Food additives are added to processed foods to extend their shelf life or improve their look or taste. Find out what types of additives are in the foods you eat, and how the use of these additives is controlled.
Why are additives added to foods?
- help keep foods edible for longer – for example, preservatives stop bacteria growing in food, while humectants stop foods from drying out
- improve the taste or appearance of food – for example, thickeners and colours.
Sometimes, nutrients are added to increase the health benefits of some food.
Types of additives
Additives can be:
- natural – like food colours extracted from fruit or vegetables
- manufactured, but are chemically the same as natural additives – for example, ascorbic acid
- manufactured but not found in nature – for example, the sweetener aspartame.
You can find a list of food additives used in New Zealand, including their code numbers and what they do, in our booklet – Identifying food additives.
Download the food additives booklet [PDF, 444 KB]
For details about some of the more common additives refer to:
- Benzoates, sorbates and sulphites (preservatives)
- Intense sweeteners
- Nitrates and nitrites (preservatives)
- Synthetic colours
All food additives must be assessed for safety by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) before they can be used. FSANZ checks that an additive is safe at the level it will be used, and also makes sure there is a good reason to use this additive.
If FSANZ agrees an additive can be used, it must then be approved by New Zealand and Australian government ministers. The Food Standards Code, a joint food law between Australia and New Zealand, lists which additives can be used, as well as:
- the amount of additive that can be added to foods or drinks
- which foods or drinks can contain these additives.
Maximum permitted levels of food additives
The Food Standards Code also sets maximum permitted levels (MPLs) for some additives, like benzoates, sorbates and sulphites used as preservatives. The MPL is the maximum amount of an additive legally allowed in a food product – or in the product when it's prepared according to packet directions.
While an MPL is the maximum level that may be used, the actual amount used must be the lowest possible level needed to get the desired effect in a particular food product.
Schedule 15 of the code lists which substances can be added to 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).
Most food additives have code numbers, which are part of an international numbering system. Code numbers are used as they take up less space on the food label, and also help avoid different additives being confused.
Enzymes and flavours
Enzymes or flavours do not have to be named or identified with a code number on food labels.
Vitamins and minerals
These are not classified as additives under the Food Standards Code, but some have a code number because they are also used as food additives. For example, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is added to some foods as an antioxidant.
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 milk or peanuts. Food labels help people with allergies avoid certain additives.