Food additives

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

I am sure your eyes must have encountered some unpronounceable (and sometimes illegible) words on a food label when scanning for nutritional facts. Well, if you don’t know what it is then they must be food additives. These additives have been under a lot of heat lately mostly because of their too “chemically” nature and give the food product a reputation of being “processed” which any nutritionist would strongly advise you to avoid. Unsurprisingly consumer perceptions have shifted towards the negative end for foods containing these additives and thus the manufacturing industry is also investing heavily towards “clean label foods” which have minimal or no chemically produced additives or rather natural ones are used. Simply put, food additives are substances used to enhance a food product’s flavor, texture or acts as a preservative. Believe it or not we have been using food additives for centuries in form of salt, vinegar, sugar etc. In this article I will list out most common types of food additives and simplify them for you.

  1. Artificial flavoring: These additives mimic the taste of another natural ingredient and are used to impart those flavors in a food product. Although some studies have shown negative health implication on mice but no such study has been done on humans till now, also the doses were significantly higher than what you would normally consume.

  2. Artificial sweeteners: in recent years, these additives have been used quite commonly specially in foods which claim to be “sugar-free” or “low-calorie”. Most common types of artificial sweeteners are aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium. While mostly these additives are safe, aspartame has been linked to headaches and nausea.

  3. Artificial food coloring: these enhance the appearance and color of food products. Although majority of these dyes are generally safe, some of them have been linked to adverse health effects for example, Blue 1, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40 can cause allergic reactions and the most notorious Red 3 (erythrosine) has been associated with increased risk of thyroid tumors in animal studies. Some individuals, especially kids are more sensitive to these dyes and should avoid them.

  4. Monosodium Glutamate: MSG is used to enhance flavor of savory foods like soups, salty snacks and is commonly used in certain cuisines like Chinese and Mexican. It is one of the most controversial additive on this list and has been under fire since a study published in 1969 which found that consumption of large amounts of MSG by mice resulted in impaired growth and development along with neurological deterioration. While some population is allergic to MSG, it is generally safe to consume in limited amounts as it does not cross the blood-brain barrier in humans.

  5. Sodium Benzoate: this additive is used as a preservative in foods like carbonated beverages, condiments, salad dressings and pickles, other acidic foods. Some studies have shown that carbonated drinks contain high amounts of sodium benzoate which can cause ADHD symptoms. When sodium benzoate reacts with vitamin C it releases benzene which may increase cancer risks. One study shows increased hyperactivity in children when it was consumed with artificial food color.

  6. Sodium Nitrite: most commonly used in meat products, it increases their shelf life by inhibiting bacterial growth while imparting reddish- pink color and salty flavor making them more attractive to buyers. At high temperature, nitrite is converted into nitrosamine which has been found to increase cancer risk, although more studies are needed to establish a direct link.

  7. Trans fats: these are types of unsaturated fats which have been hydrogenated to enhances the product’s consistency and increases shelf-life. These are usually found in baked goods like biscuits, cakes etc. You must be aware that trans fats are bad and you’re right, multiple studies have linked trans fat consumption with increased risks of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and inflammation.

  8. High fructose corn syrup: This is mostly found in sugary drinks and snacks like soda, candies, breakfast cereals etc. As the name suggests, it has high levels of fructose which has been associated with weight gain and diabetes. Laboratory studies have also established a link between fructose and inflammation in tissues which can increase cardiovascular and cancer risks.

  9. Carrageenan: it is used as an emulsifier (stabilizes an emulsion), thickener and preservative in foods like cheese, ice-cream and dairy free products and is made of red seaweed. Lab studies done on animals have shown increased blood sugar levels after consumption and increased risk of intestinal ulcers. More studies are required to get a better picture of its potential harmful effects.

  10. Yeast extract: also labeled as autolyzed yeast extract or hydrolyzed yeast extract is used to enhance savory flavor in foods. The extract is rich in sodium and glutamate (much like MSG). Although it is generally a safe additive, if used more than regulated quantities the high sodium level can be a concern for people suffering from hypertension.

  11. Xanthan gum: obtained by mixing fermented sugars with bacteria, it finds its application as a thickening and stabilizing agent for soups, syrups and sauces. Conversely, this additive has benefits like reducing blood sugar and cholesterol levels while making you feel full for longer. Over consumption of xanthan gum can lead to digestive problems but in most cases it is very safe.

  12. Guar gum: This is also a natural thickener and stabilizer extracted from guar beans used in products like ice cream, salad dressing and soups. Similar to xanthan gum, it has health benefits such as reducing irritable bowel symptoms and constipation while regulating levels of blood sugar and cholesterol. Ingestion in high amounts can cause obstruction of food pipe and intestine or digestive problems.

Food additive identification numbers, those scary codes on the label!

Food additives are given a code for identification called INS which stands for International Numbering System. These codes are not unique and may be assigned to a group of food additives. You may have seen ‘INS’ or ‘E’ prefix written before these codes where E are additives approved by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to be used within European Union.

The takeaway box:

You must be pretty concerned about processed foods and the additives used by now but one major factor you need to consider is the dosage by which I mean the amount of these additives you eat. Mostly these processed foods use additives in regulated levels set by government bodies which are based on scientific evidences of their interaction in our bodies. So if you’re having processed foods occasionally then health risks are zero to minimal but if you experience any adverse health effects then you should consider completely avoiding them. Xanthan and guar gums are probably the safest options out there in conventional foods but due to rising consumer demand, natural additives are making debut in processed foods. Below is a table containing commonly used natural additives with their sources.

References and further reading:

Baines, David, and Richard Seal, eds. Natural food additives, ingredients and flavourings. Elsevier, 2012.

Carocho, M., Barreiro, M.F., Morales, P. and Ferreira, I.C. (2014), Adding Molecules to Food, Pros and Cons: A Review on Synthetic and Natural Food Additives. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 13: 377-399. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12065

Hawkins RA. The blood-brain barrier and glutamate. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(3):867S-874S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27462BB

He K, Zhao L, Daviglus ML, et al. Association of monosodium glutamate intake with overweight in Chinese adults: the INTERMAP Study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008;16(8):1875-1880. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.274

Insawang T, Selmi C, Cha'on U, et al. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) intake is associated with the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in a rural Thai population. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012;9(1):50. Published 2012 Jun 8. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-9-50

Link, R., 2018. 12 Common Food Additives — Should You Avoid Them?. [online] Healthline. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 July 2020].

Olney JW. Brain lesions, obesity, and other disturbances in mice treated with monosodium glutamate. Science. 1969;164(3880):719-721. doi:10.1126/science.164.3880.719

Thu Hien VT, Thi Lam N, Cong Khan N, Wakita A, Yamamoto S. Monosodium glutamate is not associated with overweight in Vietnamese adults. Public Health Nutr. 2013;16(5):922-927. doi:10.1017/S1368980012003552 2018. Food Additives. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 July 2020].

Yang WH, Drouin MA, Herbert M, Mao Y, Karsh J. The monosodium glutamate symptom complex: assessment in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1997;99(6 Pt 1):757-762. doi:10.1016/s0091-6749(97)80008-5