Reading Food Labels: Food Additives

supermarket aisleThe brand of cookies, bread, ketchup, chocolates or the multitude of edibles you put in your shopping trolley, has a direct bearing on your health and the health of your children. In case of sensitive people, such as children with ADHD,  it could even affect learning ability and behaviour.

This is due to a number of food additives that are used in the manufacture of processed foods.  Different countries have different regulations about what is required to be shown on food labels, and what is safe to consume.

What are food additives?

Food additives are substances that are intentionally added to improve a characteristic of food, and are not normally  eaten as food by themselves or used as a typical ingredient.   Manufacturers use food additives mainly to increase the shelf life of the product, and improve the colour, texture, volume, taste and flavour of the product that may otherwise be lost during processing. They don’t necessarily make the product healthier.

Though for centuries, additives such as salt and vinegar have been used to preserve foods, over the last couple of decades, the range and usage of food additives have increased dramatically with the rise in the consumption of processed foods. Most of these “new-age” additives are petroleum based.

Even though many additives are cleared in the US by the Food and Drug Administration(FDA), other independent research studies have shown links between various additives to allergies, cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Researchers at the University of Liverpool [1] say ”Exposure to food additives during a child’s development has been associated with behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.“  Even though some additives may be safe in isolation, “We think there are signs that when you mix additives, the effect might be worse.”

What are E numbers?

Have you noticed on many food labels, a long list of mysterious looking numbers after the letter E? They represent the food additive that is used, for example, E621 is Monosodium Glutamate or MSG, a flavour enhancer and E102 is Tartrazine which lends a yellow colour to food.  Ironically, the E numbers mean that these additives have actually been approved by the European Union as safe for use in foods. However, as many independent studies have proven otherwise, many of the E numbers are actually represent artificial food additives to watch out for!  It must be borne in mind that some natural additives which are safe to use in moderate amounts such as vitamin C (E300) also have E numbers.

Here are the categories of E numbers (Source: Wikipedia)

E100-E199  COLOURS









Sometimes you may find the names of the colours instead of numbers such as Yellow No. 5 or Blue #  The label may say “FD&C” before the number which means it’s used for “Food, Drug & Cosmetics.” If a number is listed as “D&C”, for example “D&C Red #33″ it means that this coloring is considered safe for drugs/medicines and cosmetics, but not for food.

What are the main food additives to avoid?


Colours are added to food for many reasons. Candies that are bright blue or pink or orange are likely to attract children into buying them.  Even adults brains are wired to think that red apples or really orange oranges are fresher and healthier.  In most cases, a lot of the natural food colours are lost during factory processing.  Dyes or colouring are added to processed foods or even applied on fresh fruits, to make them “look” good.

Artificial colourings are made from synthetic dyes and are routinely found in many foods that children are most likely to consume such as sweets and candies, cakes, ice creams, soft drinks, biscuits and the like.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an independent Washington based watchdog and consumer advocacy group advises that we avoid artificial colourings in our foods.

The Food Standards Agency, UK (FSA) says “Certain combinations of the following artificial food colours: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) and ponceau 4R (E124) have been linked to a negative effect on children’s behaviour.”

FSA adds that ” Tartrazine (E102) is a yellow colour used in a range of foods including soft drinks, sweets and sauces. Studies have shown that eating foods or drinks containing tartrazine can cause nettle rash (urticaria), dermatitis (an allergic skin condition), asthma, or rhinitis (runny nose) in a small number of people.”

In Asia, Tartrazine is still used to impart the bright yellow colour in raw banana and jackfruit chips, and in turmeric powder.

Brilliant blue (E133) has been banned in several European countries in the past. Quinoline yellow (E104) is banned in foods in Australia, Norway and the US.  However, in Asia food labelling regulations vary widely, and these colours are found in many foods.

Unfortunately synthetic dyes are used on fresh fruits, e.g.,  RED # 2 is used on oranges, and is a suspected carcinogen. RED #3 is used on cherries. It’s a coal tar derivative and is suspected to cause cancers and brain damage.  It’s difficult to detect the dyes used on fruits as there are no labelling requirements on fresh food.

