10 of the Most Commonly Used Food Additives in the US; What Are They Used For, Where Do They Come From, and Are They Putting Our Health in Jeopardy?

By René Eastin, MTI Contributor


Food additives have been around as long as food.  The initial use of natural additives such as sugar, smoke, salt, and other spices has escalated to tens of thousands of chemical additives that are hard to pronounce let alone understand how they are engineered.  While many of these additives are being used for specific purposes (direct additives) and are generally considered as safe for human consumption there are still others that become part of our food as a consequence of processing, packaging, and storing (indirect additives) that would not be considered safe under differing circumstances.

Additive functions fall into five main categories:

  • Preserving—to prolong shelf life by preventing growth of bacteria and fungi and slowing down oxidation to keep food from turning rancid.  
  • Texturizing—to provide desired consistencies by preventing evaporation and deterioration of volatile oils by chemically stabilizing proteins and carbohydrates.
  • Leavening—to balance acid/base ratios creating the necessary chemical reactions for fermentation that cause raising.
  • Coloring and flavoring—to enhance appearance and taste. 
  • Fortifying nutrients—to restore micronutrients lost during processing.

In 1938 Congress entrusted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with responsibility for overseeing safety evaluations for all food additives.  Food manufacturers must submit petitions for approval of all new additives proving they are safe for intended uses.  Criteria include chemical composition and properties, expected amounts of consumption, immediate and long-term health effects, and all known safety factors.  

The Food Additives Amendment of 1958 gave two groups exemptions from these regulations; additives that had received prior sanctions from the FDA and additives generally recognized as safe (GRAS) based on previously published scientific evidence or their extensive use prior to that year.  

With the number of acceptable synthetically produced additives rapidly growing and an increasing dependency on the convenience of processed foods it becomes nearly impossible to track the endless combinations of chemical cocktails ingested on a daily basis.  Undoubtably escalating concerns and magnifying the importance of making educated decisions about the foods we eat.  

1. Citric Acid

Naturally found in many fruits and vegetables citric acid is used to preserve, flavor, and increase acidity.  Originally produced straight from lemons, increased demand drove production costs too high for food producers.  In 1917 it was discovered that by using molasses to grow Aspergillus Niger (black mold) high concentrations of citric acid were produced.  By 1919 mass production of this manufactured citric acid (MCA) rapidly replaced its natural counterpart.  While their molecular structures are the same the inherent possibility of black mold fragments being present in MCA could increase the potential for negative side effects.  To date there have been no scientific studies evaluating the effects of MCA on humans.  The standard for its production was established long before the FDA was put in charge of safety regulations giving it exemption on the GRAS list.  Citric acid may also be listed on ingredients labels as sodium citrate or MCA

2. Artificial Colors

Artificial colors are added to foods to enhance their appearance; making natural colors brighter, adding color to colorless foods to make them more appealing, and as means of identifying flavors.  Several countries have banned many of the same products currently approved by the FDA causing confusion and controversy surrounding continued use in the US.  Natural food dyes are processed from plant, vegetable, mineral, and animal sources.  Artificial food dyes are classified based on chemical makeups and require batch certifications due to their high potential for instability.  Among others, classifications include azo, xanthene, and indigoid dyes which are derivatives of processing compounds like kerosene, erythrosine, benzidine, and tartrazine with sulfur, methane, and metals such as titanium and aluminum. Artificial colors have been linked to numerous health concerns including cancer, neurological issues, allergic reactions, and hyperactivity in children.  Artificial colors to keep an eye out for include Reds 3 and 40, Yellows 5 and 6, Blues 1 and 2, Green 3, caramel color, and cochineal as they are the most widely used and highly controversial

3. Artificial Flavorings

Artificial flavorings are chemical substances designed to alter or enhance the taste of processed foods.  Natural flavors, those extracted from natural sources such as oils, spices, fruits, vegetables, barks, and animals, are often diminished at high temperatures during cooking.  Flavorists study the chemical makeups of natural flavors and combine synthetic ingredients to align with the known chemical compositions.  In addition to being more cost effective and reducing waste artificially flavored food has a more magnified taste making it more palatable.  Varying combinations of ethyl alcohols, esters, ketones and aldehydes are used to create these chemical flavors.  The same combinations are also used to create plastic, antifreeze, and mustard gas. With ninety percent of American’s groceries containing artificial flavorings concerns have been raised in regard to their safety.   Continued studies are being conducted to further investigate possible links to allergic reactions, inflammation, and cancer. Package labeling to keep an eye out for includes artificial flavors, aldehydes, methyl ketones, terpenoids, and esters.

3. Artificial Sweetners

Originally food sweeteners were limited to natural products such as sugar cane, sugar beets, and honey.  Lower production costs and calorie benefits accompanied with flavors 25-100% sweeter have shifted the market toward artificial sweeteners.  Initially thought to aid weight loss, control blood sugar, and promote dental health artificial sweeteners have more recently been accused of increasing sugar cravings causing weight gain and cavities.   A strong metallic aftertaste in traditional artificial sweeteners led to the use of sugar alcohols.  Although sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits and vegetables and can be made through fermentation most are made by chemically modifying glucose and sucrose.  The body’s inability to digest these engineered substances can change the microbiome of the stomach causing bloating and diarrhea.  While some studies show they are completely safe other studies show an increased risk of bladder cancer from heavy consumption.  More studies are needed to look at the increased use and combinations of these sweeteners.  Artificial sweeteners include saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, stevia, and all the “tols”: xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, etc.

