Understanding Food Additives


Understanding:Food Additives

Sourced from the Consumer Information Division

B. R. I., PO Box 7, North Ryde NSW 2113

Mention the word “additive” and you’re sure to evoke an emotional response.  To many consumers, the word “additive” means something unnatural synthetic or chemical which, when added to a food raises questions about food safety.  Such correlations, are however, misdirected and originate mainly from a lack of understanding about additives, their functions and the restraints governing their use in foods.

What is an Additive?

An Additive is a substance added to a food to enhance appearance, texture, taste, keeping qualities or, in some cases, to facilitate processing.

There are many classes of additives including flavours, colours, emulsifiers, preservatives, vitamins and minerals.

Whilst it is true that all additives are chemicals, it is equally true that all living and non-living things are also composed of chemicals i.e. the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, soil, our bodies.

The body does not make biological or metabolic distinction between an added chemical substance and that same substance naturally present in the food, ‘Naturalness’ confers no special benefit, indeed a number of naturally-occurring materials are toxic at low concentrations and can even cause death.

The use of additives is by no means new.  Smoke, saltpetre, honey, vinegar, sulphur dioxide, herbs and spices were among the first additives to be used for food preservation.

The Ancient Egyptians and vegetable and fruit extracts to colour food, and honey for flavour.  Sulfur, burnt to give sulphur dioxide, is mentioned in the Bible as useful because of its purifying and fumigating properties.

Today, however, the use of additives has become more extensive due to the need to provide larger numbers of people living in cities and isolated communities with economically-priced, wholesome, safe, convenient and nutritious food all year round.

How safe are food additives?

Australia has a well-established system to control the use of food additives, administered via the Australian Food Standards Code.

The National Food Authority approves food additives for particular use in foods only after assessment of their safety.  This assessment is based on available information from worldwide sources.

A food additive can only be used if:

  • It is safe.
  • It is technically necessary.  If the same results can be achieved without an additive it will not be allowed.
  • Its use does not mislead the consumer about food quality.
  • Non-nutritive additives are kept to a minimum.

Australian food regulations cover each food separately i.e. there are separate regulations for cereals, flours, and breads, for eggs and egg products, milk and other dairy products etc.   Only the ingredients and additives specified in the regulations for these foods can be used.  If the regulations do not mention an additive then it must not be used.  In establishing maximum levels, toxicological studies at much higher levels are considered in relation to the amount used in the food, and also the amount likely to be consumed in the total diet.  The reasonable acceptable daily intake is one hundredth of the maximum safe dose in animal experiments, consumed over the whole lifetime of the animal.  Every effort is made to ensure that the food supply is safe both for immediate consumption and over the long term.  There is a continuing review and update of existing and proposed additives.

Are additives used in Bread?

The Australian Food Standards Code permits certain additives may be used in order to improve texture, volume and keeping qualities.  They appear in the ingredients list on bread wrappers and are designated by their class names: - flour treatment agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, enzymes.

All food additives are designated in the ingredient list by their class name followed by a number or the exact name of the additive.  This system allows consumer to identify the additives contained in products if they so desire.

The ingredient listing for a typical, mixed-grain bread may read like this:

Flour for bread making*, kibbled rye, kibbled wheat, gluten, yeast, soy fibre, rice bran, rye meal, salt, milk powder, soy oil, preservative (281), emulsifier (481), water added.

The ‘code list’ for the additive number system is available from the Department of Health in each State and is extensively publicised.

*There is provision with the food regulations for the term “flour for bread making” to be used.  This refers to flour which already contains flour treatment agents and, therefore, code numbers for these additives are not required.

What are the Class Names and Functions of the additives used in Bread?

1.Flour Treatment agents

These include mineral salts and dough conditioners.

a) Mineral Salts provide a source of nutrients for yeast and enzymes and so are essentially yeast foods.  (Yeast is necessary to produce carbon dioxide by fermentation, thus providing the raising or leavening action for a well-risen, open-textured loaf).

