5 of the Worst Food Additives

5 of the Worst Food Additives

Top 5 Worst Food Additives
Photo Credit: Selena Sheridan via Compfight cc

When it comes to food, looks can be deceiving. Food processors have spent decades developing methods of increasing appeal for many types of foods. In almost every way possible (color, smell, taste, shelf life, even by using genetic modification), they have tried to make fruits and vegetables more consistent in appearance. The complexity of food regulations makes it difficult for the average individual to understand how their food is made and what goes into every food item. Fortunately, nutritional labels offer some insight.

If you read the ingredients listed on any food item purchased in a grocery store, you’ll probably come across some complex, scientific names for the “ingredients” in your food. More often than not, these are food additives. While not all food additives are bad, some can be very harmful to the body. Consumer advocacy groups are coming down hard on certain types of food additives being used today, so it’s smart for shoppers to educate themselves on what those complex terms mean for a person’s health.

Here’s a quick explanation of what food additives are, why they’re in your food, and five common food additives you should avoid at all costs.

What are Food Additives?

Food additives are, in the simplest terms, substances which aren’t a natural product of a food item but are found in that item when sold in a grocery store. Additives are found in food through two different ways. The first is through direct application, which food processors do when they need the ingredients to preserve or improve the food item. But indirect food additives can also make their way into food–indirect food additives aren’t contributed directly to the food, but they may become present in small amounts either during or after processing–food additive safety is essential.

Are Food Additives Bad for You?

Yes and no. It depends entirely on the type of food additives you’re consuming. A lot of the additives used to improve the quality of the product, or the perceived freshness of a food item, are considered bad for human consumption. This includes preservatives that prolong freshness, additives assisting in the food processing process, and additives that improve the overall appeal of food, according to Medlineplus.

But additives can also be nutritional in nature–food processors often add various vitamins and minerals into consumables to make them healthier and more appealing to consumers. This allows consumers to enjoy the healthy benefits of vitamin B, vitamin D, vitamin C, and other nutrients. Calcium supplements are often used as food additives because so many consumers struggle with calcium deficiency, and the addition of calcium in foods like orange juice and cereal can make them much more appealing to consumers concerned about their calcium intake.

Counteracting the Negative Effects of Food Additives

Because it’s difficult to avoid all negative additives found in foods, consumers should look to minimize their exposure to unhealthy additives while increasing the healthy nutritional supplements found in their diet. Rockwell Nutrition offers a range of healthful nutritional supplements that can improve overall health, and advice on proper nutrition.

The 5 Worst and Most Common Food Additives

As you work toward a healthier, more nutrient-rich diet, there are some common food additives you should try to avoid at all costs. Here are five of the worst and most common food additives you may be eating without even knowing it. If you haven’t heard of these food additives before, it’s time to start reading ingredients labels and avoid foods that feature these substances.

1. Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate is a common additive in processed meat, including jerky and bacon, and it poses serious health risks to consumers. According to the Mayo Clinic, the substance could increase a person’s risk of heart disease.

Why to avoid it: Medical experts also fear that sodium nitrate causes hardening of the arteries, which can further increase the risk of heart disease and other heart problems. There are other concerns that this substance can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Many meats containing sodium nitrate are unhealthy in other ways as well, typically featuring high levels of saturated fats and sodium. These meats should be consumed sparingly, if at all, and if you’re able to avoid sodium nitrate entirely, all the better.

2. Aspartame

Who doesn’t love sweet flavor without the extra sugar? You might find aspartame or acesulfame K in your favorite “sugar-free” treats, but it’s not worth the calories saved.

Why to avoid it: When more than 75% of the “adverse reaction reports” sent to the FDA were due to aspartame in 1995, the FDA stopped accepting such reports. Consumers reported symptoms ranging from migraines, weight gain, and depression, to memory loss, vision problems, and slurred speech.

Aspartame is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, as the methyl ester. It metabolizes quickly in the small intestine into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. Methanol is a concern of the National Health Federation who report it as a toxicant. It is a chemical that degrades into formaldehyde and formic acid at body temperature. Formaldehyde is a compound listed as a “known human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a “probable human carcinogen” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To be on the safe side, the amounts of aspartame consumed should be minimal. It is found in considerable amounts in diet sodas and other diet drinks and sugar-free processed foods.

3. Sulfites

Several different sulfites have been used as preservatives in a number of products, from beer and wine to potatoes and shrimp. Sulfites had previously been used to preserve fruits and vegetables, but a ban was placed on this practice in 1986, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Why to avoid it: Some people have extreme allergic reactions to the additive, and others can have breathing problems (including asthma) exacerbated by the consumption of sulfites. Many consumers may be unaware of how sulfites affect their health. Unless you know you don’t have a sensitivity to sulfites, they should be avoided.

Sulfite containing ingredients to look for on food labels include:
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Potassium bisulfite
  • Potassium metabisulfite
  • Sodium bisulfite
  • Sodium metabisulfite
  • Sodium sulfite

4. Antibiotics in animal products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to permit antibiotics use in agricultural animals despite evidence that antibiotics present a high risk to human consumers, according to a January 2014 report in The Washington Post.

Why to avoid it: Antibiotics consumption can contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans, which killed an estimated 23,000 Americans in 2013 alone. Many scientists and health experts have harshly criticized the FDA for allowing this practice to continue at a significant risk to human well-being. Avoid any meat products that are not labeled as antibiotic-free.

5. MSG

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer used in a wide range of foods, including canned foods, soups, and many Chinese food products.

Why to avoid it: MSG is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is naturally present in our bodies, and in many foods and food additives. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. The FASEB report identified some short-term, transient, and generally mild symptoms, such as headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness that may occur in some sensitive individuals who consume 3 grams or more of MSG without food. However, a typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. Consuming more than 3 grams of MSG without food at one time is unlikely, though individuals vary on how much MSG makes them react on an individual basis.

Unlike food allergies which affect only certain individuals, and involve an antibody response of the immune system, food sensitivities affect many more people. There are no antibodies involved and in the case of MSG, the free glutamic acid in it acts the same way in all of us. It’s a neurotransmitter–it causes nerve cells to fire. Although it could take large doses of glutamate to have an excitatory response in the brain.

The reason MSG is used by food companies is because in the average human it stimulates the nerve cells in your mouth, as well as the brain. It targets the centers of hunger and taste and smell, giving food that “umami” taste.

According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.

By avoiding food additives when possible, sticking to all-natural food products, and complementing your diet with healthy nutritional supplements, you should see improvement in your overall health and avoid your risk of serious long-term health risks.

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