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Food Additives: Friends or Foes?

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 2 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
SaltSugarGums
VinegarMineralsFlavorings
VitaminsVariety of chemicalsHigh fructose corn syrup
Synthetic and natural coloringsBaking powder and sodaHydrogenated vegetable oil

Why Are These Added to Foods?

Food additives serve a wide variety of purposes. Examples include:

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 Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Name of AdditiveFoods It Is Found InPossible RiskRecommendation From CSPIFDA 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.AvoidThere is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial sweeteners are unsafe.
Artificial coloringsNumerousWhile this is very controversial, some dyes are suspected of being cancer-causing.Avoid Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6The 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” productsLike other artificial sweeteners, this has been linked to cancer in rats. AvoidPeople with phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid sweeteners with aspartame.
BHA/BHT (preservative)Added to foods that contain oil to prevent them from oxidizing and becoming rancidThese additives have also been linked to cancer in rats.AvoidBHA 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 sensitiveMSG is "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. AvoidNitrites and nitrates are recognized as safe.
Olestra (synthetic fat replacement)Potato chips, snack foodsOlestra can affect the gastrointestinal tract, causing diarrhea and loss of important fat-soluble vitamins.AvoidThe FDA has approved this fat substitute.
Potassium bromateBread productsThis additive may increase the risk of cancer.AvoidThe 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.AvoidThere is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial sweeteners are unsafe.
SulfitesDried fruits, shrimp, wineSulfites may cause asthma attacks or even anaphylactic shock in vulnerable people.Avoid if sensitiveSulfites can be used in products, but they must be listed on the label.
Sucralose (artificial sweetener)Baked goods, frozen desserts, ice cream, soft drinksNoneAvoidThis sweetener is approved by the FDA.

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

Do your best to avoid the additives recommended by CSPI. A good rule is to choose the least processed foods. For example:

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

RESOURCES:

Center for Science in the Public Interest
http://www.cspinet.org

Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

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

REFERENCES:

Chemical cuisine: learn about food additives. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm. Accessed July 25, 2016.

Overview of food ingredients, additives, and colors. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094211.htm. Updated December 2, 2014. Accessed July 25, 2016.

Potassium bromate termed a cancer threat. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: https://cspinet.org/new/bromate.html. Accessed July 25, 2016.

What are food additives? Food Ingredient Facts website. Available at: http://foodingredientfacts.org/food-additives-brochure. Accessed July 25, 2016.

Last reviewed July 25, 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 7/25/2016