What exactly is a "Natural" Additive and is it better?
The exact definition of "Natural" is actually left up to the food manufacturers to some extent. A natural additive is one that can be extracted from a plant, animal, or food substance. For example, this could be a food colouring such as E123: Amaranth (which comes from a plant of the same name) or a flavour enhancer such as MSG (which is also derived from a plant). It could also be a colouring such as E120: Cochineal, which is a natural red colour derived from the crushed bodies of the insect Dayctylopius coccus.
While "natural" is often used to convey a sense of wholesomeness and health, clearly there can be different personal interpretations.
There are three broad origins of additives:
- Natural – naturally occurring extracts
- Nature identical – man-made copies of natural substances that are chemically identical
- Artificial – manufactured substances that do not occur in natural food
Many commonly used additives have both a natural origin, and a cheaper synthetic or nature identical equivalent. Depending on applicable government regulations, manufacturers may consider both natural and nature identical additives as "Natural" for the purposes of package labelling and marketing.
Are Natural Additives safer than Artificial ones?
A number of individuals have been known to react to additives of all origins. In some cases, artificial additives may even be better controlled in terms of testing and consistency/quality.
Diagnosing a Sensitivity
If you think you may have a food additive sensitivity, it's important to seek professional help, since all of the symptoms you may be experiencing can also be caused by other disorders.
It may help to keep a food diary and note carefully any adverse reactions. In the case of a sensitivity being identified, the usual practice is to eliminate all suspect foods from the diet and then reintroduce them one by one, to see which additive (or additives) causes the reaction. This should only be done under medical supervision, since some of the reactions – such as asthma – can be serious.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- An accredited practicing dietician, contact the Dietitians Association of Australia
- Please visit our Allergy Solutions Pantry for referral services
Food additives are chemicals that keep food fresh or enhance its colour, flavour or texture. Some people are sensitive to food additives, but this is rare. Reactions to food additives include hives or diarrhoea, other digestive disorders and respiratory problems such as asthma. Additives that may cause a reaction include flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) 621; colourings including tartrazine 102, yellow 2G107, sunset yellow FCF110 and cochineal 120; and preservatives including benzoates 210, 211, 212, 213, nitrates 249, 250, 251, 252 and sulphites 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225 and 228. Food additives play an important part in our food supply ensuring our food is safe and meets the needs of consumers.
Many additives have long complex names, some of which are abbreviated or include letters from the Greek alphabet. The food additives names can be confusing so, to help reduce this confusion, each food additive is given a short code number. Many people like to know what these food additive codes stand for and some people may choose to avoid certain food additives.
Who controls the use of additives?
Food Standards Australia New Zealand carries out safety assessments of food additives before they can be used, FSANZ checks whether:
- The food additive is safe (at the requested level in that particular food)
- There are good technological reasons for the use of the food additive
- The consumers will be clearly informed about its presence.
A food additive is approved for use only if it can be demonstrated that no harmful effects are expected to result from the requested use. Extensive testing of food additives is required, and FSANZ evaluates this data to determine if the food additive is safe. In addition, an exposure assessment is undertaken, which estimates the likely amount of the additive that would be consumed if it was permitted. This estimate is then compared to the acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is the amount of a food additive that can be eaten every day for an entire lifetime without adverse effect.
When satisfied on these points FSANZ recommends a maximum level of the food additive permitted in particular foods, based on technological need and providing it is well within safe limits. A food additive may only be added to food where expressly permitted in Standard 1.3.1 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Schedule 1 to the Standard details permitted uses and restrictions of food additives by food type and is hierarchical in structure. Food additive permissions listed for higher order category (e.g. 2) flow on to the next lower category (e.g. 2.1). Additional permissions may be specified for a lower category. Such permissions modify the permissions coming from the higher category, but only in respect of the food additives mentioned. The permissions for all other food additives specified for the higher category flow on to the next lower category.