Introduction to food additives and preservatives
Find out why additives are used, common types, and how they're regulated.
Why are additives used?
Some of the main functions of additives are to:
- improve the colour, taste, appearance, and texture of food
- stop food from spoiling, drying out, or going rancid – these food additives are called antioxidants
- keep food moist – these food additives are called humectants.
Sometimes, nutrients are added to increase the health benefits of food.
Types of additives
Additives can be natural or manufactured.
Examples of natural additives are food colours and food acids extracted from fruits and vegetables.
Manufactured additives can be chemically the same as natural additives – for example, ascorbic acid is the same as citric acid. Additives such as synthetic colours and sweeteners are not found in nature.
You can find a list of food additives used in New Zealand in our booklet Identifying food additives. It includes information about what each additive does and its code number. The names and numbers are the same ones used on food labels.
Identifying food additives – booklet [PDF, 566 KB]
Common additives and preservatives
You can read about some common additives in these pages:
- Monosodium glutamate or MSG
- Preservatives in food: benzoates, sorbates, and sulphites
- Preservatives in food: nitrates and nitrites
- Synthetic colours
Regulating the use of food additives
Before they can be used, all food additives must be assessed for safety by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Find out more on the FSANZ website.
Maximum permitted levels of food additives
The Food Standards Code sets maximum permitted levels (MPLs) for some additives. Examples are benzoates, sorbates and sulphites used as preservatives.
The MPL is the maximum amount of an additive legally allowed in a food product or when it's prepared according to packet directions. The MPL ensures that additives don't exceed safe levels.
The actual amount used must be the lowest possible level needed to get the desired effect. This is set out in the Food Standards Code and compliance is subject to checks by auditors.
Schedule 15 of the Food Standards Code lists which substances can be added to particular foods, and their MPLs.
Additives must be listed on food labels
All food ingredients, including additives, must be listed on food labels. The function of the additive must be listed, along with its name or code number. For example: "thickener (pectin)", or "thickener (440)".
Code numbers on labels
Most food additives have code numbers, which are part of an international numbering system. Code numbers may be used as they take up less space on the food label. They also help consumers avoid being confused by additives with similar names.
Flavours and flavour enhancers on labels
Flavours do not have to be named or identified with a code number on food labels. However flavour enhancers such as MSG and other glutamates (flavours found in foods containing protein) must be listed with their name or code number.
Food additives and allergies
A small number of people may be sensitive or allergic to some food additives – just as some people are allergic to foods like fish or peanuts. Food labels help people avoid certain additives when they need to.
Find out more
Who to contact
If you have questions about food additives, email email@example.com