Food Additives: The Truth About Them

Food additives are added to foods to make them taste great or to preserve their flavor. They are also used to improve the appearance and texture of foods and to preserve their freshness. Some food additives can maintain or improve the safety of foods.

Are Food Additives Necessary?

The functions that food additives perform make some of them a necessary ingredient in the foods that we eat. Although often thought as unhealthy, some food additives do not pose any serious threat to the health when they are used in small quantities. A common food additive is salt. You’d probably need salt in most of the cooking that you do at home.

In the same way, producers of processed and packaged foods use salt (although usually too much) to preserve the nutrients, taste and freshness of their foods. They produce foods on a large scale which are intended to last for a longer period than foods cooked at home. They also add other types of additives which you wouldn’t normally use in your cooking, to the foods they produce.

Types of Food Additives

There are thousands of food additives which can be made from animals, plants or minerals. Some food additives are also synthetic. All types of food additives perform the function of making foods look and taste great, or making them safer for consumption.

The most common food additives are ones used to improve the taste or aroma of foods. These are called flavoring agents or flavorings. Flavorings can be natural or artificial. Food additives also come in form of enzymes. They are derived from animals or plants. They can also be derived from micro-organisms.

Other types of food additives are artificial sweeteners, anti-caking agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, preservatives, thickeners, humectants and stabilizers. Here are some of the examples of food additives you’d find in the ingredients lists on food labels:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Tartrazine (102)
  • Aspartame (951)
  • Sunset yellow
  • Transfat
  • Corn syrup
  • Citric acid (330)
  • BHT and BHA
  • Potassium bromate (924)
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Sorbitol (420)
  • Ammonium chloride (510)
  • Brilliant blue FCF (133)
  • Lecithin (322)

Are Food Additives Safe?

Fast foods in a restaurant

Food additives may be readily available to food producers but their use is justified only if there is a need for them. Not all processed foods would require food additives but food producers use them anyway. Although the safety of food additives still generate a lot of controversy, recent research has shown that some food additives may not pose any serious threat to the health as they have always been believed to.

Aspartame, which is a common food additive used in foods and drinks, is believed to cause cancer but a study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, and involving about 500,000 people has shown that there is no association between the intake of aspartame and increased risk of cancer.

Participants of the study who regularly drank beverages containing aspartame were not found to be more likely to develop cancer than those who did not consume drinks with aspartame. A similar study also found no association between aspartame consumption and cancer.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG), also a very common food additive is found in many foods like canned soups, noodles and snacks. Some packaged seasonings also contain MSG. Foods containing MSG are usually savory and rich in flavor. MSG has for several years been a subject of controversy.

Several studies claim that this additive has a detrimental effect on the brain, causing impaired growth and development. The consumption of MSG has also been associated with metabolic syndrome and weight gain. Recent studies have however shown that MSG has almost no effect on the brain.

Although some people have reactions to MSG, sensitivity to MSG is not a common condition. People who have this condition may experience symptoms like headaches, numbness and sweating when a large amount is consumed.

Some other types of food additives have however been established by recent studies to pose some health risks.These additives like artificial food coloring used in several foods and drinks, and sodium nitrate mostly used in processed meats have been found to cause allergic reactions in some children and to increase the risk of certain types of cancers respectively.

What about Transfats?

Of all types of food additives, transfats probably carry the greatest risks. Transfats are formed when liquid vegetable oils are turned into solid oils through hydrogenation, a process where hydrogen atoms are added to liquid oils to make them solids.

Transfats are favorites of food manufacturers since they help to prolong the shelf life of foods. Once produced, transfats can last for a long time and can be re-used as many times as possible. Many fast food outlets and restaurants use transfats for deep-frying.

Besides food longevity, transfats perform other functions like improving the taste, texture and flavor of foods. Although several countries have restricted the use of transfats in commercially-produced foods, transfats still find their way into the foods we buy.

Transfats are found in many processed foods. Also labeled as partially hydrogenated oils, transfats are found in frozen pizza, baked products, shortening, crackers, microwave popcorn and fast foods. While the safety of some food additives continues to generate controversy, researchers agree that transfats are harmful to the health and we are all better off without them. They do not have any known health benefits.

Effects of Transfats on the Body


Weight gain

Increased levels of LDL Cholesterol

Unlike saturated fats which increase LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in the body, transfats, also known as trans fatty acids, increase LDL cholesterol and lower the levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol in the body significantly increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Increased Risk of Inflammation

Some studies have found an association between transfats and increased inflammatory markers especially in people who are overweight or obese. Excess inflammation is associated with diseases like arthritis, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes.

They Contribute to Weight Gain

Consuming too much transfat can cause you to gain a lot of weight. They also make losing weight a lot harder. Excess weight gain increases your risk of type 2 diabetes as well as other types of chronic diseases.

They Increase the Risk of Death

Studies have found that high consumption of transfats increases the risk of death from any cause by 34%. Transfats also make most health conditions worse. People who have heart disease but consume a lot of transfats have a 28% risk of dying from the condition.

How to Avoid Food Additives

The best way to avoid food additives, including the dangerous transfat is to reduce your intake of processed and fast foods. While this may appear to be a very difficult thing to achieve, there are some steps you can take to make healthy eating easier:

  • Always read the ingredients list on food labels before buying any food. If majority of the ingredients are unfamiliar to you, you probably shouldn’t buy it
  • Ensure that most of the foods that you eat are prepared at home
  • Completely avoid processed foods that contain a lot of sugar and sodium
  • If you must eat processed foods, choose minimally processed foods over highly processed ones. Frozen pizza and fast foods are examples of highly processed foods
  • Eat less of ready-to-eat foods and more of whole foods, especially whole grains, fruits and vegetables

In Conclusion

Some food additives are not bad after all and they are in fact necessary for food safety. If you notice any symptoms when you consume any food additive, it is best for you to avoid them.