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 two 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.
Why Are These Added to Foods?
Food additives serve a wide variety of purposes, such as:
- Providing flavoring and/or sweetness
- Preserving foods
- Slowing spoilage
- 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 anaphylactic reaction 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).
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 on the list. 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.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 09/2012 -
- Update Date: 09/20/2012 -