Your guide to food additives and kids


Food additives tend to be a major concern for parents when shopping for foods for their kids. All those numbers and difficult-to-pronounce chemicals can leave you feeling confused and wondering whether the food is safe for your child to consume.


What are food additives?

Food additives and preservatives are substances that are artificially created to improve the food's quality. Depending on the additive, this chemical product could be used to enhance its taste, provide an appealing fragrance, improve the texture or to make the food look better with colours. Food additives are also designed to improve shelf life by preserving and stabilising the ingredients.

As a general rule, if you purchase processed foods you’ll be buying products with food additives. The more processed the foods, the more additives.

In Australia, there are more than 300 approved food additives used in foods. The safety of these are reviewed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) (key word here is reviewed, not tested). One of the concerns with food additives and kids (and adults too) is the number of additives consumed, particularly those that are controversial. The other is that while the safety of additives is tested individually, it’s unknown the effects of these chemical substances when used in combination with a whole lot of others.

Concerns about food additives and kids

While food additives have been approved for use in food products, there are some potential effects of consuming these substances, especially in high amounts. However, a lot of the evidence is inconclusive and as with everything, we all respond differently to foods whether additives or wholefoods.

The most popular concerns about the health risks of food additive consumption include:

  • Behavioural changes such as hyperactivity

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Asthma

  • Hay Fever

  • Headaches & migraines

  • Skin complaints

  • Cancer

According to Choice, some of the main food additives that are considered controversial include:

  • Colours (numbers in the 100 range)
    Colours used to improve the appearance of foods have been linked to hyperactivity, allergies and cancer.

  • Preservatives (numbers in the 200 range)
    Preservatives are used to improve shelf life and have been associated with migraines, behavioural changes, learning delays, asthma and cancer.

  • Antioxidants (numbers in the 300 range)

    Antioxidants are used to prevent food from going rancid is listed as a possible carcinogen by WHO.

  • Artificial sweeteners (numbers in the 900 range and bulk sweeteners)

    Artificial sweeteners are designed to improve the sweetness of foods without the added calories. These have been linked to cancer, preterm babies, headaches, allergies and behavioural changes.

  • Flavour enhancers (numbers in the 600 range)

    Flavour enhancers improve the taste and often smell of the food have been associated with headaches, flushing and may be problematic to asthmatics.

  • Emulsifiers and stabilisers (numbers in 400 range) and thickeners (numbers in 400 and 1000 range) are also flagged as a concern.

It should be noted, the evidence regarding the health risks associated with these food additives is lacking and the jury is still out about the safety.

EWG’s Dirty Dozen food additive guide


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) have created a list of food additives that have been found to be associated with negative health implications. In fact, some of these additives are banned or restricted in some countries and shouldn’t be found in any food.

EWG’s Dirty Dozen includes:

  1. Nitrites & Nitrates

  2. Potassium Bromate

  3. Propul Paraben

  4. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

  5. Butylated Hydroxtytoluene (BHT)

  6. Propyl Gallate

  7. Theobromine

  8. Secret Flavour Ingredients

  9. Artificial Colours

  10. Diacetyl

  11. Phosphate food additives

  12. Aluminium Additives

You can find information obtaining to each of these food additives here.

Tips to help reduce your family’s consumption of artificial additives

Artificial additives and preservatives are everywhere in processed foods. From your favourite peanut butter and cereals to meats and tinned vegetables, you’ll find numbers and chemical names you find impossible to pronounce.

Steering clear of additives is possible, you just need to arm yourself with knowledge and take the time to know what’s in your food.

  • Consume whole foods when and where possible

  • Get cooking

  • Turn and read the nutrition label on every packaged food

  • Avoid packaged foods with long ingredient lists and names you don’t know

  • Avoid foods with several number series list on the label

  • Make healthy swaps where possible (i.e. Kraft Peanut Butter for Pic’s Peanut Butter or Macro Wholefoods Organic Smooth)

  • Purchase certified organic snacks where possible