As a rule of thumb, avoid foods with any kind of artificial colourings, whether mentioned on labels by E numbers or by their names. For unbranded products, any food which looks unnatural in colour to it is sure to have some synthetic dye added and is best avoided.


According to CSPI  “Hundreds of chemicals are used to mimic natural flavors; many may be used in a single flavoring, such as for cherry soda pop. Most flavoring chemicals also occur in nature and are probably safe, but they are used almost exclusively in junk foods. Their use indicates that the real thing (often fruit) has been left out. Companies keep the identity of artificial (and natural) flavorings a deep secret. Flavorings may include substances to which some people are sensitive, such as MSG or HVP.”

MSG tricks you into believing that the food you’re eating is very tasty and full of protein. It enables manufacturers to put less of the real ingredients, because you still perceive the same taste.  MSG has been linked in different studies to to headaches and tightness in the chest.

MSG is an excitotoxin , a chemical which over-excites the brain cells.  In the book called, “Excitotoxins- The Taste that Kills,” Author Russell Blaylock writes based on several experiments that that excitotoxins like MSG may aggravate or precipitate many neurological disorders. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of MSG, which is routinely used in many junk food.

It’s unfortunate that manufacturers can get away with amiguous labelling of  flavour enhancers like MSG and other excitotoxins, using words like “spice,” “natural flavours”  or “hydrolysed vegetable protein.”

There’s also no way of knowing whether hawker stalls or restaurants use MSG routinely in their food, unless they specifically say so.


Sulphur dioxide (E220) and other sulphites (E221 to E228) are commonly used preservatives in foods such as soft drinks, french fries, sausages, burgers, dried fruit,vegetables and wine. Remember the orange looking dried apricots? Read the labels the next time round, and you’d be sure to spot some form of sulphites in there.

Another commonly used perservative are Benzoates (E210 to E 219) which are found in fruit juices, carbonated drinks and pickles. The CSPI says “Manufacturers have used sodium benzoate (and its close relative benzoic acid) for a century to prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. The substances occur naturally in many plants and animals. They appear to be safe for most people, though they cause hives, asthma, or other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

Another problem occurs when sodium benzoate is used in beverages that also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The two substances, in an acidic solution, can react together to form small amounts of benzene, a chemical that causes leukemia and other cancers.”

BHA, BHT and TBHQ are preservatives that are added to foods that contains oil, in order to prevent rancidity. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO) lists these as possible carcinogens.

Sometimes these chemicals may be labelled as “anti-oxidants” as they prevent the fat in foods from going rancid or “oxidising.”  Many anti-oxidants are natural and may actually be beneficial, but they are more costly than the synthetic ones, so you have to check which ones are being used.


Aspartame is the common synthetic sweetener used in food and beverages. Aspartame is around 200 times sweeter than sugar and is used in more than 6,000 products, including diet drinks, milk drinks, juices, instant breakfasts, desserts, cereal bars, yogurt, vitamin supplements, and chewing gum.

Aspartame continues to be a subject of much controversy, though US FDA approved it as far back as 1974. The latest view by the Food Standards Agency UK is to call for a new round of studies to verify the safety of artificial sweeteners [2] . However the CPSI concludes,

“The bottom line is that lifelong consumption of aspartame probably increases the risk of cancer. People—especially young children—should not consume foods and beverages sweetened with aspartame. Two other artificial sweeteners, SACCHARIN and ACESULFAME-K, have also been linked to a risk of cancer.”

There is also concern about SUCROLOSE which is 600 times sweeter than sugar, as it is made with chlorine which is a carcinogen.

Again as a rule of thumb, stay away from artificial sweeteners, especially if you’re going to give them to children. Unless there is a strong medical reason to use artificial sweeteners, it’s best your child’s and your intake of sugars from natural sources like fruits, honey, or unrefined sugars – all in moderation.


Sugar is a food additive to obviously enhance the sweetness of the product.  However, we may not often recognise the hidden sugars in a product that add up surreptiously to your total intake.  Sugar can be disguised in these names[3] : Brown sugar, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, Dextrose, Fructose, Fruit-juice concentrate, Glucose, High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), Honey, Invert sugar, Lactose, Malt syrup,Maltose, Molasses, Raw sugar, Sucrose, Syrup.

