Food additives are often vilified in the press. They 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?
Direct additives are added directly to the food during its preparation. Indirect additives are substances that may slowly leach into the food from the packaging.
Examples of Food Additives
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
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 these 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
to an additive. Anaphylactic reactions usually include swelling, itching, low blood pressure, 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 Additive
Foods It Is Found In
Recommendation From CSPI
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.
There is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial sweeteners are unsafe.
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 very small amount of 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.
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 listed above. A good rule is to choose the least processed foods. For example:
Water instead of diet soda
A whole banana instead of 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.
Centers for Science in the Public Interest. 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 4, 2010.
Clinical and diagnostic approaches to adverse reactions to food and drug additives: commonly reported additives causing adverse reactions. In: Adkinson NF, Busse W, Holgate S, Middleton E, Yunginger JW, Bochner BS, eds.
Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practices.
5th ed. Mosby-Year Book, Inc.; 1998. 1183-1186.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to
starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a