Beware of additives
The practice of adding ingredients composed of different chemicals to the food we eat has been around for centuries. Our ancestors used salt to preserve meats and fish. They employed herbs and spices to enhance flavor. They even learned to alter a food using a vinegar solution. These days, we enjoy foods that are flavorful, nutritious, safe, convenient, colorful, and affordable. Food additives help make this possible.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of more than 3,000 ingredients in its database, titled Everything Added to Food in the United States.
What are food additives and why are they used?A food additive represents any substance added to food that can be used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation, or storage of food.
There are two types of food additives: Direct food additives are added to a food with intent, while indirect additives inadvertently can become part of a food in trace amounts due to packaging, storage, or handling.
Direct and indirect food additives are supposed to perform a variety of useful functions.
Maintain or improve safety and freshness: Preservatives can slow product spoilage caused by mold, air, bacteria, fungi, or yeast. Preservatives help control contamination that can cause foodborne illness and can prevent fats, oils, and other foods from becoming rancid or developing an off-flavor. They also can prevent cut fresh fruits, such as apples, from turning brown when exposed to air.
Improve or maintain nutritional value: Vitamins and minerals (and fibers) are added to many foods. They make up for what may be lacking in a person’s diet. Often the additives compensate for vitamins lost in processing or to enhance the nutritional quality of a food.
Improve taste, texture, and appearance: Spices, sweeteners, and natural and artificial flavors are added to enhance taste. Food coloring can maintain or improve a food’s appearance. Emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners deliver the texture and consistency consumers expect. Leavening agents allow baked goods to rise during baking. Some additives help control acidity and alkalinity of foods. Others help maintain the taste and appeal of foods with reduced fat content.
Types of food additives
The table below shows the different types of food additives, what they are supposed to do, examples of their many uses, and their typical names. (Source: “Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors” at fda.gov.)
|Types of Additive||What They Do||Examples of Uses||Names Found on Product Labels|
|Preservatives||Prevent food spoilage from bacteria, molds, fungi, or yeast (antimicrobials); slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, or texture; delay rancidity; maintain freshness||Fruit sauces and jellies, beverages, baked goods, cured meats, oils and margarines, cereals, dressings, snack foods, fruits, and vegetables||Ascorbic acid, citric acid, sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, calcium sorbate, potassium sorbate, BHA, BHT, EDTA, tocopherols (Vitamin E)|
|Sweeteners||Add sweetness with or without the extra calories||Beverages, baked goods, confections, table-top sugar, substitutes, many processed foods||Sucrose (sugar), glucose, fructose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), neotame|
|Coloring Agents||Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. (Note: Exempt color additives are not required to be declared by name on labels but may be declared simply as colorings or color added.)||Many processed foods, (candies, snack foods, margarine, cheese, soft drinks, jams/jellies, gelatins, pudding, and pie fillings)||FD&C Blue Nos. 1&2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3&4, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5&6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, annatto extract, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, cochineal extract or carmine, paprika oleoresin, caramel color, fruit and vegetable juices, saffron|
|Flavors, Spices||Add specific flavors (natural and synthetic)||Pudding and pie fillings, gelatin dessert mixes, cake mixes, salad dressings, candies, soft drinks, ice cream, BBQ sauce||Natural flavoring, artificial flavor, and spices|
|Flavor Enhancers||Enhance flavors already present in foods (without providing their own separate flavor)||Many processed foods||Monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium guanylate or inosinate|
|Fat Replacers||Provide expected texture and a creamy “mouth-feel” in reduced-fat foods||Baked goods, dressings, frozen desserts, confections, cake and dessert mixes, dairy products||Olestra, cellulose gel, carrageenan, polydextrose, modified food starch, microparticulated egg-white protein, guar gum, xanthan gum, whey protein concentrate|
|Nutrients||Replace vitamins and minerals lost in processing (enrichment), add nutrients that may be lacking in the diet (fortification)||Flour, breads, cereals, rice, macaroni, margarine, salt, milk, fruit beverages, energy bars, instant breakfast drinks||Thiamine hydrochloride, riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin, niacinamide, folate or folic acid, beta carotene, potassium iodide, iron or ferrous sulfate, alpha tocopherols, ascorbic acid, Vitamin D, amino acids (L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-leucine, L-methionine)|
|Emulsifiers||Allow smooth mixing of ingredients, prevent separation; keep emulsified products stable, reduce stickiness, control crystallization, keep ingredients dispersed, and help products dissolve more easily||Salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, frozen desserts||Soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, egg yolks, polysorbates, sorbitan monostearate|
|Stabilizers, Thickeners, Binders, Texturizers||Produce uniform texture, improve “mouth-feel”||Frozen desserts, dairy products, cakes, pudding and gelatin mixes, dressings, sauces, jams, and jellies||Gelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, whey|
|pH Control Agents, Acidulants||Control acidity and alkalinity, prevent spoilage||Beverages, frozen desserts, chocolate, low-acid canned foods, baking powder||Lactic acid, citric acid, ammonium hydroxide, sodium carbonate|
|Leavening Agents||Promote rising of baked goods||Breads and other baked goods||Baking soda, monocalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate|
|Anti-caking agents||Keep powdered foods free-flowing, prevent moisture absorption||Salt, baking powder, confectioner’s sugar||Calcium silicate, iron ammonium citrate, silicon dioxide|
|Humectants||Retain moisture||Shredded coconut, marshmallows, soft candies, confections||Glycerin, sorbitol|
|Yeast Nutrients||Promote yeast growth||Breads and other baked goods||Calcium sulfate, ammonium phosphate|
|Dough Strengtheners, Conditioners||Produce more stable dough||Breads and other baked goods||Ammonium sulfate, azodicarbonamide, L-cysteine|
|Firming Agents||Maintain crispness and firmness||Processed fruits and vegetables||Calcium chloride, calcium lactate|
|Enzyme Preparations||Modify proteins, polysaccharides, and fats||Cheese, dairy products, meat||Enzymes, lactase, papain, rennet, chymosin|
|Gases||Serve as propellant, aerate, or to create carbonation||Oil cooking spray, whipped cream, carbonated beverages||Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide|
How are food-additives approved?
