Packaged food can have many unfamiliar words listed on ingredient labels. What are these ingredients? Are they harmful?
While consumer concern over food additives has grown, most of the typical American diet still relies on processed foods that can contain these unfamiliar additives.
Confused about the safety of food additives? Find out the true meaning of preservatives and food additives to avoid, limit, and safely consume.
What Are Additives?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines additives as "any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result -- directly or indirectly -- in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food."
In other words, an additive is anything added to a food to enhance flavor, change color, texture, or other desired aspects.
The FDA has the responsibility for determining the safety of additives approved for the US food supply. If a company wants to use a new additive, it must prove to the FDA it is safe for use.
What Are Preservatives?
All preservatives can be considered additives, but not all additives are preservatives.
Preservatives are added to food for the sole purpose of preserving the food to make it last longer against spoilage. They help limit bacterial growth and make food safer for consumption. The FDA places a limit on the concentration of preservatives in a food product.
Physical preservation can include methods to preserve fresh food longer by drying, canning, or freezing food. Chemical preservation involves adding a component to food during manufacturing to limit bacteria or mold growth. Naturally added preservatives can include salt, sugar, or citrus juice.
Synthetic preservatives can include the following:
• Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or vitamin E (tocopherol)
Food Additives to Avoid
Even though the FDA regulates the use of additives, there is still controversy with some food additives. For example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) suggests the FDA has not done enough to make additives safe in the food supply.
The CSPI suggests there are several additives that should be avoided until more research is done on them. Most concerns with controversial additives are based on animal research that warrants further research in humans.
BistroMD Ingredient Standards and Policy follow the guidance of Whole Foods and the CSPI for food additives to avoid.
Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame K)
This artificial sweetener can be found in diet or sugar-free products. It is found in diet drinks often used together with sucralose or aspartame.
A small study with 20 women who were breastfeeding found acesulfame K can pass into breast milk. This is concerning as some rat studies have shown this artificial sweetener may increase the risk for certain cancers.
Artificial food colors are usually derived from synthetic petroleum-based chemicals. Some evidence concerns that artificial colors may increase the risk for certain cancers based on animal studies, and some artificial colors may increase hyperactivity in some children.
Adults or children may have an allergic reaction to some artificial colors, especially red #40.
Aspartame was originally created back in 1965 when a chemist named James Schlatter was testing an anti-ulcer drug. This food additive was approved back in 1981 as an artificial sweetener for dry goods, and for carbonated beverages in 1983.
While the evidence is consistent, some research with rats suggests aspartame intake throughout the life cycle can increase the risk for certain cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, "aspartame has not been linked conclusively to any specific health problems, other than for people with phenylketonuria (PKU)."
Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
BVO is banned in Europe and has been removed from most of the US food supply. However, it is still technically allowed by the FDA as an additive and may be found in some sodas or in other foods.
There is concern BVO leaves a "residue" in fat cells in the body and may pass through breast milk.
Partially Hydrogenated Fats
Partially hydrogenated, or trans fats, are found to be more harmful to health than saturated fats on a gram to gram basis. Partially hydrogenated fats have been limited in packaged foods since the FDA mandated listing trans fats on nutrition labels.
However, trans fats can still be found in some baked goods, shortening, and fried foods from fast-food chains and restaurants.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG is an additive that is used as a flavor enhancer. It can be added to frozen entrees, packaged soups, salad dressings, snacks, or used in restaurants. As a food company, a benefit for using MSG is they can use less real ingredients, like chicken, but still develop a tasty food product.
One concern with MSG research from the 1960s suggested large amounts of MSG fed to infant mice destroyed nerve cells in the brain. This led to a public outcry to eliminate MSG from baby food, but it still remains in the food supply.
People can have sensitivities to MSG and have symptoms like nausea, headache, or weakness.
Propyl gallate is considered a preservative that helps prevent the spoilage of fats and oils in vegetable oils, meat products, or soup bases. It is often used with other preservatives BHA and BHT.
The concern with propyl gallate is rat studies have shown to cause more cancers in rats treated with a low dose than with either a zero dose (the controls) or a high dose. This suggests propyl gallate acts as an "endocrine disruptor" and/or possible carcinogen.
The CSPI suggests using caution with yet another artificial sweetener saccharin, also known by the name Sweet N Low. Similar to the other listed artificial sweeteners, saccharin has shown negative health results in animal studies.
In 1977, saccharin was banned from food products. However, congress overturned this with the caveat saccharin products would need a warning label on them. After further back and forth, in the year 2000 congress passed a law that dropped the required warning labels with saccharin.
Sodium nitrites and nitrates add flavor and enhance the red color of processed meat products such as hot dogs and deli meats. According to CSPI, adding nitrites and nitrates to foods can form small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals in the body.
The good news is most food products also add either ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to inhibit these chemicals from being formed. However, it is still advised to limit the intake of sodium nitrites and nitrates.
Use caution with labels that say “no nitrites added” or are advertised as natural. If celery powder or juice is on the ingredient label, they are a high source of nitrites as well.
Safe Food Additives
A common rule of thumb with ingredient labels is to avoid anything that is hard to pronounce. While that can be a general guideline to avoid controversial food additives, some additives with long names are safe.
If unsure about an ingredient or additive, check it with the CSPI Chemical Cuisine ranking.
Examples of safe food additives:
• Vitamins and minerals: Ingredients like ascorbic acid, tocopherol, or thiamin mononitrate are really vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin B1, respectively. They are safe additives and can even be beneficial for health.
• Citric acid: Added for flavoring and derived from citrus fruits.
• Cysteine: An amino acid that can be added to flours.
• Dextrin: Used as a thickening agent and is derived from starch.
• Erythritol: A sugar alcohol found in sugar-free or diet foods.
• Ferrous gluconate: A form of iron and can be an additive in olives or other foods.
• Inulin: Naturally occurring soluble fiber.
• Glycerin: helps maintain water in foods like candy and baked goods.
• Maltodextrin: Added for texture, this is derived from starchy foods like potato, rice, or wheat.
• Oligofructose: Used as a sweetener or bulking agent, oligofructose is derived from chicory root or sugar. It can also be considered a prebiotic.
Recapping Food Additives
Additives are added to foods to enhance flavor, texture, color, etc. Preservatives are considered additives that are added to increase shelf life and inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, or other harmful compounds. Additives are monitored by the FDA for safety, but some additives are still considered controversial.
The CSPI and other agencies suggest limiting the intake of potentially harmful additives. However, not all additives are considered harmful. Some additives are completely safe and can just be fancy names of vitamins and minerals.
As with anything food-related, moderation is key for additives. Most of the time, additives are in processed foods that have little nutritional value. Therefore, limiting these foods can be beneficial for many reasons.
Understanding The Difference Between Food Preservatives and Food Additives. TriMach Group Inc. https://www.tri-mach.com/understanding-the-difference-between-food-preservatives-and-food-additives.
Common Food Preservatives and Their Purpose. RWJBarnabas Health. Published May 8, 2017. https://www.rwjbh.org/blog/2017/may/common-food-preservatives-and-their-purpose/.
Chemical Cuisine. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Published February 18, 2020. https://cspinet.org/eating-healthy/chemical-cuisine.