Have you ever gone food shopping and given up on trying to decipher the jibberish you read on ingredient labels? This article will teach you the basics of food additives and the most common harmful food additives to avoid.
Most commercially available foods have some type of food additive unless you buy “organically grown or raised” products. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration has almost 4,000 different types of food additives in their database! Crazy, right! Let me help you simplify things!
We all know that the names of many food additives are not particularly helpful and can be very difficult, if not impossible, to pronounce. If you read ingredient labels, you know you practically need a chemistry degree to pronounce some of the words, let alone understand what they mean!
It’s nice to have a chemistry degree (I have one), but it’s still just overkill. So don’t get too hung up on all the technical chemical “mumbo-jumbo” because it won’t help you eat healthier in the long run.
What Are Food Additives (The Short & Sweet Answer)?
Before I talk about which food additives you should try to avoid, I would like to give you a basic idea of what a food additive is. Not interested, then skip this section and continue to read on my friend.
All you really need to know is the following breakdown.
In the broadest sense, a food additive is any substance that enhances food’s positive characteristics, such as its appearance, texture, or flavor. They may also be used to improve a food’s practical characteristics, such as its processing, storage, transportation, and shelf-life. Since these additives are not a natural component of the food, they are researched, monitored, and regulated by the FDA.
Food additives are generally grouped into two categories.
- “Direct” food additives are chemicals that are purposely added by the manufacturer to add texture, help keep it fresh, etc. The FDA usually requires these additives to be listed as a part of the ingredients.
- “Indirect” food additives do not serve a particular purpose and are present in trace amounts in the food as part of the packaging, handling, and storage process. For example, minute (invisible) amounts of cardboard container particles may be present in the food if they are deemed harmless to ingest by the FDA.
Here is a short video by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), the American equivalent of the FDA. It provides an excellent overview of the function of some common food additives.
We Need To Try To Do Better
Most of us need to try to be more attentive to avoiding processed foods and food additives. I’ll be the first to admit that I could and should be doing a much better job. There was a time when fast-food was my best friend. Today’s fast-paced life makes it more difficult than ever to select natural foods that are wholesome and healthy.
Organic food stores are gaining in popularity but tend to be pricey and out of the financial reach of many people trying to eat healthier. One way to get around this obstacle is to grow your own!
What’s your diet like? Are you doing all you can do to minimize or eliminate food additives? If you are part of the last 2 to 3 generations, then the chances are that you are doing a better job than the rest of us.
The Problem With Food Additives
Food additives have become a part of our daily lives, making them easier to ignore, but should we be taking that approach? Who doesn’t appreciate food with a more appetizing texture or saves money by having a longer expiration date? If you think about it, who do food additives benefit more, the manufacturer or the consumer?
From a commercial point of view, food additives allow manufacturers and processors to be more cost-effective, market-competitive and meet certain FDA food spoilage guidelines.
For all the good that food additives do, they can come with a “medical dark side.” They can cause problems that run the gamut from a minor annoyance to a life-threatening allergic reaction. Here are some of the more common things to be on the lookout for.
- Allergic reactions (especially with sulfites) – itching (pruritis), hives (urticaria), angioedema (swelling beneath the skin), and severe potentially life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis)
- Skin problems – rashes, redness, and blotchy or swollen areas (also see 5 Hot Tips On Aging Gracefully – Look 5 Years Younger Today!)
- Respiratory reactions – stuffy nose ( allergic rhinitis) and sinuses (allergic sinusitis), wheezing and worsening of asthmatic symptoms
- Digestive (GI) disorders – abdominal (belly) cramps and pain, diarrhea (also see How To Diet With Irritable Bowel Syndrome And Feel Great Again!)
- Psychologic and neurologic manifestations – increased irritably and anxiety, hyperactivity, worsening of depression, insomnia, sleep disorders, difficulty concentrating, and tremor
Common Harmful Food Additives To Avoid
So, what’s the best approach to skipping the chemicals in the food you eat? Unless you shop totally organic or catch, raise, grow, and cook all your own food, it’s nearly impossible to avoid food additives totally. A simpler and more practical approach is to become familiar with some of the more common additives and expand your knowledge as you go.
Here is a brief overview of some of the more common Harmful Food Additives To Avoid.
Artificial sweeteners are commonly used in diet foods and by people trying to lower their blood sugar (e.g., diabetics). You may know them as Nutrasweet & Equal (aspartame), Splenda (sucralose), and Saccharin (benzoic sulfimide). One of the most common problems these sweeteners can cause is headaches. They have also been linked to paradoxical weight gain (yes, there are food additives that cause weight gain!), brain tumors, and bladder cancer.
Artificial Food Coloring
We are all familiar with the artificial food colors used to make food look nice by brightening up the things we eat. They are known by names like “Red 40 “and “Yellow 6.” These food colors have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and have been linked to causing tumors in people who make a habit of consuming them often.
They are also a frequent cause of food allergies and can cause hyperactivity in children.
The safest approach is to use natural food coloring like beets for red, spinach for green, Tumeric for yellow, and carrots for the orange.
Artificial flavoring agents are used for making food taste like an ingredient that is not actually present, like sour cream flavored potato chips. They may be the cause of some food allergies and abdominal cramps.
Certain food additives have also been associated with causing anemia by decreasing the production of blood cells in your bone marrow.
Look for phrases like “contains artificial flavoring” on your product labels.
Sodium nitrite is frequently used as a meat preservative. Its antimicrobial properties can prevent bacterial growth and retard food spoilage. During the cooking process, nitrates can combine with amino acids from proteins to form nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines have been linked to breast, stomach, colon, and urinary bladder cancer, among others.
