Since 2002, manufacturers in Australia are not required to declare food additives on a product if the quantity is below 5%.
Educator Christine Thompson-Wells says this regulation gap is troubling. She is raising awareness of this issue in her book ‘Devils In Our Food’.
“Consumers need to be aware of the hidden additives in everyday foods and know that there are healthy, safe alternatives to these products,” she says. “It is important that we are aware of exactly what we are putting into our bodies and we understand how this can be detrimental to our health.”
The five most common food additives and their effects:
1. Aspartame NutraSweet Equal (951)
Used to enhance flavour and sweeten, this additive is commonly used in low-calorie and sugar-free food products.
“Aspartame is linked to many health problems including dizziness, speech problems, neurological disorders, menstrual problems, birth defects and seizures,” explains Thompson-Wells. It is found in many everyday foods, such as breakfast cereals, jams, breads, chewing gum and multivitamins.
In 2023, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic.”
2. Potassium sorbate (202)
This additive is added to products to prolong shelf life. Including everyday products such as cheeses, fermented milk and pickles. Wine can also include Potassium sorbate (202) to inhibit the growth of fungi, yeast and bacteria.
Thompson-Wells points out it can “cause skin irritation, headaches, intestinal pain, liver damage and is related to severe behavioural problems such as ADHD.”
3. Dimethyl dicarbonate (242)
“[This is] a dangerous yeast inhibitor which is linked to cancer,” explains Thompson-Wells. It is often found in non-carbonated drinks like ice tea, isotonic sports drinks and children’s soft drinks.
According to the author, if inhaled, the toxic colourless liquid can cause “breathing difficulties and irritation to the nose, throat and respiratory tract.”
4. Acesulfame potassium (950)
A powder which is 200 times sweeter than sugar. This additive is found in frozen desserts, diet products and commercially baked foods.
“This additive makes the brain want more intensely sweet food. It can also lead to tumours of the lungs, mammary glands and is linked to some cancers,” says Thompson-Wells.
5. Starch acetate (1420)
Used to stabilise, emulsify, bine and thicken food. Starch acetate is linked to high cholesterol, pathological changes in the lungs, calcium deposits in the kidneys and stomach disorders, says Thompson-Wells.
It can be found in batter mixers, baby foods and some yoghurts and dairy products.