Preservatives, food dyes, flavor enhancers, sugar alternatives – just a few of the common food additives you may find in your snack, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. (And if you’re a hobbit this list would also include second breakfast, elevenses, afternoon tea, supper.)
These additives help us create better food. Our food either lasts longer, tastes better, costs less, or is more nutritious. They can be as simple as adding salt to food – my grandparents definitely did that before fridges were available. Or they can be more complex, like sodium bromate, a chemical that helps the bread rise.
At the same time just the term “common food additives” strikes fear. The worry is that there is no “real food” and that these additives are either not tested enough or not regulated enough. We’re afraid they’ll give us cancer.
Don’t let the fear-mongers gets to you. Education and fear can’t go together, so let’s examine what some of the most common food additives are and what you should know about them. First things first…
Food additives are regulated and have to meet the FDA’s standards to be approved for production.
Food additives have never been more studied or regulated in history. Some are generally recognized as safe (GRAS), meaning that these substances they have been around so long, used so widely, or studied so thoroughly that we believe it’s safe. Others need FDA approval, a process that’s mostly based on the review of published scientific studies.
Then based on what science says, the FDA determines whether an additive is safe for production and if yes, then what the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of the additive is. What’s the ADI?
It’s the amount of the additive “in food or drinking water that can be ingested (orally) on a daily basis over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk.” (Wikipedia)
That’s right – we’re talking daily consumption over a lifetime, not just consumption once or twice. These standards are no joke.
And now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s review some of the common food additives, the facts and the misconceptions around them.
10 common food additives and what you should know about them.
#1: Color additives
A color additive is “any dye, pigment, or other substance that can impart color to a food, drug, or cosmetic or to the human body.” They make food more exciting and less dull but their role is also informative. For example, say you’re a senior on 8 different meds concurrently but all pills had exactly the same color. Giving them colors makes them easy to discern.
The FDA conducts a certification program for dyes that verifies the additives meet the specification requirements of their listing regulations, including the daily intake that’s considered safe for humans (that’s the ADI explained earlier). Reminder – the dose makes the poison – so whenever we consume a substance up to our daily level, we’re good.
Food dyes are labelled and you’ll find them in the ingredient list for names like Red #40, Yellow #5, or FD&C Blue 1. In Europe, you’ll find them with the “E” mark with names such as:
- sunset yellow (E110)
- quinoline yellow (E104)
- carmoisine (E122)
- allura red (E129)
- tartrazine (E102)
- ponceau 4R (E124)
A controversial 2007 study linked food dyes to increased hyperactivity in children. However, because the sample size of the study was small, it’s difficult to draw conclusions for the general population. So I asked neuroscientist Alison Bernstein, PhD, founder of the popular Mommy, PhD facebook page about the link between hyperactivity in children and artificial food colors (AFC):
“When the FDA reviewed the most current data in 2011, they found that artificial food colors are not neurotoxic, meaning they do not kill neurons. However, they did find that certain AFCs are associated with small to moderate behavioral changes, which are not necessarily characteristic of ADHD, in a small subset of children, with or without ADHD.
This statement is very different than claims made in the media and by various groups that food dyes cause ADHD or that AFCs are poisoning us. Importantly, the FDA found that these findings do not justify the extreme restrictive diets that are often promoted to avoid all AFCs.”
I’ll repeat here what Dr. Bernstein said: “these findings do not justify the extreme restrictive diets that are often promoted to avoid all AFCs.”
#2: High Fructose Corn Syrup
This is true, only what is often not said (but we discussed in the sugar alternatives article) is that HFCS is like table sugar (sucrose). And eating too much of it will have the same effects as eating too much sugar. Does overconsumption of sugar affect diabetes risk? You bet it does, being overweight is a major risk factor. So there’s no surprise there.
That’s exactly what Moeller et al. in their review paper on HFCS: “Because the composition of HFCS and sucrose is so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose does.”
So if you still think HFCS in particular will “make you fat” take it from Forshee et al. in their critical review on HFCS: “Based on the currently available evidence, the expert panel concluded that HFCS does not appear to contribute to overweight and obesity any differently than do other energy sources.”
As the FDA recommends: “The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that everyone limit consumption of all added sugars, including HFCS and sucrose. FDA participated in the development of the Dietary Guidelines and fully supports this recommendation.”
In other words, it’s all about the total amount of sugars you consume, not the amount of HFCS specifically. Read more about sugar alternatives here.
#3: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Many deceptive labels proudly declare that the product does not contain MSG, a flavor enhancer, as if that’s actually a particularly good thing that should convince you to buy their product instead of their competitors’.