In 1958, Americans were growing concerned about the increased use of food preservatives and additives. So Congress empowered the FDA, founded in 1938 to monitor the nation’s food supply, to have legal responsibility for determining the safety of food additives. The law required food companies to submit new food ingredients to an extensive FDA safety review board. FDA scientists evaluate the evidence that any “new” substance is safe for human consumption, and then either approve or disapprove the ingredients for use in the food supply.
Two groups of ingredients are exempted from this regulatory process, however. These include additives the FDA or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had determined safe for use in food prior to 1958. The second group includes those additives that fall under the category termed Generally Recognized as Safe – known simply as GRAS. Experts recognize additives in this group as safe, based on an extensive history of use before 1958, or based on published scientific evidence. Salt, sugar, spices, vitamins, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be counted among the several thousand GRAS substances in the food supply.
GRAS regulations: Disconnect between safety and expediencyThe GRAS rule permits food manufacturers to certify that an additive is safe based on their own published (or unpublished) research, or research they sponsor, without having to undergo rigorous outside scientific testing. Since passage of this GRAS rule, the number of food additives has skyrocketed – from about the initial 800 to more than 10,000! It appears the GRAS rule has morphed into a loophole for food manufacturers to bring products to market much quicker than if the additive were submitted to rigorous animal and human testing.
The GRAS loopholes
In 1997, under intense lobbying by food manufacturers, the FDA further streamlined the food-additive approval system to be even more “industry friendly.” They ruled that food companies no longer would have to submit their research and raw data regarding an additive’s safety. They declared that companies could simply share their research data on their GRAS-submitted proposals, when appropriate. Thus, many “new” additives continue to debut in our food supply without the FDA being notified or giving formal approval, or without rigorous human testing. And just recently (2017) the new FDA director indicated the agency will do more to help Big Pharma and Big Agra be more competitive . . . In other words, more deregulation is surely on the way. Ouch!
According to the prestigious Center for Public Integrity, two-thirds of all food-additive safety reviews are never sent to government regulators. Moreover, it is estimated that international food companies introduce a minimum of five new ingredients yearly without informing the FDA.
Consider how this could play out at your breakfast table. Let’s say Company A concludes their food-additive chemical is safe at a specific level in cereal. Company B might do the same for the same additive’s use in muffins, and Company C does the same for the same additive’s use in juices. Someone consuming all three foods could end up taking in much more of the additive than each company had anticipated.
Additives to avoid
Here is a list of food additives that the prestigious Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests humans avoid, based on scientific research. Detailed information about each of the additives can be found at Chemical Cuisine.
|Additives to Avoid|
|Acesulfame potassium (ace-K)
Artificial sweetener found in “diet,” “no-sugar-added,” “sugar-free,” and other products, including soft drinks, drink mixes, baked goods, gelatin desserts, frozen desserts, yogurt, candy, chewing gum, packaged (tabletop) sweeteners. Often used together with sucralose or aspartame.
Flour improver, found in white flour, bread, and rolls. Used to increase the volume of bread and to produce bread with a fine crumb structure.
Found in beverages, yogurt, desserts. Also marketed in various skin-care products.
Used as a dough strengthener in bread and rolls.
|Artificial colorings (synthetic food dyes – Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6)
Found in beverages, candy, pet food, sausages, and baked goods.
Found in vegetable oil, meat products, potato sticks, chicken-soup base, chewing gum. Often used together with two other antioxidants, BHA and BHT.
|Aspartame (marketed as Equal, NutraSweet)
Added to “diet,” “no-sugar-added”, “sugar-free,” and other products in soft drinks, drink mixes, gelatin desserts, frozen desserts, jams, fruit spreads, yogurt, cereals, candy, chewing gum, condiments, and packaged sweeteners.
Used as a meat substitute composed of Mycoprotein, a novel ingredient made from processed mold (Fusarium venenatum) and grown in liquid solution in large tanks.
