Food additives are substances that are added to food in order to preserve it or enhance its taste or appearance.
Some natural additives like vinegar, salt and sulfur dioxide have been around for centuries. But the rising popularity of processed foods in the latter half of the 20th century has led to an increase in the number of additives – both natural and artificial.
Over the years, several debates have sparked concerning the safety of these additives. Many countries have passed laws banning a number of additives that have been linked to cancer, heart and neurological diseases, and other health disorders.
Despite growing concern in recent years, countless additives continue to be used in a variety of products to meet consumer demand for food that fits into hectic lifestyles or satisfies taste buds.
But your health is much more important than the conveniences of daily life. It’s important to pay attention to whether foods you buy have these additives if you want to stay healthy and avoid the associated risk of serious and even fatal diseases.
Here are 10 food additives you must avoid at all costs.
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup is a cheap sweetener added to sodas and fruit drinks, store-bought salad dressings, some cereals and other processed snacks.
Excessive consumption of calorie-rich soda containing high fructose corn syrup is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic in the U.S., as reported by a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Nutrition that studied Americans’ food consumption patterns from 1967 to 2000.
High fructose corn syrup also raises the risk of metabolic syndrome, according to a 2010 study published in Current Hypertension Reports.
Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions occurring together. These include a high blood sugar level, high triglyceride (cell fat) level, high blood pressure, excess abdominal fat and abnormal cholesterol level.
Metabolic syndrome and obesity significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and Type 2 diabetes.
2. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is a taste-enhancing additive widely used in Asian cuisine. It is also found in canned and frozen foods, store-bought salad dressings, soups and children’s snacks.
MSG is the manufactured version of the naturally occurring protein glutamic acid.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeled MSG safe for use, a polarizing debate still rages on its harmful effects.
Anecdotal evidence has poured in since the 1960s stating that people who regularly ate MSG-rich Asian food reported headaches, chest pain, numbness around the mouth and neck, flushing and sweating. This eventually came to be known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
Families in rural Thailand who ate meals with MSG as a primary ingredient for 10 days were found to be at a significantly increased risk of metabolic syndrome and weight gain.
3. Artificial Coloring (Dyes)
Artificial coloring is commonly found in candies, desserts, ice cream, sports drinks, spreads, condiments, processed snacks (cereals, pastas, noodles) and other foods.
Tartrazine is a yellow dye found in soft drinks, gummy bears and several other products. Prolonged consumption of tartrazine could cause cancer, according to a 2015 study published in Anticancer Research. It also exacerbates asthma symptoms.
Blue food dyes are found in ice cream, bottled blue drinks, raspberry-flavored products, icings and ice pops. The food dye FD&C Blue No. 1 inhibits the membrane channel protein PANX 1, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of General Physiology. This triggers the progression of skin cancer.
Other food dyes, such as red dyes (2 & 3) and green dye, have also been associated with tumors and hyperactivity in children.
4. Potassium Bromate
Potassium bromate is the food additive that makes your bread rise.
It is still widely used in the U.S., although animal studies that showed potassium bromate’s carcinogenic effects led to bans in a number of countries including those in the European Union, Argentina, Nigeria, Brazil, Canada, South Korea and Peru.
Although studies in humans are lacking, the International Agency for Research in Cancer lists potassium bromate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on studies done on rats that found a positive link between oral administration of potassium bromate and thyroid, renal and kidney cancers.
It may also cause toxicity of the kidneys in humans, according to a 1990 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in carbonated sodas, diet sodas, powdered sodas, tabletop sweeteners, yogurt, chewing gum and even some pharmaceuticals.
Aspartame accounts for 75 percent of the reactions caused by food additives reported to the FDA in the U.S. While some are comparatively mild reactions like headaches, others are more serious, such as seizures.
Phenylalanine is a constituent in aspartame, and too much of it depletes the level of serotonin in the brain and induces depression.
Healthy adults who consumed a high-aspartame diet for eight days, followed by a low-aspartame diet for eight days, reported increased depression and irritability in the first cycle, according to a 2014 study published in Research in Nursing and Health.
While the carcinogenic effects of aspartame remain scientifically unsubstantiated, a 2004 study published in the Texas Heart Institute Journal notes that regular aspartame consumption may be a leading cause of clinical hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats).
6. Trans Fats
Trans fats are produced when vegetable oil-based products are solidified through hydrogenation. Foods highest in trans fats include margarine, deep-fried foods and baked goods, especially those containing shortening.
Trans fats clog your arteries, which can lead to coronary heart disease that comprises the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. People with this disease are at greater risk of heart attacks.
Regular and high consumption of trans fats in Iranian homes was found to be the leading cause of several coronary heart disease cases, according to a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Olestra is a fat-substitute found in snack foods, such as potato chips.
Olestra consumption decreases the absorption of carotenoids in the body, according to a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Long-term carotenoid deficiency increases the risk of cancer and heart disease. It also promotes cell damage by free radicals. Olestra may also cause side effects like abdominal cramps, diarrhea and steatorrhea (fat deposits in stool).
8. Nitrites & Nitrates
Sodium nitrite is a food additive that gives cured meats like ham, corned beef, and bacon their characteristic flavor and red color.
While vegetables contain low levels of nitrites, some may contain nitrates in considerable quantities depending on the method of cultivation, soil features and light intensity.
Nitrate found in drinking water exhibited positive links with the development of bladder, uterine, ovarian and rectal cancers in Iowa women, according to a 2001 study published in Epidemiology.
According to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Nutrition, nitrate combines with mouth bacteria and converts to nitrite.
Nitrite combines with hemoglobin in the blood to form methemoglobin that is unable to transport oxygen to the body’s organs.
9. Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is a food additive widely used by the soda industry to emulsify sodas. It is especially used in citrus-based sodas, as well as in a variety of sports drinks and baked goods.
Excessive consumption of BVO-rich foods can induce bromide intoxication or Bromism, characterized by headaches, fatigue, ataxia and memory loss.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Toxicology found that an over-intake of bromide doses caused a disturbed mental state characterized by disorientation, confusion, auditory and visual hallucinations, and short-term memory loss in a 30-year-old woman.
10. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
Widely found in boxed cereals, vegetable oils and potato chips, BHA and BHT are preservatives that prevent oil in foods from oxidizing and becoming rancid.
A constant debate surrounds the issue of the carcinogenic properties of BHA and BHT. Some past studies have shown a positive link between BHA and BHT in rat models, although more current and human-based studies need to be conducted.
A 2000 study published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications sheds light on BHT’s endocrine-disrupting properties, which inhibits testicular development and causes cell death in a rat model. This indicates possible similar results in humans, although related studies are pending.
Elimination of dietary BHA and BHT may reduce the duration, severity and frequency of hives, while intake of the same can greatly exacerbate it.