Nitrosamines may also increase your risk of diabetes.
The best way to avoid nitrosamines to minimize your consumption of processed meats.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
When you say MSG, people think of Chinese food and the “flushing and headaches” it causes, but MSG is a flavor enhancer found in many savory ethnic dishes and fast food and frozen dinners. It is often used to give food a “salty” taste.
MSG can also cause neurologic symptoms such as numbness and tingling, and cardiac symptoms such as palpitations, and even chest pain!
If you think you have an MSG sensitivity, avoid eating out often or ask to see an ingredient list before ordering.
Sodium benzoate is commonly found in beverages and processed foods. It has been associated with GI symptoms like abdominal pain, cramps, and nausea. There may be an association with an increased risk of cancer, as it may be converted into the chemical benzene in an acid environment such as carbonated beverages (e.g., soda).
It has also been linked to hyperactivity, especially in children and ADHD (attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity).
Trans fat or trans fatty acids is a type of “saturated” (hydrogenated) fat used in processed foods to improve texture and thickness. It is responsible for raising your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering your good cholesterol (HDL), which ultimately increases your risk of developing heart disease.
Trans fats can increase inflammation in your body and may cause or worsen diabetes.
You should generally avoid foods with saturated (trans) fats and replace them with monounsaturated fats like olive and peanut oil or polyunsaturated fats like corn oil and soybean oil.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetening additive extracted from corn, made from a type of sugar called fructose. It increases inflammation in your body and has been linked to the development of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
It adds non-nutritious (“empty”) calories to your diet and can result in weight gain and an elevated fat (triglyceride) level. Try to avoid foods that contain large concentrations of high-fructose corn syrup, especially in pastries and desserts. If you have a sweet tooth, then you need to be especially careful!
Yeast extract is made by extracting the components inside of yeast. It is often used as a flavor booster in savory foods.
The glutamine (an amino acid) found in yeast extract may cause symptoms similar to MSG, including headache, flushing, numbness, and tingling.
Be aware that its high sodium level can cause or worsen high blood pressure.
Allergic reactions may cause GI symptoms such as abdominal bloating, pain, and diarrhea.
Xanthan gum is produced from the bacterial fermentation of carbohydrates (sugar). It is mostly used as a thickening agent and to improve food texture.
Ways To Avoid Food Additives
So now that you’ve seen some of the ways we routinely consume food additives, what are some of the ways to avoid them?
Learn the basic food additive terminology to have a better understanding of the importance of what you are reading. Congratulations, you’ve just done that! After you become comfortable with these basic food additive terms, you can add more as you go.
Always make it a habit to read food ingredient labels on everything you buy. Beware of ingredients that are almost impossible to pronounce. You can always photograph the label with your cell phone and research it when you get home.
Cooking your own meals from fresh vegetables and meat is one of the best ways to avoid prepackaged processed foods. If you can, try to shop at a farmer’s market or stores that specialize in organic (chemical-free) foods. Look into community-supported agriculture (CSA) as a way to have an ongoing supply of fresh food. Some CSA organizations may even offer home delivery.
How To Diagnose Your Food Additive Sensitivity
Many people can diagnose their own food additive sensitivity using an on-going process of elimination based on their specific symptoms.
For example, if canned corn gives you a headache, but you can eat fresh corn on the cob without a problem, then it’s a good bet that you are reacting to a food additive. If you try different canned corn brands and you find one that agrees with you, then make a list of all the ingredients in that can and always try to stick to that list.
This strategy can work well for mild to moderate adverse or allergic reactions. If you have a severe allergic reaction like hives or trouble breathing, see an allergist for a more detailed evaluation. You may need to carry around an epi-pen.
Be aware that skin testing does not provide any diagnostic value for allergies to food additives. An allergist can do an “oral challenge,” which can be more effective in determining your food additive allergy.
An oral challenge can be performed in your allergist’s office by eating a food additive and being observed for signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction. If you have a reaction, you can be safely treated very quickly. If you do not react, that will essentially rule out that particular food additive as the offending agent.
All things being equal, your body is only as good as the food you put into it. It’s important to eat nutritionally healthy meals and to limit your exposure to chemicals in the form of food additives. Knowing the most common harmful food additives to avoid is the first step in this process.
It’s important to know which food additives may be causing you health problems. Even food additives that are generally considered safe for consumption may give you headaches, stomach cramps, etc. These additives can generally be discovered by using a process of elimination.
If you think you are having a serious allergic reaction from a food additive, then go to the emergency room immediately since anaphylactic reactions can often be life-threatening. You may also need to make an appointment to see your health care provider to help sort out your problem and get particular recommendations for symptom improvement.
You certainly don’t need to become an expert in all the technical information related to food additives. A little knowledge in this area goes a long way. Consistently applying the basic information in this article will pay off considerably in the long run!
If you would like to learn more information on food additives and how to avoid them, the number one book I recommend is The Food Babe by Vani Hari. This book will teach you what to buy at the grocery store and how to transform your eating habits to lose excess weight and feel better in just 21 days. The information is current and has been an ongoing work in progress by Vani since 2011!
Tell Us What You Think
Please let us know what’s on your mind with respect to food additives in the comment section, or if I can help you with anything. Your experience and expertise will be greatly appreciated!
- Do you have any additional tips or suggestions in regards to food additives?
- What are you currently doing to limit your consumption of food additives?
- What particular food additives do you feel are particularly important to eliminate from your diet?
- How has eliminating food additives from your diet improved your health or made you feel better?