The permitted mineral salts and their respective additive number codes are: 

   Code No Max. Usage 
Calcium Acid Phosphate  341 0.7%
Ammonium Chloride 510 0.05%
Calcium sulphate 516 0.08%

b) Dough Conditioners modify the properties of dough usually by either enhancing or decreasing gluten ‘strength’ in the dough.  This produces good loaf volume and texture. 

  Code No. Max. Usage  
Ascorbic Acid (or Vitamin C)  300  No limit
 L-cysteine* (rarely used now) 920 75 mg/kg
 Sodium metabisulphite 223 60 mg/kg

*One of the essential amino acids found in protein. During bread making, these additives undergo changes so that at the end of baking they are no longer present in the bread.

Until recently potassium bromate (924) was permitted for use as a dough conditioner.  However very low levels have been detected in bread by some workers, and its use has been prohibited since January 1992.


Emulsifiers are used in bread to produce a soft crumb and to retard staling.

The following emulsifiers were commonly used but there has been a significant reduction: 

  Code No.  MPL* 
Sodium stearoyl lactylate  481 0.4%
Calcium stearoyl lactylate 482 0.4%
Sodium oleyl lactylate  N/A 0.4%
Calcium oleyl lactylate  N/A 0.4%
Diacetyl tartaric esters of mono and diglycerides of fat forming fatty acids  472(e) 0.35% Total
Mono and diglycerides of fat-forming fatty acids 471  

*Maximum permitted level.

Sodium and calcium stearoyl lactylate and sodium and calcium oleyl lactylate may also be classed as flour treatment agents.


Preservatives are added to nearly all commercial bread to extend storage life by inhibiting the growth of micro-organisms which cause spoilage.  This is particularly important during hot, humid summer months as mould is the most common cause of spoilage of bread.

Bread labelled: no preservatives: may contain vinegar (acetic acid), which has some preservative effects.

The preservatives which may be used but not as common today are: 

  Code No.  MPL* 
Sorbic Acid  200 0.12%
Sodium, diacetate 262 0.36%
Propionic acid 280  
Sodium propionate 281 0.24% Total
Calcium propionate 282  
Potassium propionate 283  

*Maximum permitted level.

Diacetates and propionates are salts derived from acetic and propionic acid, both naturally occurring acids.  However, they can also be chemically manufactured.


Enzymes occur naturally in all living organisms and perform a number of chemical changes essential for life.  Most bakers flour contains natural enzymes.  Amylase is particularly important for converting starch into maltose to sustain fermentation with adequate gas production.  Inadequate gassing and poor loaf volume can be due to lack of amylase in the flour.  To correct a deficiency of amylase the Australian Food Standards Code permits its addition to bread.  This can be added as a fungal amylase preparation or as malt flour, a rich source of natural amylase.

Proteases are also present in flour proteins.  These have a softening effect on the gluten protein.  When the gluten protein in dough is too strong the dough becomes difficult to manage.

Enzymes as a class of additives do not have a code number.  They are listed by their class names which is followed by the name of the enzyme i.e. enzyme (amylase).

Do all breads contain Additives?

No.  The baker determines which, if any, additives are used, and depending on the type of bread being produced.

Are artificial colours and flavours allowed in bread?

No artificial colours or flavours are allowed in any loaf marked as “bread”.  Fruit loaves, which are not defined under the regulations, MAY contain artificial colours and flavours.

Where do I seek more information on bread additives?

Contact either:

  • The Bread Manufacturers Association in your state
  • The Department of Health in your State
  • The Council of the Australian Food Technology Association (CAFTA) Food Information Service, c/o PO Box 1310, North Sydney NSW 2059.

Suggested Reading

“The Additive Code Breaker{ by Maurice Hanssen and Jill Marsden.  Lothian Publishing Company Pty Ltd.

“Eating Matters” by David Briggs and Mark Wahlquist, Methuen Haynes Publisher.