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Food Additives: Friends or Foes?

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Image for food additive article Food additives are often vilified in the press. Some have been linked with allergies, behavior problems, and an increased risk of cancer. This has led many people to attempt to avoid them and seek additive-free food when possible. But do food additives really deserve all this bad press?

What Are Food Additives?

There are two types of food additives. Direct additives are added directly to food during its preparation. Indirect additives are substances that may slowly leach into food during its processing or packaging.

Examples of Food Additives
Salt Sugar Gums
Vinegar Minerals Flavorings
Vitamins Variety of chemicals High fructose corn syrup
Synthetic and natural colorings Baking powder and soda Hydrogenated vegetable oil

Why Are These Added to Foods?

Food additives serve a wide variety of purposes, such as:

  • Providing flavoring and/or sweetness
  • Preserving foods
  • Slowing spoilage
  • Leavening baked goods
  • Preventing fats from separating
  • Preventing caking of powdered or granulated substances
  • Increasing the food’s nutritional value
  • Preventing fresh fruits from turning brown
  • Sharpening flavors or colors
  • Controlling the acidity or alkalinity of foods

So Food Additives Are Not All Bad?

No. Food additives are not all bad. The use of some additives can improve food safety and flavor, help make food quality more consistent, and add nutritional value.

Are Some People Sensitive or Allergic to Food Additives?

Yes. Some people are sensitive, or even allergic to certain food additives. Some may notice stomach upset, headaches, hives, runny nose, sneezing, or wheezing after exposure to a particular additive. In the worst case scenario, a person may have an anaphylactic reaction to an additive. Anaphylactic reactions usually include swelling, itching, and difficulty breathing. It can develop rapidly and be life-threatening.

Are Some Food Additives Worse Than Others?

Yes. Some additives should be avoided. Others need only to be limited by most people. The following table outlines some of the claimed risks and side effects of these common food additives. It is important to note that many of these issues are controversial. Some problems are not widely accepted by the scientific community. The recommendations below are from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Also listed is information from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Name of Additive Foods It Is Found In Possible Risk Recommendation From CSPI FDA information
Acesulfame K (artificial sweetener) Packets or tablets, beverage mixes, coffee or tea beverages, desserts (gelatins, puddings) Artificial sweeteners, like acesulfame K, have been linked to cancer in rats. Avoid There is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial sweeteners are unsafe.
Artificial colorings Numerous While this is very controversial, some dyes are suspected of being cancer-causing. Avoid Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 The FDA has a list of approved dyes. Yellow 5 can cause hives in a some people.
Aspartame (artificial sweetener) Packets or tablets, beverage mixes, coffee or tea beverages, desserts (gelatins, puddings), yogurts, a myriad of “sugar-free” products Like other artificial sweeteners, this has been linked to cancer in rats. Avoid People with phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid sweeteners with aspartame.
BHA/BHT (preservative) Added to foods that contain oil to prevent them from oxidizing and becoming rancid These additives have also been linked to cancer in rats. Avoid BHA and BHT are approved for use in food.
Monosodium glutamate or MSG (flavor enhancer) Often added to certain seasonings, especially in Chinese food, in order to boost the overall flavor This is another controversial issue. MSG may cause migraines, chest tightness, wheezing, and asthma attacks in certain people. Avoid if sensitive MSG is considered "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), but the additive must be clearly labeled on the product.
Nitrites and nitrates (meat preservatives) Processed meats There are claims that these preservatives increase the risk of certain cancers, including stomach cancer. Avoid Nitrites and nitrates are also recognized as safe.
Olestra (synthetic fat replacement) Potato chips, snack foods Olestra can affect the gastrointestinal tract, causing diarrhea and loss of important fat-soluble vitamins. Avoid The FDA has approved this fat substitute.
Potassium bromate Bread products This additive may increase the risk of cancer. Avoid The FDA has not banned this additive, but it is not used as often anymore.
Saccharine (artificial sweetener) Packets, diet beverages This artificial sweetener has also been linked to cancer in rats. Avoid There is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial sweeteners are unsafe.
Sulfites Dried fruits, shrimp, wine Sulfites may cause asthma attacks or even anaphylactic shock in vulnerable people. Avoid if sensitive Sulfites can be used in products, but they must be listed on the label.
Sucralose (artificial sweetener) Baked goods, frozen desserts, ice cream, soft drinks None Caution This sweetener is approved by the FDA.

So What Can I Do to Keep Myself and My Family Safe?

It is unrealistic, and unnecessary, to avoid all food additives. However, do your best to avoid or cut back on the worst offenders on the list. A good rule is to choose the least processed foods. For example:

  • Water instead of diet soda
  • A whole banana instead of a fruit snack bar
  • Old fashioned oatmeal instead of a sweetened oat cereal

Here are some suggestions for limiting your intake of food additives:

  • Extra additives like dyes can be avoided. If your food is not a color found in nature, you might want to consider avoiding it.
  • Limit your intake of processed snack foods like chips and cookies. They can be heavy in salt, sugar, food coloring, and preservatives, and low on nutrition.
  • Be aware of which processed meats are likely to contain nitrites and nitrates.
  • Scan the list of ingredients before choosing a food, and if it contains too many unfamiliar ingredients, pass on it.
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest

    http://www.cspinet.org

  • US Food and Drug Administration

    http://www.fda.gov

  • Dietitians of Canada

    http://www.dietitians.ca

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Chemical cuisine: learn about food additives. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm. Accessed October 14, 2014.

  • The facts about Olestra. Centers for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/olestra/11cons.html. Accessed October 14, 2014.

  • Overview of food ingredients, additives, and colors. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094211.htm. Updated March 13, 2013. Accessed October 14, 2014.

  • Potassium bromate termed a cancer threat. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/new/bromate.html. Published July 19, 1999. Accessed October 14, 2014.

  • What are food additives? FoodAdditives.org website. Available at: http://www.foodadditives.org/pdf/Food%5FAdditives%5FBooklet.pdf. Accessed October 14, 2014.