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Safe at the Plate

Common Food Additives

Suzanne Girard Eberle / Delicious Living Dec00

As you make your child's lunch for school, you might twinge, wishing you had a little extra time to bake a loaf of homemade bread from wholesome ingredients. But reality strikes before you have a chance to measure that first cup of whole-wheat flour: Who has the time to cook pure, wholesome food with the fast pace of today's lifestyles? Instead, health-conscious consumers must rely on food labels to know what's in the foods they buy. And one glance usually tells you that the store-bought bread you hold in your hand is more than flour, yeast, sugar, salt and water.

Additives substances added to food for a specific purpose aren't always unnecessary ingredients. Some additives help keep foods wholesome and appealing while en route to the market, and improve the taste, texture, consistency and color of foods. Other additives may improve the nutritional value of certain foods.

Some Common Food Additives and their Effects

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating all additives in the United States under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Once an additive is approved, the FDA determines in what amounts and in what foods the additive may be used. It can be reassuring to know that no permanent approvals are given, and that all additives undergo periodic safety reviews as scientific understanding and methods of testing continue to improve.

Still, with 2,800 different chemicals that are purposely added to our food, it's prudent to take a close look at food labels. Even though additives usually enhance our food supply, you may want to familiarize yourself with those most commonly used especially if you're sensitive to specific foods.

Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD is a nutrition writer and speaker in Portland, Ore.

Checking Food Labels for Additives

You may notice that some familiar substances, when added to foods, seem foreign when listed on the ingredient label--for example, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha tocopherol (vitamin E), beta-carotene (source of vitamin A) and thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1). Other additives--such as calcium propionate, erythorbic acid, sodium benzoate and sodium carbo-xymethylcellulose--may sound sinister, but are actually safe preservatives, color stabilizers and thickening and stabilizing agents.

Many additives are now followed by descriptive statements, for example, "sodium benzoate (preservative)." If you're concerned about a particular additive for health reasons, find out all the chemical names by which it may appear in the ingredients list. Sulfite-sensitive people won't have trouble recognizing sodium sulfite or potassium bisulfite, but what about sulfur dioxide? This irritant for asthmatics is created when sulfites come into contact with heat or acid, such as gastric acid in the stomach.

If you suffer from "Chinese restaurant syndrome," be leery of products listing the flavor enhancer "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" (HVP) or "natural flavorings"--HVP contains MSG, and flavorings may include MSG or HVP.

Vegetarians and vegans may need to do some detective work when reading food labels. Many common additives, such as monoglycerides and diglycerides (emulsifiers), glycerol (extends shelf life), natural flavors and maltodextrins (thickening agents), may be nonvegetarian. These additives, or substances used to process the additives, may be derived from meat, fish or fowl. Your best bet is to call the manufacturer and ask if animal-derived ingredients are used.

To obtain a copy of Food Additives: A Shopper's Guide to What's Safe & What's Not (KISS For Health Publishing), call 760.735.8101. This handy, pocket-size book classifies more than 600 commonly used food additives.

Common Food Additives




Safety Rating

Artificial Colors

Man-made dyes. Impact colors to foods to offset color losses, correct natural variations in color, enhance naturally occurring colors and prevent bacterial growth (especially in wine)

Some animal studies suggest they create a small risk of cancer or tumors; Possible link with hyperactivity and learning disabilities in some sensitive children.

Strike: Mild allergic reaction (itching or hives) possible in those sensitive to Yellow No. 5; Red No. 3 may be banned due to health concerns derived from animal studies.


Artificial sweetener, low-calorie sugar substitute (Equal and NutraSweet). Made by combining aspartic acid and phenylalanine, amino acids that occur naturally in protein-containing foods.

Digested and absorved like any other protein.

Left Field: Anecdotal reports of dizziness, headaches and behavior changes are unconfirmed in controlled studies. People with the rare disease phnylketonuria must avoid.

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole).
BHT(butylated hydroxytoluene).

Preservatives, antioxidant. Added to fats, oils and foods that contain oil (baked goods and snacks) to prevent rancidity.

Prevent the oxidation of dietary fats and oils. Low doses in food may help prevent stomach cancer by mopping up reactive molecules taht can damage tissues.

Left field: Most studies indicate they're safe; carcinogenic in some animal studies using high doses.

GUMS (alginate, arabic, carrageenan, ghatti, guar, karaya, locust bean, tragacanth, xanthan)

Stabilizers, thickening agents. Replace fat in low-fat foods; modify texture.

Recognized by the body as mixtures of digestible sugars.

Safe: Derived from natural sources (plant fluids, seeds, seaweed and bacteria)

MSG (monosodium glutamate)

Used to flavor foods, especially various types of meats.

Emphasizes natural flavors in certain foods. Glutamate is a salt in protein-containing foods. Also produced by the body for metabolism and brain function. The body can't distinguish between glutamate in food and glutamate in MSG.

Left Field: May precipitate reactions in sensitive individuals; headache, nausea, weakness, difficulty breathing, and burning sensations in the back of the neck and forearms.


Fat substitute. A synthetic fat that adds no fat or calories to foods.

Made from everyday ingredients (vegetable oil and table sugar), but the molecules are too large to be digested or absorbed by the body.

Left field: Reduced absorption of heart healthy and cancer-fighting, fat-soluble carotenoids from fruits and vegetables. Can cause a laxative effect, gas, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

Sodium Nitrates

Coloring, flavoring, preservative. Stabilize red color, and enhance flavor of cured meats; help prevent the growth of bacteria that causes botulism.

In the acidic environment of the stomach, as well as during intensive heating (frying bacon to crisp stage), nitrites can be converted into potentially cancer-causing compounds (nitrosamines).

Left field: Higher levels than used in food found to be carcinogenic in animals; ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is routinely added to cured meats to inhibit formation of nitrosamines.

Sterol Esters

Added to margarine to promote healthy blood-cholesterol levels.

Extracted from wood pulp or soybean oil extracts. Not absorved by the body. Inhibits cholesterol absorption in the intestine.

Safe: under the intended conditions of use. Studies used three pats of margarine per day. Approved for use in 1999.


Artificial sweetener. Only low-calorie sweetener made from sugar. Adds no calories when used to sweeten foods and beverages. Can be used virtually like sugar, including in baked goods.

Not recognized by the body as sugar, sucralose molecules pass through the body unchanged and are eliminated.

Safe: Approved for use in the United States in 1998.


Preservative. Prevent discoloration (in dried apricots, raisins and other dried fruit, and some dried, fried or frozen potatoes); control "black spot" in fresh shrimp and lobster.

Destroy any of the vitamin thiamin (vitamin B1) present in food.

Left field: Can cause reactions such as hives and breathing difficulty. Those with asthma and aspirin allergies should avoid due to risk of anaphylatic shock, indicated by swelling of airways.

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