A food additive is a substance that is added to a food in order to enhance flavor, color, appearance, or shelf-life. Sounds harmless enough, right? Actually, food additives can pose some serious health risks, and are best avoided as much as possible.
Keep in mind that within the general US population, 90% of food purchased in processed food. When we discuss “processed foods,” we are referring to foods that are chemically produced, and do not come from nature (such as vegetables, fruits, meat, naturally occurring fats, etc). Simply put, processed food is not real food.
While thousands of food additives exist, we will focus here on the top food additives that are most harmful to human health, and that you should never eat.
1. High fructose corn syrup and processed sugar
Aside from the long list of harmful effects sugar has on the body (some of which we’ll discuss), processed sugar in all forms is pretty much the definition of “empty calories.” In other words, it offers no nutrient benefit from micro or macro-nutrients, and actually depletes the body of nutrients due to the amount of energy we spend on digesting it.
And that’s actually the least worrisome part about regularly consuming processed sugar and chemical sweeteners. First of all, sugar has been proven to have disastrous effects on your metabolism (1), including conditions such as insulin resistance, high triglycerides and fatty liver disease (2). Studies have also shown that excess sugar is connected with cancer (3).
Processed sugars include all chemically-derived sugars (make sure to read ingredient lists), and watch out particularly for ingredients ending in “ose” or “ol.”
High fructose corn syrup is a particularly processed form of sugar derived from regular corn syrup, and has been pinpointed as a definite contributor to diabetes and obesity (4).
2. Sodium benzoate
This commonly used preservative is used most often in fruit juices, sodas and salad dressings (although it is definitely not limited to these food items). One ground breaking study found that sodium benzoate increases hyperactivity in children and can lead to behavioral and learning problems (5), along with other certain coloring agents. The worst effects of this additive were seen in three year olds. While everyone can certainly benefit from eliminating this sodium benzoate from their diet, parents should be especially diligent.
3. Food dyes blue 1, 2, red 3, green 3, yellow 6
The Center for Science in the Public Interest states that blue 1 food coloring can cause serious allergic reactions, along with inhibiting nerve cell development in children. Red 3 has been banned by the FDA in all cosmetics, and has been proven to cause thyroid cancer. Yellow 6 has been shown to contain carcinogenic components, and potentially cause adrenal and testicular tumors (5). Bottom line: don’t mess around with food dyes.
The only way to totally avoid food coloring (as they are widely used) is by avoiding processed and packaged foods, and always reading ingredient labels. Many food dyes have not been sufficiently studied, but anyone interested in health and disease prevention is advised to proceed with extreme caution.
Aspartame is one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners around, and is also used under the names of Equal and NutraSweet (yet again, don’t forget to read labels). It is produced by combining the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is highly controversial, and while some studies show it could be cancer causing (6), others find no connection (7).
As a Nutritionist, I have included aspartame on the list of food additives to avoid due to the fact that more research is needed, and there could be a connection with serious conditions such as cancer, diabetes, obesity and mental function. Until conclusive studies are completed, why not be safe?
5. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils
Otherwise known as trans fats, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils can reek havoc on the body. By now, most experts in the field of nutrition can agree that trans fats pose serious health risks, and should be totally omitted from the diet.
While we won’t get into the specifics of trans fats chemical structure, we now know its structure is likely the cause of the myriad of problems brought on by trans fat consumption.
Interestingly, some trans fats are actually naturally occurring, and known as ruminant trans fats. These fats are harmless, and found in meat and dairy products.
Trans fats have been linked with heart disease (8), a whopping 40% higher chance of developing diabetes (9) and increasing inflammation markers in the body (10). It is undoubtedly best to completely avoid this food additive.
6. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Similarly to aspartame, this is another additive that is surrounded in debate and conflicting studies. MSG is a common flavoring agent derived from glutamate. While some Asian cuisines are notorious for using MSG in their cooking, it has become wildly popular all over the world in powdered/packaged soups (such as Maggi in Latin America), and many other processed food items.
MSG has been named an excitotoxin, as it is thought to excessively stimulate nerve cells in the brain. Symptoms to those who are sensitive to MSG include headaches, racing heart and muscle tightness. One study also suggested that MSG could induce asthma attacks (11). However, not everyone reacts to MSG, and the jury is still out as to whether it is also harmful in non-sensitive individuals.
Again, until we know more, I prefer to be safe than sorry.
How can I avoid food additives?
The good news is that by sticking to a whole foods based diet, you can easily avoid harmful food additives. When shopping, think of sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store, as this is where the actual foods live.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, high quality meats, and perhaps even the bulk section for nuts and seeds. Add to that some good quality fats such as coconut, olive and flax oils, grass-fed butter and ghee, and you will be eating nutrient-dense, real foods, and avoiding dangerous food additives.