What's Really In Your Food?


Many of us have become accustomed to reaching into the pantry for a cook-in sauce or using mass-produced, prepackaged ingredients in the kitchen.

The convenience and time saving is obvious. However, processed foods routinely contain many ingredients that are far less natural than we would like to think.

Can you decipher all those technical-sounding ingredients on the label? Do you look?

Of course, food additives aren’t necessarily all bad for us either. But it is certainly true that we are far less aware of what we eat than our ancestors were.

There’s certainly no harm as long as we eat processed foods in moderation. However, here are the main food additives to watch out for.


Added to mass-produced food to retard spoilage, most foods contain preservatives of some kind or another.

The World Health Organisation lists some common preservatives as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Two such preservatives, sodium nitrite (250) and sodium nitrate (251), are commonly found in processed meats.

Other preservatives include calcium propionate (282), which is added to bread in some areas to reduce mould growth.

Often the preservatives are added to remove far more serious health risks, such as preventing the growth of harmful bacteria that can lead to botulism poisoning. So preservatives aren’t inherently bad. In many ways they keep our food safer.

But the safest food will always be fresh and unsullied, without the need for additives to keep it safe for a long journey from farm to supermarket.

Artificial Sweeteners

Since sugar first arrived in western society, we’ve developed an increasingly sweet tooth in all of our foods. Sweeteners are not just confined to lollies and soft drinks, but can pop up in the most unlikely savoury meals as well.

It is unclear whether artificial sweeteners are harmful in large doses or not. Conflicting research over the decades has seen sweeteners both demonised and vindicated. And the obvious benefit in reducing obesity may outweigh any perceived risk.

As always, moderation is important. Nurturing your sweet tooth with artificial sweeteners still means you have a sweet tooth craving more sugar than is healthy for your body.

Far better to try to reduce your dependence on sweet foods and drinks.

Flavour Enhancers

Most people are aware of monosodium glutamate (MSG) as it became particularly common in take-away foods, commercial sauces and packet mixes.  People sensitive to MSG can experience headaches and even numbness after eating just a little.

It is quite common now for some restaurants and take-aways to declare whether their food contains MSG. So if you are sensitive, it can be easier to avoid.


Parents have long known that there is a link between certain food colours and hyperactive behaviour. As a result of UK research that confirmed the link, many manufacturers are phasing out these colours.

There are also a number of inconclusive tests of food colours creating a health risk — including allergic reactions and even, possibly, tumours. This uncertainty means that some colours are restricted in certain territories.

Yet, even natural additives aren’t off the hook. Annatto (160b) is found in some cheeses, margarines and cakes and has been known to cause an allergic reaction in some people.

If In Doubt, Leave It Out

The whole point of additives is not that they are essential ingredients in a recipe, but that they are added for cosmetic or commercial reasons.

They make the food look more appealing or last longer or taste unnaturally sweet.

There is no great risk to you or your family from eating processed foods containing additives.

It is easier than you might think to prepare foods virtually free of all such additives. Instead of that cook-in sauce, it’s simple to make your own from scratch with all natural ingredients. Instead of popping that frozen meal in the microwave, you can whip up a tasty meal in just a few minutes in a single pan, only using fresh ingredients you chose yourself.

Find recipe ideas and cooking tips and take back control of what you eat.