Artificial food additives: Sweeteners, flavourings and colourings

10 OCTOBER 2021

Artificial food additives are found in almost all ready-made and processed foods we encounter today. While a wide range of chemicals are used for a wide range of purposes, this short article will just focus on three types of food additives: sweeteners, flavourings and colourings.

Artificial sweeteners are commonly found in low-calorie food as well as products designed for diabetics. This is because they are not broken down by the body into glucose, making it suitable for people suffering from diabetes, since diabetes affects the body’s ability to process glucose in the bloodstream. In addition, many of these sweeteners cannot be easily metabolised by the body to produce energy, making them low-calorie in nature and thus suitable for those who wish to consume less sugar in their diet.

One additional benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they often are perceived to be much sweeter than sugar by the human taste, thus one requires less of the substance to achieve the same sweetening effect. For example, sucralose, one of the most common artificial sweeteners, is a few hundred times sweeter than sucrose.

Despite often being called “artificial”, in recent years there have been sugar substitutes extracted from natural sources. An example would be stevia, extracted from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. More recently, there has been interest in the sweet chemicals called mogrosides found in monk-fruit, a fruit known in Chinese as luo han guo, and traditionally used to brew a sweet herbal tea.

I am sure that you have eaten cheap fruit-flavoured candy before. Many of these candies do not actually contain the juice of fruits, but instead rely on artificial flavourings to achieve the taste. Grape-flavoured candy often has a unique grape aroma. You may even have realised that not all real grapes taste like that. This is because the grape flavouring used in many grape-flavoured candies is methyl anthranilate, a chemical found in certain grape varieties like the Concord and Kyoho varieties, but not in others.

It is also difficult to use artificial flavourings to replicate the taste of real fruit, since the flavour profile of real fruits is the result of many different chemicals in proportions that depend on variety, season and country of origin.

When walking past the baking section of a supermarket, you would have seen small bottles of artificial food colourings. Often, only a drop of the colouring is required to produce a vibrant hue. However, regulatory authorities in different countries differ on the health effects of some food colourings. There has been some limited evidence which suggests that some food colourings could trigger hyperactivity in children. This has led to some territories having restricted the use of some food colourings in the past. For example, Ponceau 4R is a common food colouring used to give a bright red colour to haw flakes (san zha bing), a traditional Chinese snack. However, this has led to haw flakes not being easily accessible in some countries which restrict the use of Ponceau 4R in food.

However, it is unlikely that healthy individuals consuming a normal diet would ever encounter any adverse effects caused by food colourings. The weak evidence linking food colourings to hyperactivity has led to most countries removing the restrictions placed on them.


Author | Editor