The advertisement of “no MSG” is a byproduct of the accusations that MSG is directly involved in the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, which refers to physical symptoms after dining at a Chinese Restaurant. Symptoms include numbness, weakness, palpitations and others.
Many people still believe that MSG is to blame even though a link was never established. In reality, MSG is harmless. As Beyreuther et al. conclude in their consensus meeting, “the general use of glutamate salts (monosodium-L-glutamate and others) as food additive can, thus, be regarded as harmless for the whole population.”
In a double blind study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition participants who claimed they suffered side effects from MSG failed to identify which foods contained it. It seems like the symptoms they experienced are more likely a byproduct of consuming shrimp, peanuts, and other ingredients common in the Chinese cuisine, and hence the misunderstanding.
#4: Trans Fat
Trans Fat is officially a no-no: It increases LDL and decreases your HDL. It puts you at an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Based on the evidence the FDA has removed partially hydrogenated oils from the list of items that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
Partially hydrogenated oils? What does this have to do with trans fat? Let’s start by clarifying between artificial trans fat and naturally occurring trans fat.
- Naturally occurring trans fat is produced in the gut of grazing animals and that’s why it’s found primarily in animal products, like milk and meat.
- Artificial trans fat is formed during processing, when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. Partially hydrogenated oils are used by food manufacturers to improve the texture, shelf life, and flavor stability of foods.
By 2018 trans fat should be removed from almost all of the products that currently contain it. In other words, trans fat is still around, so if you see it in a label, then stay away.
Be particularly careful when getting fast food: Trans fats are often used to deep-fry food, as these oils can be used many times in commercial fryers.
#5: Aspartame (APM)
Aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener that’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Because it’s so sweet, only a a very small quantity is needed to be added to food, hence aspartame does not really add calories. According to Dr. Mercola in Food Matters:
“Aspartame is a neurotoxin and carcinogen. Known to erode intelligence and affect short-term memory, the components of this toxic sweetener may lead to a wide variety of ailments including brain tumor, diseases like lymphoma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, emotional disorders like depression and anxiety attacks, dizziness, headaches, nausea, mental confusion, migraines and seizures.”
Take a minute to let that sink into your dampened intelligence and horrible short term memory (just kidding!)
In reality, aspartame has been studied for decades with good results. The biggest concern – that aspartame causes cancer – has not been confirmed. Sreekanth Mallikarjun et al. in their review conclude that “the aggregate effect sizes suggest that APM consumption has no significant carcinogenic effect in rodents.”
But that’s in rodents. What about humans? A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined 125,000 people. The researchers found a link between consumption of aspartame sweetened soda and the risk of leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma in men, but not in women. Since there was also a link found between men who consumed sugar-sweetened soda and lymphoma, the researchers concluded that their findings were due to chance.
Yes that happens in science. Researchers may put in all this effort only to conclude that their findings were due to chance. I can totally imagine the researchers saying to each other with sad faces, “we got nothing.”
And that’s how the American Cancer Society actually has a page devoted to aspartame and it deems it as safe.
The people who definitely need to watch out for aspartame are the ones with a rare genetic condition, phenylketonuria, where the affected have to control all sources of phenylalanine. Since aspartame contains a low level of phenylalanine, those affected by this disease would need to read food labels to check for aspartame presence.
Should you go for Aspartame and ditch sugar? You may want read the article we’ve written about sugar alternatives here.
#6: Sodium Sulfites
Sulfites are a preservative. They release sulphur dioxide, an (irritant) gas. That’s why they can cause allergy-like symptoms in people with asthma or allergic rhinitis.
You’ll find this preservative in most wines, as sulfites stop the fermentation process.
Sulfing agents are labeled so you’ll know if they are present in your food (or drinks!); however, unless you’re asthmatic these preservatives should not be a cause for concern. Cheers!
#7: Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate
Sodium Nitrite is a salt, an anti-oxidant, and a meat preservative. It stops bacteria like listeria from growing in processed meats such as ham, bacon, and frankfurters. It particulatly prevents the growth of botulinum bacteria.
These bacteria produce a toxin that can be fatal – you really don’t want them in your food. Haven’t heard of botulism? That’s because of preservatives like sodium nitrite.
When sodium nitrate interacts with bacteria in meat, it converts to sodium nitrite. Most manufacturers like to skip this natural process and add synthetic sodium nitrite directly to cured meats. The problem is that around the 1970s we discovered that when meat with sodium nitrite is heated above 266F, it forms nitrosamines – compounds carcinogenic to animals.
Note I said carcinogenic to animals, not humans. The WHO has listed nitrates and nitrites as probable human carcinogens – in other words, they may be carcinogen to humans but they may be not.
