Food Additives: What You Need to Know

Posted by Green Diva Mom on Nov.28, 2009

© - MonkeyBusinessImages

© - MonkeyBusinessImages

from Sustainable Table

Americans spend about 90 percent of their food budget on processed foods, which, unlike whole foods, have been treated in some way after being harvested or butchered(1). Almost all of these processed foods contain additives, substances intended to change the food in some way before it is sold to consumers. Additives include flavorings that change a food’s taste, preservatives that extend its shelf life, colorings that change the way it looks, and dietary additives, such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other supplements. Packaging is considered an indirect food additive and, in fact, many kinds of packaging actually add substances to the food they enclose.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently has approved more than 3,000 food additives for use in the United States (2). However, while approved for human consumption, food additives may still threaten our health. This is one of many reasons why it is better to purchase whole foods, or those that have been minimally processed and treated.

Regulation and Categories of Food Additives

The FDA regulates all food additives, breaking them into three categories. “Indirect Food Additives” include packaging materials such as paper, plastic, cardboard and glue that come into contact with food (3). “Direct Food Additives” include preservatives, nutritional supplements, flavors and texturizers that are added to food. “Color Additives” are used to alter color.


Preservatives generally fall into one of three categories: those used to prevent bacterial or fungal growth, those that prevent oxidation (which can lead to discoloration or rancidity), and those that inhibit natural ripening of fruits and vegetables (4). According to an article written for the FDA, “it’s almost impossible to eat food without preservatives added by manufacturers,” unless you eat exclusively fresh food that you cook yourself (5).

Some common preservatives in wide use are propionic acid, which prevents mold in bread; nitrates and nitrites, which prevent discoloration in meat; and benzoates (most commonly sodium benzoate), which are used primarily in acidic foods to prevent bacterial growth (6).


Flavorings are chemical formulations that mimic the flavors and smells of foods (7). Smell is just as important as taste to food processors, because most of a food’s flavor appeal to the human brain—up —actually comes from its smell (8). Most processed foods rely on these additives to restore flavor that is lost in processing or create new flavors altogether. McDonald’s, for example, adds “chicken flavor” to its Chicken McNuggets.® (9)

Common flavor additives such as sweeteners, fruit flavors, and butter or cheese flavors are found in both natural and artificial forms. The difference between the two depends on the source of the flavor and way it was derived (10). Natural flavors are often produced using just as much chemical manipulation as that used to create artificial flavors, and in some cases there is no real difference between a natural flavor and its artificial equivalent. In fact, due to impurities that result from some production processes, natural flavors can actually be more hazardous than corresponding artificial ones (11). Food manufacturers often use natural flavors simply because the term “natural” is appealing to consumers.

What is a Food Additive?

The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines a food additive as, “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food. . . . [S]uch substance is not generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate its safety, as having been adequately shown through scientific procedures … to be safe under the conditions of its intended use. . . .” (30) [Emphasis added]

If the federal government itself defines food additives as being of unknown safety - perhaps that’s reason enough to think twice about eating them.

Food flavoring is a huge business, which in 2002 was found to produce about $1.4 billion in annual sales (12). Although some flavorings are undoubtedly safe and useful, many are used to transform low-quality ingredients into something considered palatable.

Are Food Additives Safe?

Once approved by the FDA, food additives are considered fit for human consumption—but they may not be entirely safe. Some food and color additives have induced allergic reactions, while others have been linked to cancer, asthma, and birth defects. The FDA requires that all ingredients be listed on a food’s label, but additives are often listed without specificity, as “spices” or “flavorings,” making it impossible for consumers to determine what, exactly, they are eating (13).

On the other hand, there are numerous additives that must be listed explicitly on packaging because they can cause health problems. These include sulfites, for example, which are used to prevent discoloration. The FDA estimates that sulfites cause allergic reactions in one percent of the general population, and five percent of people who suffer from asthma (14). Sulfite allergies can develop at any point in a person’s life, and can result in acute, potentially fatal respiratory distress (15). As a result, the FDA now restricts sulfite use to certain types of foods, and requires that they be included on product labels (16).

