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FOOD ADDITIVES – What you should know?

What are food additives?

Food additives are substances that are safe for consumption which are intentionally added into foods in small amounts to impart specific characteristics to enhance the quality of foods but do not include vitamins and minerals.

Food additives are added to foods to :

  • increase the shelf life of the foods.
  • increase the quality and presentation of the foods (texture, colours, aesthetics, taste and consistency).
  • make the foods become tastier.
  • providing choice for consumer.

Food additives should not be mistaken as contaminants. Contaminants are substances which are not intentionally added to foods such as heavy metals, pesticide residues and veterinary drugs residues.

Misconceptions on food additives

Some people believe that food additives are chemicals. Therefore, they assume that usage of food additives should be banned. In the context of food science, the word ‘chemicals’ is actually quite insignificant since air, water, sugar and salt are also chemicals.

It is important to note that most food additives can be obtained from the nature, such as:

  • Pectin which are used to thicken jams are obtained from plants.
  • Lecithin used as emulsifier are obtained from egg yolk.
  • Other examples of naturally-obtained food additives are caramel used as food colouring, Vitamin C as antioxidant and jelly obtained from seaweed used as food stabiliser.

Misconceptions on food additives have made consumers become more focus on avoiding food additives rather than being serious in taking a well-balanced diet.

Since when were food additives used and why?

For centuries, people have added food additives in foods through various methods to preserve, enhance the flavour, mix, thicken or colour the foods. Our ancestors used salt to preserve meat and fish whereas spices are used to enhance the flavour of their food. Egg yolks are commonly used to assist the mixing of oil and water, and vinegars and sugars are used as preservative to pickle fruits.

Types of food additives

The types of food additives which are allowed in the Food Regulations 1985 are as follows :

  • Preservative
  • Colouring Substance
  • Flavouring Substance
  • Flavour Enhancer
  • Flavouring
  • Antioxidant
  • Food Conditioner.
Food Additives
Examples of food additives which are permitted
Example of foods in which preservatives are permitted
Preservative Preservatives are added to foods to control the growth of mold, yeast and bacteria to increase the shelf life of the foods Benzoic acid, sorbic acid, sulphur dioxide Jam, fruit juices, vinegar
Colouring substance Colouring substances are used to make foods become more appealing and to stimulate the taste buds Allura Red, Sunset Yellow, anthocyanin Cake, ice cream, flavoured drinks
Flavouring substance Flavouring substances are used to impart and maintain the unique taste of foods Spices Ice cream, flavoured drinks
Flavour enhancer Flavour enhancers are used to increase and improve the flavour of foods Monosodium glutamate (MSG) Sauce, flavoured milk
Antioxidant The function of antioxidants are to delay or retard  oxidation process which will cause foods to become rancid Tocopherol, Ascorbic acid, Butylated hydroxytoulene (BHT) Margerine, butter, peanut butter, coconut cream, chewing gum
Food conditioner Food conditioners are added to foods for a technological purpose to obtain the desired food Types of food conditioner which are allowed are:

  • Emulsifier and anti-foaming agent
  • Stabiliser, thickener, modified starch and gelling agent
  • Acidity regulator
  • Enzyme
  • Solvent
  • Anti-caking agent
Phosphoric acid, magnesium carbonate, xanthan gum, lecithin Canned fruits, chocolate, biscuit

How are food additives regulated?

The Ministry of Health Malaysia is responsible in controlling and approving the use of food additives in foods. Since food additives are widely used in food processing, strict control on the use of food additive is important. Only the suitable and safe food additives are permitted to be added in foods.

Food additives are only permitted to be added to certain foods at a maximum level specified in the Food Regulations 1985. The Ministry of Health only approves the use of food additives that do not pose any hazard to human health.

At the same time, the Ministry of Heath conducts on-going monitoring program to ensure that the use of food additives complies with the permitted level under the Food Regulations 1985.

How to know that food additives have been added to foods?

Consumers must read the labels. Under the current regulations, any foods which contain food additives must bear on the label a statement “contains permitted (type of the food additives). For example, “contains permitted colouring substance”.

Some labels provide additional information on the specific type of food additives which are added to the foods. For example, “contains permitted colouring substance (Ponceau 4R)”.

There are also labels which include additional information whereby the internationally-recognised reference number is indicated. For example, “contains emulsifier (sodium pyrophosphate (E450) as permitted food conditioner”.

What are the side effects of food additives?

Some consumers may be allergic to certain food additives. However, the information of food additives used on the labels will be able to help consumers who are allergic to food additives to avoid eating foods which contain the particular food additive.

Sulphur dioxide is an additive known to pose negative side effect and allergic reaction to consumers. It commonly added in pickled and dried fruits.

Sulphur dioxide or sulphite may cause chronic asthma attack for some consumers who are allergic to it. As such, it is mandatory to add the information “contains sulphur dioxide” on the label if the amount of sulphite or sulphur dioxide added to the food is more than 10mg/kg.

Another food additive which is also generally associated with causing allergic reaction to consumers is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). The side effect of adding MSG is known as the Chinese restaurant syndrome. This is because MSG is widely used in Chinese cooking. The symptoms of this syndrome are flushing/feverish, tingling sensation at the back of the neck and body, chest pain as well as facial pressure and swelling.

However, the syndromes have not been scientifically proven to be directly attributed by MSG consumption. Only those who are allergic to MSG will experience the side effect. The statement “contains Monosodium glutamate (MSG) as permitted flavour enhancer” is mandatory to be added in the labelling of foods which contains MSG.

Advice to consumer

Consumers are advised to read food labels before buying foods. Consumers who are allergic to certain foods or food additives should always read the labels to identify the foods and additives which they are allergic to and avoid them.

Last reviewed : 3 April 2014
Writer : Pn. Norrani binti Eksan
Reviewer : Pn. Norrani binti Eksan