Used as a flour improver and bleaching agent in bread and rolls.
|Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)
Artificial sweetener found in “diet,” “no-sugar-added,” “sugar-free” soft drinks, and packaged (tabletop) sweeteners.
|Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)
Emulsifier, clouding agent used in citrus-flavored soft drinks. Keeps flavor oils in suspension, giving a cloudy appearance.
|Sodium nitrate; Sodium nitrite
Preservative, coloring, and flavoring agent found in bacon, ham, frankfurters, luncheon meats, smoked fish, and corned beef.
|Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Antioxidant agent (retards rancidity in fats, oils, and oil-containing foods) found in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils.
Artificial sweetener found in “no-sugar-added,” “sugar-free,” “diet,” and other products — baked goods, kettle corn, frozen desserts, ice cream, soft drinks, prepared meals, packaged (tabletop) sweeteners (Splenda).
Coloring agent found in colas, baked goods, pre-cooked meats, soy and Worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavored products, beer.
Antioxidant preservative agent found in vegetable oil, snack foods, cereals, and other fat-containing foods.
Artificial sweetener; banned in the U.S. Allowed as a packaged sweetener in Canada, and also in diet soft drinks and foods in some other countries.
Found in fat, oil, shortening, stick margarine, crackers, fried restaurant foods, baked goods, icing, and microwave popcorn.
Found in some beverages.
Fat substitute found in some snack chips — Lay’s Light Chips, Pringles Light chips.
Banned food additives
Finally, beware of these banned food additives. Sometimes they still appear in foods.
|Butter yellow — artificial coloring||Toxic, found to cause liver cancer (1919)|
|Green 1 — artificial coloring||Liver cancer (1965)|
|Green 2 — artificial coloring||Insufficient economic importance to be tested (1965)|
|Orange 1 — artificial coloring||Organ damage (1956)|
|Orange 2 — artificial coloring||Organ damage (1960)|
|Orange B — artificial coloring||Cancer-causing contaminant; (1978, ban never finalized)|
|Red 1 — artificial coloring||Liver cancer (1961)|
|Red 2 — artificial coloring||Possible carcinogen (1976)|
|Red 4 — artificial coloring||Adrenal cortex damage, still allowed in externally applied drugs and cosmetics (1976)|
|Red 32 — artificial coloring||Damages internal organs; carcinogenic (1956)|
|Sudan 1 — artificial coloring||Toxic, later found to be carcinogenic (1919)|
|Violet 1 — artificial coloring||Carcinogenic (1973)|
|Yellow 1 & 2 — artificial coloring||Intestinal lesions at high dosage (1959)|
|Yellow 3 — artificial coloring||Heart damage at high dosage (1959)|
|Yellow 4 — artificial coloring||High damage at high dosage (1959)|
|Agene (nitrogen trichloride) — flour bleaching and anti-aging agent||Epileptic-like fits in dogs (1949)|
|Cinnamyl anthranilate — artificial coloring||Liver cancer (1982)|
|Cobalt salts — artificially stabilize beer foam||Toxic effects on heart (1966)|
|Coumarin — natural flavoring||Liver poison (1970)|
|Cyclamate — artificial sweetener||Bladder cancer, testes damage. Increases potency of other carcinogens (1969)|
|Diethyl pyrocarbonate (DEPC) — preservative (beverages)||Carcinogen (1972)|
|Dulcin (p-ethoxy-phenylurea) — artificial sweetener||Liver cancer (1950)|
|Ethlyene glycol — solvent||Kidney damage (1998)|
|Monochloroacetic acid — preservative||Highly toxic (1941)|
|Nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA) — plant-derived antioxidant||Kidney damage (1968 by FDA, 1971 by USDS)|
|Oil of calamus — natural flavoring||Intestinal cancer (1968)|
|Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil — shortening/frying oil||2015 ban (2018 compliance deadline)|
|Polyoxyethylene (8) stearate — emulsifier||High levels cause bladder stones and tumors (1952)|
|Safrole — natural flavoring (root beer)||Liver cancer (1960)|
|Thiourea — preservative||Liver cancer (c. 1950)|
- Amchova, P. 2015 “Health safety issues of synthetic food colorants.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology; 73(3):914.
- Bahna, S.L., Burkhardt, J.G. 2018. “The dilemma of allergy to food additives.” Allergy and Asthma Proceedings; 39(1):3-8.
- Bastaki, M. 2017. “Estimated daily intake and safety of FD&C food-colour additives in the U.S. population.” Food additives & contaminants. Part A, Chemistry, analysis, control, exposure & risk assessment; 34(6):891.
- Center for Science in the Public Interest
- Mooradian, A.D., et al. 2017. “The role of artificial and natural sweeteners in reducing the consumption of table sugar: A narrative review.” Clinical Nutrition ESPEN; 18:1.
- Paula-Neto, H.A., et al. 2017. “Effects of food additives on immune cells as contributors to body weight gain and immune-mediated metabolic dysregulation.” Frontiers in Immunology; 8:1478.
- buzzfeed.com, “8 foods we eat in the U.S. that are banned in other countries”
- consumerreports.org, “GRAS: The hidden substances in your food”
- fda.org, “Food Additive Status List”
- fda.org, “Generally Recognized As Safe”
- statnews.com, “Thousands of food ingredients aren’t regulated by the FDA. It’s time that changed”