Similarly, monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can cause headaches, nausea, weakness, difficulty breathing, drowsiness, rapid heartbeat, and chest pain, must be identified on food labels because of its potential for harm (17). Recent research also points to health risks from eating nitrites, common preservatives used in cured meats such as sausages, bacon and hot dogs. For example, a 2006 study found that people who regularly eat cured meats have a 71 percent greater chance of contracting lung disease than those who never eat cured meats (18).

There are also many cases in which approved additives once thought to be safe were later restricted or banned after being proven harmful to human health. The artificial sweetener cyclamate, widely used in the 1950s and 1960s, was banned by the FDA in 1970 after research suggested that it caused cancer (19). The color additive Violet No. 1 was used by the USDA to stamp inspection grades on beef until it, too, was suspected of being a carcinogen and banned by the FDA (20). After years of use, a flavoring called Safrole that was used in root beer, as well as the common preservative BHA, were both found to cause cancer (21).

Fruit juices, marketed heavily to parents of young children, nearly always contain additives, including preservatives, artificial sweeteners and colors. A study published in The Lancet in November of 2008 looked at the effects of fruit juice additives on children’s behavior, finding that, “Artificial colors or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population” (22). In most cases, the increase was nearly 50 percent greater than that observed in children who consumed fruit juice without additives (23).

Read the list of ingredients on your food package. If you can’t pronounce something, chances are good it is a food additive. Here are some common additives found in many processed foods (31).

  • Benzoates (used to kill microorganisms)
  • Potassium Sorbate (used for killing mold)
  • Carrageenan (used to create a smooth texture and thicken foods)
  • Propylene Glycol (thickener and texturizer, also used as antifreeze for cars and airplanes)
  • Calcium Pantothenate (calcium supplement)
  • Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B supplement)
  • Aspartame (sweetener)
  • Disodium Guanylate (flavor enhancer)
  • Cochineal (Red coloring)
  • Titanium Dioxide (white coloring)

Animal Feed and Other Concerns

Many substances used in food production are not officially “additives,” and are not regulated with human consumption in mind, but may nevertheless wind up in our food. These include pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metals added to industrial animal feed. It has become increasingly common to package foods—especially meat—using “modified atmosphere packaging,” which replaces oxygen in the food package with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide (24). While these gases may not be used in amounts sufficient to cause health problems, critics point out that because the practice preserves color but does not prevent spoilage, it may promote spoiled meat to be sold to unsuspecting consumers (25).

Many packaged meats are also injected with solutions of water, salt and chemicals to enhance flavor. A meat industry study in 2004 found that 45 percent of pork, 23 percent of chicken, and 16 percent of beef in U.S. retail stores had been injected with these solutions (26).

Irradiation, which is used to disinfect and preserve meat and dairy products, is another common practice that may pose a health threat, yet irradiated food is not required to be labeled as such. In August of 2008, the FDA approved a rule allowing “ionizing radiation for the control of food borne pathogens and extension of shelf-life in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach.” (27)

What You Can Do

You can avoid food additives and health problems they may cause by eating fresh, unprocessed foods grown by local farmers. Since these foods are not transported thousands of miles, they don’t need to be packaged or pumped full of preservatives before reaching you. And since they are whole and unprocessed, they won’t contain colorings or artificial flavors.

When shopping in your grocery store, check labels for additives. Buy more whole foods and fewer “convenience foods,” such as ready-made meals. The time you spend preparing an additive-free meal will pay off in fresh flavor and increased food safety for you and your family.

Did You Know?

