A food additive can be any substance, natural or artificial, that is added to food.

There are several categories of food additives:

• Colouring – food manufacturers often add food colouring to improve or restore colour to processed food. This helps to enhance the visual appeal of the food and to make it appear richer in colour.

Examples include tartrazine (E102), indigotine (E132), or allura red (E129).

• Preservatives – in order to lengthen the shelf life of processed foods, manufacturers often use some form of preservative to help limit or minimise the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or mould that may cause the food to spoil or cause food poisoning.

Examples include sodium nitrite (E250), sodium nitrate (E251), sodium lactate (E325), sorbic acid (E200), sodium benzoate (E211), potassium benzoate (E212), or calcium sulphite (E226).

Sodium nitrite is an example of a preservative used to lengthen the shelf life of processed foods. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

• Antioxidants – help prevent foods from oxidisation as it will result in the food becoming rancid or discoloured. These additives can usually be found in baked goods, cereals, fats, oils and salad dressings.

Examples include ascorbic acid (E300), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA, or E320), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT, or E321), or propyl gallate (E310).

• Taste/texture modifiers – these additives help improve the taste or texture of food, e.g. artificial sweeteners used in low-calorie products, emulsifiers and stabilisers used in margarine/mayonnaise, flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) that help enhance the flavour of food, etc.

Examples include carrageenan (E407), calcium alginate (E404), or xanthan gum (E415).

• Nutrient supplement – these are added to help improve the nutrient content of the food. Examples include vitamins A & D, iron, riboflavin and folic acid.

Many food manufacturers list food additives using their E numbers rather than by name.

These additives may be added anytime during the process of producing, processing, treating, packaging, transporting or storing of the food.

However, it is a requirement that directly added food additives are listed on the ingredients label.

The pitfalls of food additives

In essence, food additives help to make food last longer on the supermarket shelf and improve the taste or texture, especially for products that have been enriched with vitamins or minerals as these supplements can affect the taste of the product.

Although food additives do have their benefits, ingesting large quantities of certain food additives may cause undesirable effects.

These are some food additives that you should think twice about:

• Sodium nitrite: typically used to stabilise meat and add colour and flavour to it. It also helps prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms.

However, either cooking the meat at high temperatures or normal digestion with stomach acid can cause it to produce nitrosamines, which are linked to a higher risk of pancreatic and colorectal cancer.

• Sulphites: this class of preservatives are known to aggravate the symptoms of people who have asthma or who are sensitive to it.

Although their usage has been banned on fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States, they are used in other foods.

Try to avoid products that list sulphites such as sulphur dioxide, potassium bisulphite, sodium bisulphite or sodium sulphite.

• Trans-fats: used to improve both shelf life and consistency of foods. However, this particular food additive does increase the risk of heart disease.

• Monosodium glutamate (MSG): a popular flavour and texture enhancer, it is found in many foods. However, people who are sensitive to MSG can experience adverse reactions which include nausea and breathing difficulties.

The extra sodium in MSG can also contribute to an elevated blood pressure.

In order to minimise your exposure, you can minimise your consumption of food additives in two steps:

food additives

This file pic shows a home-made mutton curry – home-cooked meals will always be the healthier alternative as opposed to eating out or cooking pre-prepared meals; however, do use fresh ingredients and go easy on the salt, sugar and oil.

• Step one – make it a habit to read the nutrition information panel and ingredients list. Only by knowing what you are eating can you decide if it is a healthy choice, or whether you need to eat less of certain foods, or to completely eliminate it from your diet.

• Step two – home-cooked meals will always be the healthier alternative as opposed to eating out or cooking pre-prepared meals; however, do use fresh ingredients and go easy on the salt, sugar and oil.

Do take note that not all food additives will be individually named on the ingredients list. What is listed may appear simply as “flavours”, “spices”, “artificial flavouring”, or “artificial colours”.

Food and allergic children

If your child or any other member of your family suffer from food allergies, then it is important to keep a food diary as it could help you to identify which particular food/product may have triggered an allergic reaction.

This is also important if your child has just started complementary feeding. Do take note of the particular product that you are feeding him along with the brand/manufacturer as well.


Prof Dr Norimah A Karim is a nutritionist and honorary secretary of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, visit www.mypositiveparenting.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.