Over the last few decades, the number of additives used in processed foods has skyrocketed, including preservatives and other chemicals aimed at making food taste or look more appealing.
However, some of these substances – both natural and artificial – have been associated with adverse health effects, which can often be worse in children because they are smaller, so their 'dose' of any given chemical is relatively higher. Furthermore, children's metabolic (i.e. detoxification) systems and key organs are still developing, making them more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
From added sugar to the 352 food additives approved in Australia by Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ), we take a look at a handful that are commonly used as well as why they're used, and potential concerns they pose for our children's health.
Artificial food colourings (which have code numbers in the 100 range) are intended to brighten and improve the appearance of food, and their use has increased dramatically in recent decades with children the biggest consumers.
There are concerns however about their potential health effects, with many that are banned due to adverse reactions in laboratory tests. There are also concerns around some that are approved for use in Australia, such as allura red AC (129), brilliant blue FCF (133), sunset yellow FCF (110) and tartrazine (102), all of which derive from petroleum and have been associated with allergic reactions in some people.
There's also evidence that food colourings can cause hyperactivity in children. For this reason, foods containing certain colourings (e.g. allura red AC (129), sunset yellow FCF (110) and tartrazine (102)) must be labelled in the UK with: ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’ (though this is not the case in Australia).
Preservatives (code numbered in the 200 range) help to protect food against deterioration caused by micro-organisms. Below are two that are in common use in Australia, including in children's foods.
Sodium benzoate (211) is a synthetic preservative often added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods like condiments, salad dressings and fruit juices.
Although it's generally considered safe on its own, some studies have revealed potential side effects such as increased hyperactivity in 3 year olds when it's consumed with artificial food colouring, or its conversion into carcinogenic benzene when combined with vitamin C.
Sulphite preservatives (220-228) are in widespread use in our food supply, and commonly found in children's lunchboxes such as in dried fruits, fruit drinks, fruit bars and muesli bars.
Exposure to sulphites has been reported to induce a range of adverse effects in sensitive individuals, ranging from dermatitis, abdominal pain and diarrhoea to anaphylactic and asthmatic reactions. Studies have also reported 3-10% rate of sulphite sensitivity among asthmatics.
Emulsifiers (mostly code numbered in the 400 range) are used to prevent oil and water mixtures from separating and common in foods like mayonnaise, salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate and ice cream. Here's one that's caused some concerns in studies.
Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan (407) acts as an emulsifier (and also as a preservative) in many foods, such as cottage cheese, ice cream and some dairy-free alternatives like vegan cheese and almond milk.
One recent study published in the Journal of Diabetes Research concluded that carrageenan in the Western diet may contribute to the development of diabetes and the impacts of a high-fat diet. Carrageenan is also believed to negatively impact digestive health, which is critical in our children's development.
Excessive Added Sugar
While it isn't technically classed as an additive (in Australia), sugar is one of the most commonly added substances in processed food and often used in excessive quantities. In fact, a recent Australian survey by Choice of 57 toddler snack products found that nearly half contained more than 25% sugar.
"Eating too much added sugar in processed foods contributes to excessive weight gain ... with children aged 2-5 now twice as likely to be obese as they were 20 years ago." – Choice
In Australia, added sugar typically is in the form of cane sugar, which is about 50% fructose. This needs to be broken down by the liver into glucose, glycogen (stored carbs) or fat before it is useful as fuel. For this reason, excessive fructose consumption from high-sugar processed foods is thought to be associated with increased liver fat, including in children.
Are Go! Kidz Meals Additive Free?
Yes!! Our entire range of ready-to-eat children’s meals are made from 100% all-natural, 100% Australian, additive-free ingredients (and our desserts contain minimal sugar). All our meals are also snap frozen, which is why we don't need to use artificial preservatives to keep our food fresh.
Not only that, our ingredients are very high quality – for example the meats we use are all free range, all chicken is hormone-free, and all beef is grass-fed.