4. High Fructose Corn Syrup

Safety is not the only thing under debate when it comes to the additive high fructose corn syrup.  There is also dispute over whether it should be considered an artificial or natural sweetener being derived from corn starch.  It has been used to sweeten processed foods since the 1970’s and is suspected to be a key factor in the obesity epidemic.  Starchy carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and easily transported and utilized by the cells of the body.  High fructose corn syrup is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver; potentially triggering the production of triglycerides and cholesterol as well as promoting visceral fat accumulation and increasing the risk of fatty liver disease.   Regular consumption can also create insulin resistance causing type 2 diabetes.  There are over 200 different names for corn sugars based on varying ratios of glucose to fructose.  High fructose corn syrup being the highest concentration of fructose others include maltodextrin, maize syrup, fruit fructose, and crystalline fructose.

5. MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) has long been causing controversy.  MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a form of glutamate; one of twenty amino acids considered the building blocks of protein.  Containing less sodium than table salt MSG interacts with the tastebuds amplifying food flavors.  It occurs naturally in protein containing foods such as meat, dairy and vegetables with the highest concentrations being found in tomatoes, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese.   The synthetic version originally extracted and crystalized from seaweed broth is now primarily made by fermenting sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn starch.  MSG is suspect in contributing to brain lesions causing migraines and disorders of the central nervous system as well as provoking bronchial constriction in asthmatics.  While synthetically derived MSG has a different effect on the body than naturally occurring MSG, studies have been unable to link either with neurotoxicity in humans; even when distributed in higher than normal doses.  Studies also suggest possible links between MSG and inflammation, autoimmune diseases and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.  It can be found on ingredient lists as MSG, monosodium glutamate, and flavor enhancer #621.  Products with natural occurring glutamate are not required to specifically list it.  Due to public concerns it was proposed in 1993 to require a “contains glutamate” label but the initiative was never finalized.

6. Partially Hydrogenated Oils

It was discovered in 1901 that liquid fats could be made more stable by hydrogenating them into semi-solid states known as trans-fats.   These partially hydrogenated oils are longer lasting, easier to use, less expensive and create a more desirable taste and texture to foods that contain them.  They were removed from the FDA’s GRAS list in 2015 when scientists found the human body unable to properly break them down during digestion causing increased risks for heart disease and stroke by significantly raising LDL cholesterol and lowering HDL cholesterol.  Manufacturers were given until 2020 to meet compliances continuing to put previously produced products into distribution.    Despite being deemed unsafe partially hydrogenated oils still find their way into our diets.   Cooking with vegetable oils, primarily frying and baking, subject the oil’s molecular structure to high enough temperatures altering fatty acid compositions causing the same hydrogenation and formation of trans-fat.  These partially hydrogenated oils can be found on ingredient lists as trans fatty acids or nutrition labels as trans-fat.

7. Anitoxidants

Antioxidants protect cells from damage.  They can be found naturally in fruits and vegetables, beans, and dark chocolate.  Antioxidants interact with unstable molecules made through oxidation called free radicals that cause cancer, heart disease and stroke.  When antioxidants such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and tertbutyl-hydoquinone (TBHQ) are added to food neither their purpose nor their outcome protects human cells but rather prohibits oxidation preventing foods from spoiling. Known to cause cancer in rats they have been classified as possible human carcinogens.  In addition they are suspected in causing food allergies as well as swelling of the brain stem prohibiting the hypothalamus from receiving satiety signals from the stomach causing overeating.  Banned in most other countries manufacturers continue to produce foods containing them for the United States. 

8-9. Nitrates and Nitrites; Sulfates and Sulfites; Benzoates

Nitrates and nitrites, sulfates and sulfites, and benzoates have similar preservative qualities as the above mentioned antioxidants, prohibiting oxidation, as well as maintaining flavors, colors, and consistencies.  Nitrates give processed meats their desirable pink coloring, sulfates give packaged baked goods their white, doughy appeal, and benzoates keep our favorite beverages mold free; among other things.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer has found potential cancer causing links as well as metabolic syndromes, liver and renal issues, and anaphylactic reactions causing the FDA to lower allowable limits.  Similar versatile additives include varieties of ascorbic acid and tocopherol.

10. Xantham Gum

Thickening agents are added to foods to increase their viscosity without affecting taste.  Either starch, gum, or protein based they solidify as molecules bind with liquids.  Purely synthetic and highly popular among more natural counterparts xanthan gum has received a lot of attention.  To date xanthan gum has not been found to cause any direct health concerns but it has been linked to inflammation which if persistent can be problematic.   As with natural thickeners like psyllium husk, chia seeds, cornstarch, and guar gum, xanthan gum if used in excess can cause digestive issues such as cramping and a laxative effect.  

Several studies have been cited regarding the listed additives and with a little research of your own more can be found stating pros and cons for each.  It is clear more studies are needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn.  Without conclusive evidence either for or against, manufacturers are allowed to continue using them in the food we consume daily.  That is because the FDA’s determination of food safety, explicitly explained in The Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 section 860.7, defines safe as “having valid scientific evidence fairly and responsibly concluded by qualified experts to adequately demonstrate the absence of unreasonable risk of illness or injury.”  

I consider myself a clean eater consuming very little processed food.  My research led me to further investigate the labels of foods I eat on a regular basis.  I was shocked and hate to admit that many of my staple “clean” foods contained these very additives and countless others.  Not even my flavored water, mustards or spices are what I thought.  

The consequences of processed foods should be understood and weighed accordingly regarding the impact they have on one’s personal health.  For me, I’m taking it one step further.  I have challenged myself to eat NOTHING that contains any additives for one month.   After which time I hope to have adopted new habits that I will continue.  At the very least I will no longer be eating anything I cannot pronounce without first looking it up and permitting myself the conscious opportunity to make better educated decisions about the foods I consume.  

René is a personal trainer and nutrition coach in Nevada.


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