Other names include: Amazake, Carob Powder, Evaporated Cane Juice and Fructose.

To make out how much sugar you’re really eating, read the part of the food label which says “Sugars.” Every 4 grams equals a teaspoon of sugar. The recommended intake of sugars is 9 teaspoons per day for women and 12 teaspoons for men from all food sources, both direct and indirect.


Trans Fats are essentially created by adding hydrogen molecules to liquid vegetable oil, to make them solid.  You can identify them on food labels by the name, “Hydrogenated” or “Partially Hydrogenated Oils”  in a number of products like cookies, margarines, pizza dough, french fries, doughnuts and baked goods.    Manufacturers like to use them because trans fats provide an economical way to extend the shelf life of the products, enhance their flavour and texture.  Consumption of trans fats create risks of cancer, clogging arteries, heart disease, immune dysfunction. This is because it lowers the HDL or good Cholesterol in the body and raises the LDL or bad Cholesterol.  Also, our bodies can’t get rid of them, and they keep building up inside.

The Food Standards Agency, UK  and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that trans fat consumption should be kept to a minimum. Current UK recommendations are that trans fats should not provide more than 2% of a person’s dietary energy intake. However, the doctors in the UK are now calling for a total ban on trans fats. [4]

Here in Singapore, the Health Promotion Board encourages voluntary labelling  of trans fats by manufacturers since 2004, and to reduce the trans fat content in products. Look out for trans fats in products and remember that restaurants and fast food joints do use hydrogenated oils in commerical friers as it’s cheap and the oil can be used repeatedly without it going bad quickly.


For vegans and vegetarians, this is particularly important as there are several products which have hidden meat in the ingredients.

Gelatin is made from the boiled bones, hooves and skin of slaughtered animals. This imparts a chewy texture to foods such as jellies, marshmallows, candies, and is even used in ice cream. So read your labels or if you’re check with your ice cream vendor for the ingredient list.  Agar-agar is a vegetarian alternative for making jellies.

Rennet is used for fermenting cheese, and is obtained from the stomach linings of slaughtered calves. Unless otherwise specified as “microbial rennet” which is cheese made by fermenting yeast, rennet can be taken as the non-vegetarian one.   If you’re at a restaurant where cheese is used, say for pasta or pizza, it’s best to check with the chef whether the cheese has microbial rennet.

Other things to watch out for: Stock in soups in restaurants or in packaged vegetable soups, may have chicken or beef stock.   Anchovies are a type of small fish which may be used in sauces such as Worcestershire and barbecue sauces. Lard is pig fat and may be found in pie crusts and other bases. Beef fat or tallow may be found in some pastry, bread and cake mixes.

Are there any safe additives at all?

In moderate quantities, these are generally considered safe :  acids such as citric acid, lactic acid, absorbic acid, vitamins and minerals, pectin, lactose, casein, lecithin, sorbitol, calcium propionate, glycerin, annatto, beta-carotene.  Not all of these are vegan.

It is mostly processed and pre-packaged foods that come with a host of additives. Getting into the habit of deciphering food labels, and teaching our children to do the same will go a long way to ensuring that we put into our bodies and our children’s bodies, what is  healthy and wholesome. Researchers in the UK have in fact  linked  consumption of processed foods to depression. Opt for a diet largely based on whole foods, which includes lots of fruits and vegetables, instead of one with sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products.  Small changes in the way you shop can make a huge difference to the health of your family.

Links :

[1]  Guardian UK: Combining Food Additives may be harmful

[2] Guardian UK: Sweetener aspartame to be investigated for possible side effects

[3] MedicalNet.com  Artificial Sweeteners

[4] National Health Service (NHS), UK   : Call to ban man-made fat

[5] BBC: Depression linked to Processed Food

A condensed version of this article appeared on the March edition of VegVibe magazine.


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Posted by on Apr 9 2010. Filed under Food, Food/Diet/Meat Reduction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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