There’s been a lot of buzz lately about food additives as people become more and more committed to eating real food and improving their health. Any sharp label reader knows that there’s all kinds of unpronounceable stuff popping up in everything from nut milk to vinegar to yogurt.
Are all additives dangerous? Or are some harmless in the small doses we’re exposed to in food as the FDA tells us?
This article will tell you how to figure out if a food additive is harmful and needs to be avoided. First, we’ll look at a few myths about food additives so that you’ve got useful facts for making judgments.
Myth #1: If the FDA has approved it, then it must be safe.
A lot of people incorrectly assume that just because an additive is FDA approved, then it must be safe. Not so.
First, many additives have not been thoroughly tested. The testing that has been done has primarily been completed by food manufacturers, not the government or independent labs.
Second, companies can decide on their own that an additive that has not been thoroughly tested is safe to use in a food. All they have to do is petition the FDA and provide an argument that based on the best science presently available, the additive won’t harm consumers as long as it’s used in the way it’s proposed.
Third, any additive that is considered "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) can be added to foods. These ingredients do need to be listed on labels, but the catch-all terms “artificial flavoring,” “artificial coloring,” or “natural flavoring” can often be used.
Fourth, there’s a long list of additives (dominated by food colorings), which were once considered safe but have since been banned due to health risks (usually cancer or organ damage).
Myth #2: Food additives are made from chemicals, which is why they’re bad for you.
It’s true that there are many food additives that are chemically produced, but there are also many natural food additives that can be harmful in large doses, or if you are allergic to them due to your genetics.
For example, annatto is a natural food coloring that turns food yellow, and in some people it causes hives.
MSG is a natural additive that is made when sodium is fermented and L-glutamate is isolated. It’s a flavor enhancer that has been linked to poor digestion, headaches, nausea, weakness, elevated heart rate, and difficulty breathing. Studies are lacking on its safety, but the FDA continues to classify it as safe.
Sodium nitrate, a salt used to cure meat, which is produced today by neutralizing natural compounds, is also used as a fertilizer and to make gunpowder. Several studies have linked consumption of cured meat with cancer.
More recent research suggests nitrates are harmless, but this doesn’t clear up the consistent association between processed meat intake and greater cancer risk, so whether nitrates in meat are really dangerous is anyone’s guess.
Myth #3: I can identify food additives as unpronounceable words or things I wouldn’t eat by themselves, like tertbutylhydroquinone.
It’s true that these alien words tend to be additives, but did you know that the FDA classifies anything that is added to food as an additive, including salt, sugar, and caffeine?
This is important because it’s those additives like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), sugar, and trans-fats that are a greatest threat to health for most people because they are consumed all the time in such high quantities.
We know that HFCS, sugar, and trans-fats increase risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It’s reasonable that the first priority for everyone should be on radically reducing or eliminating intake of those additives before worrying about a few milligrams of lecithin, carrageenan, or guar gum.
Of course, complete avoidance of food additives by eating whole foods or processing foods like nut milks and probiotic foods at home rather than buying them is a reasonable option. But, for those who don’t want to spend their time and energy in this way, here are issues to watch for when assessing the safety of additives.
A: What type of evidence is there?
The evidence on food additives is based on a whole bunch of different kinds of studies.
First, additives are tested on cells in a test tube. This is useful because it causes no harm to animals or people and gives us a hint if an additive may cause mutations or other damage. The downside is cell cultures don’t tell us what happens in a fully functioning organism, let alone a large organism like the human body.
Next, they’re tested on animals, which is useful because it indicates what might happen in a living organism. However, animals, particularly rodents, don’t function metabolically in the same way as humans. Their guts and diets are unique, and in some cases, they metabolize toxic compounds differently.
Lastly, additives may be tested in humans, however, ethical issues can prohibit this if they may be harmful. If this is the case then cell studies are done.
Now, you should know that even if ethical issues prohibit dosing people with an additive, it could still be used in food as long as it goes through FDA petition.
Therefore, most human studies are observational studies in which data is gathered from a population based on their activities over a period of time. An example is studies indicating a link between processed meat intake and cancer risk.
Or a cross-sectional study is used to assess how much of a compound people are excreting in urine and how that relates to a disorder or disease. For example, studies like this have linked urinary BPA with greater body fat percentage, but BPA is still approved for use in manufacturing (it’s not a food additive) in the U.S.
B: Does the dose being tested represent the amount humans consume in food?
Animal studies tend to test additives in very high doses. For example, in studies assessing the effect of carrageenan (an additive from seaweed) in rats, the dose was 10 percent of the entire diet, which is nowhere near what a human would be exposed to.
Exposure will be somewhat individualized. Take the artificial sweetener aspartame, which is widely used in “diet” products. Someone who only eats “diet” foods is likely to get a huge dose of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, which could be higher than what is generally considered safe by the FDA.
In contrast, most gums and emulsifiers, which are very common on packaged foods, aren’t going to be consumed in large enough doses to compare to the amounts tested in animals.
Body size and age are also relevant. Food dyes have been linked to cognitive impairment and hyperactivity in children, likely due to the fact that they have developing brains. Further, the dose that may lead to adverse symptoms in a 50-pound child may have no effect on a 150-pound adult.
For example, a very large dose of chocolate is dangerous or “toxic” to humans, but no human is going to consume that much freely, whereas for dogs, just a little bit will kill them because they are so much smaller.
C: Is the additive being tested in the same way humans would consume it?
Another reason results from animal studies don’t apply to human’s consumption is because the additives are administered in water, or injected into the animals.
This radically increases the danger and severity of the symptoms. If you injected chicken soup into your blood, you’d have a massive immune reaction compared to if you were to eat chicken.
D: Are you allergic to the additive?
You have to consider your individual genes. For example, lactose, casein, MSG, and wheat derivatives are all additives that are well known for causing an allergic reaction in some people. Caffeine is another one that is metabolized differently in certain genetic phenotypes.
In addition, there are less common allergens, like soy and eggs, which are used to produce additives such as lecithin. You don’t need us to tell you that if you have a bad reaction to a food, stop eating it!
E: Does your individual health history make an additive dangerous for you?
This is one area where the FDA and food manufacturers are doing you no favors. What is generally recognized as safe has nothing to do with your particular health situation or your food principles for that matter.
If you have gut issues such as inflammation, there are a number of additives that could be harmful including lactose, wheat, casein, MSG, most gums and emulsifiers, fruits containing large amounts of fructose, and so on.
Here are a few resources for taking action to ensure your not harming yourself with food additives:
- The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a useful guide to food additives, breaking them down into the following five categories: safe, cut back (non toxic, but large amounts may be unsafe), caution (may pose a risk). avoid (unsafe), and certain people should avoid (may trigger allergic reactions).
- The Joint FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and WHP (World Health Organization) Expert Committee on Food Additives has a database on most food additives. It’s dense and complicated to read, but packed with information.
- Check out our Good Meat Guide for tips on sourcing healthy animal products that are organic and free of chemicals and additives.
- Start making your own minimally processed foods like nut milks instead of buying packaged versions that tend to have additives. Here’s our recipe for making your own yogurt.