You may be surprised to learn that plants are also high in nitrates – they pick them up from soil, nitrogen-based fertilizer and nitrogen in the atmosphere. In fact, nearly 93% of nitrites comes not from meat, but from leafy vegetables and our own saliva.
The difference between meat and plants is plants often naturally have some level of Vitamin C which prevents nitrosamines from forming.
The claims that nitrate causes cancer are too strong and have not been justified. That doesn’t mean go crazy with bacon – nitrate is only one of the many ingredients in meat. Always view your diet in its totality and avoid coming to conclusions based on only one ingredient.
#8: BHA and BHT
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidants that prevent the oxidation of foods (usually edible fats, vegetable oils and salad dressings) that results rancidity or discoloration.
Yes they do cause cancer in lab animals in high doses. In the forestomach! Humans do not have a forestomach. In fact, BHA and BHT, according to Williams et al. in their study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, “pose no cancer hazard and, to the contrary, may be anti-carcinogenic at current levels of food additive use.”
What? Anti-carcinogenic? BHA and BHT are antioxidants, remember?
So it’s not a surprise that in 2011 the European Food Safety Authority Panel actually recommended that the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is doubled from 0.5 mg/kg to 1 mg/kg.
#9: Potassium Bromate
This is a controversial flour additive that’s used in baking; it strengthens the dough and helps the bread rise.
There are studies though that show it’s carcinogenic, at least when it comes to lab animals; that’s why it’s been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as possibly carcinogenic to humans. As a result, many countries have already banned it.
In the USA, the FDA approves it up to a certain level. If you’re in California, you’ll see a warning label that it’s included – in other states you have to read the ingredients list.
Even when manufacturers use it that doesn’t mean there will be traces of it left in your bread; it gets converted to potassium bromide, a harmless byproduct, during baking.
Don’t fall for the “potassium bromate causes cancer” headlines though. As the IARC says:
There is inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of potassium bromate. There is sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of potassium bromate.
In other words, we’re far from concluding that potassium bromate is actually dangerous to humans. It’s best to adhere from blanket black and white statements about whether something is good or bad – there’s also a grey area involved.
#10: Vitamin D
Did you know Vitamin D is also an additive? For example, remember those milk cartons that proudly declare “Vitamin D?” Milk is not a natural source of Vitamin D, but since we’ve found that Vitamin D is so good for us and vitamin D deficiency is widespread manufacturers are adding it in.
In fact, a 2004 study showed that we didn’t add enough Vitamin D to our food and we needed more. It should come as no surprise that starting July of 2016 and with the FDA’s blessing, manufacturers will be able to add even more Vitamin D in milk. They’ll also be able to add it to milk alternatives such as almond milk.
Yay for stronger bones!
And now that you know what you need to know about some of the most common food additives…
The reasons we use them, and the benefits and risks involved, feel free to enjoy your breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack (or second breakfast, supper, elevenses, afternoon tea); we’re after all lucky to have these choices. In Venezuela right now for example, you can’t find food at the supermarket and lines of 60 people or more form, all looking to get food for their families.
We’re so lucky to live in places with abundant food and in an era where food is safer, lasts longer, is more nutritious, more appealing, and at the end of the day, well-regulated. Does this mean we can’t do better? Of course we can do better. But it does mean we’re doing pretty well.
Is there a food additive that scares you? Or do you have a favorite one? Leave a comment below.
- Schernhammer ES et al. Consumption of artificial sweetener- and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1419-28.
- Mallikarjun S et al., Aspartame and Risk of Cancer: A Meta-analytic Review. Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, Volume 70, Issue 3, 2015
- Richard A. Forshee et al, A Critical Examination of the Evidence Relating High Fructose Corn Syrup and Weight Gain. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Volume 47, pages 561-582
- Moeller et al., The Effects of High Fructose Syrup. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Volume 28, Issue 6, 2009
- Beyreuther K. Consensus meeting: monosodium glutamate – an update. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;61(3):304-13.
- Geha et al., Review of alleged reaction to monosodium glutamate and outcome of a multicenter double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Nutr. 2000 Apr;130(4S Suppl):1058S-62S.
- McCann et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, Volume 370, No. 9598, p1560–1567, 3 November 2007
- Cogliano et al. Preventable Exposures Associated With Human Cancers. The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press.
- Williams et al. Safety assessment of butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene as antioxidant food additives. Food Chem Toxicol. 1999 Sep-Oct;37(9-10):1027-38.
- Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of butylated hydroxyanisole – BHA (E 320) as a food additive. EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS). European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy
- Mona S Calvo et al. Vitamin D fortification in the United States and Canada: current status and data needs. Am J Clin Nutr December 2004, vol. 80 no. 6 1710S-1716S