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Why do we use food additives?

This article explores the various purposes of food additives, both those that are intentional food additives and unintentional.

The final category of non-nutrient compounds that we will consider is ‘additives’.

Without a doubt, the use of additives in food production has increased the variety and quality of food supplies across the world.

Countries such as Australia now have an extraordinarily wide range of foods available. Without the use of regulated additives, we would not have the wide range of safe and suitable foods which we see on the supermarket shelves today!

A selection of breakfast foods, containing additives, that are part of a balanced diet including coffee, orange juice, croissants, cereals and fruits.

Some additives assist with food safety, decreasing the risk of food-borne illness. Others enhance nutrient quality (such as folate fortification in bread), act as preservatives helping to prevent food from spoiling, or add to food quality and appeal by maintaining, improving or modifying colour, taste, texture and smell.

Intentional additives

Intentional additives are added to foods for a purpose, whilst others may get into food unintentionally pre or post food production. Both intentional and incidental additives are regulated by Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) to ensure safety and suitability of the food supply.

Purpose of food additives:

  • Maintain or improve nutritional value
  • Enhance quality/maintain freshness
  • Aid food production, processing or preparation
  • Reduce waste
  • Make food more readily available
  • Improve consumer acceptability

The following table lists some common categories of food additives and their purpose.

Type of food additive Purpose
Acids/Acidity regulators/Alkalis Helps to maintain a constant acid level in food. This is important for taste, as well as to influence how other substances in food function.
Anti-caking agents Reduce the tendency of individual food particles to adhere and improve flow characteristics.
Antioxidants Slow or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods.
Bulking agents Contribute to the volume of the food, without contributing significantly to its available energy.
Colours Add or restore colour to foods.
Emulsifiers Facilitate or maintain oil and water from separating into layers.
Firming agents/stabilisers Maintain the uniform dispersion of substances in solid and semi-solid foods.
Flavour enhancers Enhance the existing taste and/or odour of a food.
Foaming agents Maintain the uniform dispersion of gases in aerated foods.
Gelling agents Modify the texture of the food through gel formation.
Humectants Reduce moisture loss in foods.
Preservatives Slow or prevent the deterioration of food by micro-organisms, and thus prevent spoilage of foods.
Raising agents Liberate gases, thereby increasing the volume of a food and are often used in baked goods.
Sweeteners Replace the sweetness normally provided by sugars in foods without contributing significantly to their available energy.
Thickeners Increase the viscosity of a food.

Table source – Food Standards Australia and New Zealand: What do food additives do?

As you can see from the list, food additives exist for a variety of reasons and are likely something you already use in the kitchen! Can you identify and share any examples of food additives you use yourself?
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A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Eating

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