  • In August of 2006 the FDA approved the process of preventing the food-borne disease listeriosis by spraying bacteria-eating viruses on processed meats and cold cuts (28).
  • To create new flavor additives chemists sometimes use fungal and tissue cultures—both of which can produce flavorings classified as “natural” (29)

For More Information

  • Food: Ingredients and Colors, a brochure produced by the International Food Information Council and the FDA, provides a basic overview of food and color additive use, including an overview of the FDA’s additive approval process.
  • The FDA also maintains a document called Everything Added to Food in the United States, which lists all of the additives that have been approved for use.
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a useful page on additives, including a guide to each additive’s relative safety.


  1. Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Perennial, 2002: 121).
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, EAFUS: A Food Additive Database, June 2006.
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, “The List of “Indirect” Additives Used in Food Contact Substances.” (accessed September 13, 2006).
  4. Burgess, Wilella Daniels, and April C. Mason, “What Are All Those Chemicals in My Food?”, September 1992 (accessed September 13, 2006).
  5. Foulke, Judith E, “A Fresh Look at Food Preservatives.” FDA Consumer October 1993 (accessed 3 August, 2006).
  6. Dalton, Louisa, “Food Preservatives: Antimicrobials, Antioxidants, and Metal Chelators Keep Food Fresh.” Chemical & Engineering News, 80 (November 2002), p. 40.
  7. Ashurst, Philip R. Food Flavorings (3rd Edition). Gaithersburg (MD): Aspen Publishers, Inc., 1999.
  8. Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Perennial, 2002: 122).
  9. McDonald’s USA, Ingredients Listing for Popular Menu Items, 20 September 2006, (accessed September 25, 2006).
  10. U.S. Congress, Code of Federal Regulations 21 C.F.R. 101, chapter 22, paragraph (a)(1). 1 April, 2002.
  11. Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Perennial, 2002: 126-7).
  12. Ibid, 124
  13. U.S. Food and Drug Administration/International Food Information Council, “Food Ingredients and Colors,” November 2004.
  14. Papazian, Ruth. “Sulfites: Safe for Most, Dangerous for Some,” FDA Consumer December 1996 (accessed July 28, 2006).
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG),” 31 August, 1995 (accessed July 28, 2006).
  18. Daniells, Stephen. “Nitrites in cured meat linked to lung disease,” Food Production Daily, September 12, 2006.
  19. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Cyclamate Update,” May 16, 1989 (accessed January 20, 2009). See also: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, EAFUS: A Food Additive Database, June 2006.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Raloff, Janet. “Carcinogens in the Diet.” Science News Online, 19 February, 2005.
  22. McCann, Donna, “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.” The Lancet, Volume 370 Issue 9598 (November 3, 2008)
  23. Hollingham, Richard, “Common Food Additive Doubles Kids’ Hyperactivity”, Discover, January 15, 2008.
  24. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, Fact Sheets: Safe Food Handling–Meat Packaging Materials, May 2002 (accessed August 17, 2006). See also: Burros, Marian. “Which Cut Is Older? (It’s a Trick Question).” New York Times 21 February, 2006.
  25. Burros, Marian, “Which Cut Is Older? (It’s a Trick Question).”New York Times, February 21, 2006.
  26. Burros, Marian. “‘Enhanced Meat’ Means Your Steak Gets Watery Injection.” Chicago Tribune 16 August 2006.
  27. U.S. Food & Drug Administration, “FDA Announces Final Rule Amending the Food Additive Regulations to Allow for the Irradiation of Fresh Iceberg Lettuce and Fresh Spinach,” August 21, 2008
  28. MacGregor, Hilary E. “Latest food additive: Viruses.” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2006.
  29. Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. (New York: Perennial, 2002: 128).
  30. U.S. Congress, Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act., 21 U.S.C. 301, chapter 2, paragraphs (s). (Includes all amendments through December 31, 2004.)
  31. Dalton, Louisa, “Food Preservatives: Antimicrobials, Antioxidants, and Metal Chelators Keep Food Fresh.” Chemical & Engineering News, 80 (November 2002), p.
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