Research Roundup

December 2015 Issue

The Real Deal with Food Additives

The current trend is to avoid artificial additives at all costs; EN investigates whether these food ingredients really are so dangerous.

woman reading food label

The clean eating movement emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods and shuns processed and refined foods, especially those that contain any artificial ingredients. But is it actually healthier to buy foods without any artificial additives? Or are clean eaters eliminating perfectly healthy groceries in their quest to purge their diets of anything unnatural or unpronounceable? Here’s an evidence-based look at the major categories of food additives.

—Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN


  Preservatives Sweeteners Colors Flavor Enhancers Nutrients
Use & Benefits Keep foods fresh Make foods taste sweet (sometimes
without adding
Make foods look
Enhance flavors
already present
in foods
Replace nutrients lost in processing (i.e., in refined grain products), prevent disease (i.e., fortification programs); boost nutrient levels
Examples Sodium benzoate, BHA, BHT Caloric sweeteners
(e.g., high fructose corn syrup); non-
caloric sweeteners (e.g., saccharine)
FD&C Blue
Nos. 1 and 2;
annatto extract
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and natural
ingredients, which either
contain MSG or enhance the flavor of it
Folic acid;
vitamin D;
and B12
Risks Since 1991, California has
included BHA on its list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. However, the FDA and European Food Safety Authority believe that BHA is safe.
Consuming too much added sugar contributes to obesity and chronic disease. Artificial sweeteners might fuel weight gain, rather than weight loss (Obesity, 2008). In some people, artificial sweeteners alter the gut microbiome and promote glucose intolerance, which can increase the risk of diabetes (Nature, 2014). Certain colors may contribute to hyperactivity in children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a confirmed food allergy (1982 Consensus Development Panel, NIH). The FDA reviewed the issue and voted to support these findings. A chemical in caramel coloring, popular in soft drinks, is a potential carcinogen (PLOS One, 2015). Some people report
adverse reactions
to MSG, like headaches and flushing, but
studies haven’t found reliable evidence of
these reactions, even among those who
self-identify as sensitive.
Consuming more than the RDA for particular nutrients can increase health risks. For
example, high levels
of folic acid can mask vitamin B12 deficiency and potentially accelerate tumor growth.
Bottom Line Preservatives
approved for use
in the U.S. appear to be safe, but if you want to be
especially cautious,
limit foods containing BHA.
Limit added sugars to 10% of total calories (about 13 teaspoons per day for the average person); use non-caloric sweeteners judiciously. Children with ADHD may benefit from eliminating artificial colors, and anyone drinking lots of beverages with caramel coloring should proceed with caution. The common sense rule
applies: avoid MSG if it
makes you feel sick.
Added nutrients are generally safe and health-promoting when within 100% RDA levels. For example, folic acid fortification decreased the rate of neural tube defects in babies by 35%. Fortified foods help people get enough calcium, vitamin D, and B12.