Food additives are substances added to our foods in order to enhance color, appearance, flavor and shelf-life. Sound harmless? Unfortunately, some food additives pose serious health risks, and learning which ones to avoid should be high priority.
Amongst the general population of the United States, approximately 90% of purchased food is processed. Processed foods are ones that are made in a lab instead of coming from nature (such as vegetables, fruits, meats, nuts, seeds, etc).
As author Michael Pollan writes in his bestselling book The Omnivores Dilemma, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Without a doubt, most processed foods and food additives fall into this category.
There are thousands of food additives commonly used in our food supply, but for purposes of this article, we will focus on the top 6 additives that are particularly harmful to human health.
Similarly, to the number of food additives that exist, many food coloring’s are used, as well. However, certain coloring’s have been studied and proven to cause serious reactions in sensitive individuals. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that blue 1 food coloring can cause severe allergic reactions, and inhibit nerve cell development in children. Yellow 6 is known to contain carcinogenic compounds, and potentially cause testicular and adrenal tumors. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned Red 3 in all cosmetics due to its connection to thyroid cancer.
Furthermore, studies have yet to be done on many food coloring’s, so we might simply not yet be aware of the potential dangers.
High Fructose Corn Syrup and Processed Sugar
You may or may not consider refined sugar to be part of a healthy diet, but have you considered it to be a toxin? First of all, processed sugar in all forms are empty calories, meaning that they offer zero nutritional value, and we actually have to expend nutrients in order to process it. Thus, sugar can be accurately deemed an anti-nutrient.
All refined sugar can have horrible effects on your body’s metabolism, leading to serious conditions such as high triglycerides, fatty liver disease and insulin resistance. Be on the lookout for chemically derived sweeteners that end with the letters “ose” or “ol.” Label reading is essential, as sugars are hidden in most processed and packaged foods.
Sodium benzoate is a preservative commonly used in fruit juices, salad dressings and sodas, along with other food items. One study found that this dangerous additive dramatically increased hyperactivity in three year olds, and potentially could lead to learning and behavioral problems later in children of all ages. Especially if you are a parent, be very careful to avoid sodium benzoate.
While there is a lot of controversy over whether or not aspartame is truly harmful, enough studies exist that are convincing enough to be on the safe side and avoid it. Aspartame is one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners, and is also known as Equal or NutraSweet. This additive is made by combining the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid together. Some studies have linked aspartame to cancer, while others show no connection.
Other suspected conditions connected with aspartame include diabetes, cognitive conditions and obesity.
Otherwise known as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats can wreak absolute havoc on the body. As a Nutritionist, I recommend omitting trans fats from the diet completely.
It is now widely understood that the chemical structure of trans fats can lead to heart disease, increase inflammation in the body, and can even increase our risk for developing diabetes by a whopping 40%.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is another highly controversial additive, and conflicting studies exist. MSG is a flavoring agent added to many foods, and is derived from glutamate. This food additive is most commonly thought to be used in certain Asian cuisines, but is also popular in cultures worldwide, including in the United States.
MSG is a known excitotoxin, which is a chemical that over-stimulates the neuron receptors of the brain. In sensitive individuals, MSG can bring on headaches or migraines, heart palpitations and muscle tension. One study showed that MSG might induce asthma attacks.
How Can I Avoid Food Additives?
The good news is; food additives can actually be quite easy to avoid by simply sticking to real foods. When shopping, stick to the perimeter of the grocery store, as this is where you’ll find fresh produce, meats (organic and grass-fed whenever possible), nuts and seeds in the bulk section, whole, plain dairy, and naturally occurring, healthy fats such as olive, coconut and flax oils, ghee and organic butter (see this article on good and bad fats for more info, as this is a tricky subject).
By focusing your diet on whole foods, this is the only sure way to avoid dangerous (and potentially dangerous) food additives.
The last tip for avoiding additives in the diet is reading labels. Again, food additives are shockingly common, and you are hard pressed to find packaged foods without them. Studying the ingredient list for names you can’t pronounce is an easy way to tell how many additives might be present in a certain product. See this complete list of additives, for more clarity.
While not all food additives are going to cause serious harm, we are all around better off eating nutrient-dense foods that come from nature. If foods with additives are consumed once in a while, it is likely not huge problem, but exposing ourselves to known and unknown dangers on a regular basis is best avoided.
-  https://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf. Retrieved March 1st, 2016.
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-  https://www.armored.us/cracker/1451195726_b170ee4239/food_additives_and_hyperactivity.070906.pdf. Retrieved March 1st, 2016.
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16507461. Retrieved March 1st, 2016.
-  https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa010492. Retrieved March 1st, 2016.
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3312372. Retrieved March 2nd, 2016.