; synthetic antioxidants; flavour enhancers) that have been identified by RPAH researchers as the additives most likely to cause children's behaviour and learning problems, asthma, itchy rashes, headaches and irritable bowel symptoms. These are the best to focus on. 

Is it true that only the producer of the food additive is responsible for testing it's safety?

No. Worldwide food additive approval is controlled by JECFA However, as you have already pointed out, additives are only tested one at a time, often by the manufacturer, so the testing is not particularly comprehensive, to say the least. For example, as far as we can work out, there has never been any safety testing of the MSG boosters.

What criteria are used to determine whether a food additive is safe for consumers or not?

Quick and obvious death is a major criterion for unacceptability, e.g. which is why high doses of sulphites are no longer permitted in salad bars. Also additives such as gels that result in young children choking have been banned. Carcinogencitiy is also a criterion, although as you pointed out, due to lack of appreciation of the cocktail effect, perhaps not as much as was thought. Problems that are NOT considered to be criteria for approval include effects on children's behaviour and effects of the human biome (beneficial gut bacteria), which considering the recently discovered effect of artificial sweeteners is an obvious mistake (see more in the next question). 

If you had the authority to do so, which 5 food additives would you ban and why?

1. Propionate preservatives (280-283) also called "cultured dextrose" and anything else cultured in bread (e.g. cultured wheat, rice, whey). I think these are some of the worst additives because they cause a range of problems in a healthy food eaten every day (and are about to be allowed in meat). Problems reported to us range from stomach aches, irritability, restlessness, learning disabilities or insomnia to migraines, headaches, urinary urgency, bedwetting, itchy rashes, chronic fatigue, asthma and even heart palpitations and seizures. Some of these symptoms are reported in people who are born with a condition called propionic academia in which natural propionic acid in the body cannot be metabolised and builds up to cause problems.  Studies in mice have also shown learning difficulties and autistic-type symptoms, such as withdrawal and lack of social contact. (see more

2. All artificial colours - they have no function except to make food appear better and more appealing than it really is, and can affect some children and adults very badly. Most of these have already been removed from foods in Europe.

3. Natural colour annatto 160b - worse than artificial colours for some people, and again, only used for cosmetic purposes, to make processed food look more appealing that it really is. There is a slightly more expensive alternative, beta carotene, that does not cause problems and is used extensively in European foods. If their food technologists can do it, so can ours (my opinion is that Australian food technologists are like cowboys compared to Europe)!

4. Flavour enhancers 627, 631 and 635 (the "MSG boosters). These additives were only introduced in Australia in the late 1990s and ever since they hit the supermarket shelves we have been receiving reports of severe reactions (it appears they don't only boost the flavour-enhancing effects of MSG, they also boost the adverse reactions) leading to years of hell for people who are affected by them. Doctors have no idea what might be causing these. See reader stories on, but it isn't only rash that they cause. I suspect many people who are affected with rage or depression and other symptoms just don't work out what the cause is.  I'm also worried that these additives have an effect on the immune system (they are boosters). Allergy is due to an overboosted immune system and Australia is now the allergy capital of the world - and experts don't know why. What if it is due to our high intake of these additives? - is anyone looking?

5. Artificial sweeteners. Additives such as aspartame were approved in the early 1980s. It was only last year that scientists discovered that artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. All this time people have been drinking diet drinks thinking they were protecting themselves against obesity and diabetes when in fact the opposite is true, they were actually making it more likely that they would develop diabetes. (ref

Do you think that consumer pressure is beginning to force action or is the problem of food additives continuing to worsen?

I think the problem of food additives is going to get worse as the food industry becomes more powerful and better at hiding food additives as innocent-sounding ingredients. 

What scientific studies would you direct me to, to show proof that certain food additives are harmful?

There is no such thing as positive proof when you are dealing with science and immensely wealthy corporations - they can always find a scientist to take their side and deny everything. And who would bother doing difficult time-consuming trials when it is impossible to get funding and the results will be ignored anyway. You can see studies by additive in our Scientific Refences section under Adverse Effects by Additive

Are there any food additives that you believe are beneficial to the consumers health?

From one point of view, nitrate and nitrite preservatives used in ham, bacon, hotdogs and other preserved meats are considered to be the most dangerous of all food additives because they are strongly linked to bowel cancer. However, here is a paradox. These products would be much more dangerous, and could cause huge numbers of deaths due to food poisoning, without preservatives. While some consumers are happy to stop or reduce their intake of ham and bacon, some are not.  So from the opposing point of view, it can be said that nitrates and nitrites save many lives and are therefore beneficial for consumer health. The same could apply to sulphite preservatives used in sausages which are strongly linked to childhood asthma, although I admit I would rather see widespread use of frozen preservative-free sausages than the extensive use of sulphite preservatives.

 Further information

Introduction to food intolerance

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians 

© Sue Dengate July 2015