Americans spend about ninety percent of their food budget on processed foods, which, unlike whole foods, have been treated, stripped, altered, or refined in some way after being harvested or butchered. 1 Almost all of these processed foods contain additives, substances intended to change the food in some way before it is sold to consumers. Additives include flavorings that change a food’s taste, preservatives that extend its shelf life, colorings that change the way it looks, and dietary additives, such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other supplements. Packaging is considered an indirect food additive and, in fact, many kinds of packaging actually add substances to the food they enclose.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently lists 3,000 food additives approved for food use in the United States. 2 However, while approved for human consumption, food additives may still threaten our health. This is one of many reasons why it is better to purchase whole foods, or those that have been minimally processed and treated.
It is also important to note that while the FDA lists some additives that are approved for food use, many more additives are never approved by the FDA. There is actually very little oversight for many of the additives and other ingredients in our food supply. The term GRAS refers to “generally regarded as safe,” the moniker the FDA uses to regulate food additives, dyes, and preservatives. But according to Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, many additives in our food supply are never even tested. That’s because the GRAS designation is a voluntary process—instead of being required to register food additives, companies can notify the FDA about their product, but only if they so choose.
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the FDA is not ensuring the safety of many chemicals.
According to the Body Burden website, there are 80,000 chemicals in commerce and the site says that, “No one is ever exposed to a single chemical, but to a chemical soup, the ingredients of which may interact to cause unpredictable health effects.”
The food additives that the FDA does regulate are broken down into three categories. "Indirect Food Additives" include packaging materials such as paper, plastic, cardboard and glue that come into contact with food. 3 "Direct Food Additives" include preservatives, nutritional supplements, flavors and texturizers that are added to food. "Color Additives" are used to alter color.
Preservatives generally fall into one of three categories: those used to prevent bacterial or fungal growth, those that prevent oxidation (which can lead to discoloration or rancidity), and those that inhibit natural ripening of fruits and vegetables. 4 According to an article written for the FDA, "it’s almost impossible to eat food without preservatives added by manufacturers," unless you eat exclusively fresh food that you cook yourself. 5
Some common preservatives in wide use are propionic acid, which prevents mold in bread; nitrates and nitrites, which prevent discoloration in meat; and benzoates (most commonly sodium benzoate), which are used primarily in acidic foods to prevent bacterial growth. 6
Flavorings are chemical formulations that mimic the flavors and smells of foods. 7 Smell is just as important as taste to food processors, because most of a food’s flavor appeal to the human brain actually comes from its smell. 1 Most processed foods rely on these additives to restore flavor that is lost in processing or create new flavors altogether. McDonald’s, for example, adds "chicken flavor," among other additives to its Chicken McNuggets.® 8
Common flavor additives such as sweeteners, fruit flavors, and butter or cheese flavors are found in both natural and artificial forms. The difference between the two depends on the source of the flavor and way it was derived. 9 Natural flavors are often produced using just as much chemical manipulation as that used to create artificial flavors, and in some cases there is no real difference between a natural flavor and its artificial equivalent. In fact, due to impurities that result from some production processes, natural flavors can actually be more hazardous than corresponding artificial ones. 1 Food manufacturers often use natural flavors simply because the term "natural" is appealing to consumers.
Food flavoring is a huge business, which in 2002 was found to produce about $1.4 billion in annual sales. 1 Although some flavorings are undoubtedly safe and useful, many are used to transform low-quality ingredients into something considered palatable.
The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines a food additive as, "any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.... [S]uch substance is not generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate its safety, as having been adequately shown through scientific procedures... to be safe under the conditions of its intended use...." 10 [Emphasis added]
If the federal government itself defines food additives as being of unknown safety - perhaps that’s reason enough to think twice about eating them.
Read the list of ingredients on your food package. If you can’t pronounce something, chances are good it is a food additive. Here are some common additives found in many processed foods. 6
• Benzoates (used to kill microorganisms)
• Potassium Sorbate (used for killing mold)
• Carrageenan (used to create a smooth texture and thicken foods)
• Propylene Glycol (thickener and texturizer, also used as antifreeze for cars and airplanes)
• Calcium Pantothenate (calcium supplement)
• Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B supplement)
• Aspartame (sweetener)
• Disodium Guanylate (flavor enhancer)
• Cochineal (Red coloring)
• Titanium Dioxide (white coloring)
Once approved by the FDA, food additives are considered fit for human consumption—but they may not be entirely safe. Some food and color additives have induced allergic reactions, while others have been linked to cancer, asthma, and birth defects. The FDA requires that all ingredients be listed on a food’s label, but additives are often listed without specificity, as "spices" or "flavorings," making it impossible for consumers to determine what, exactly, they are eating. 11
On the other hand, there are numerous additives that must be listed explicitly on packaging because they can cause health problems. These include sulfites, for example, which are used to prevent discoloration. The FDA estimates that sulfites cause allergic reactions in one percent of the general population, and five percent of people who suffer from asthma. 12 Sulfite allergies can develop at any point in a person’s life, and can result in acute, potentially fatal respiratory distress. 12 As a result, the FDA now restricts sulfite use to certain types of foods, and requires that they be included on product labels. 12
Similarly, monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can cause headaches, nausea, weakness, difficulty breathing, drowsiness, rapid heartbeat, and chest pain, must be identified on food labels because of its potential for harm. 13 However, it is important to know that some ingredients are actually MSG in disguise. The terms “natural flavor” and “hydrolyzed yeast extract” are often forms of MSG. Recent research also points to health risks from eating nitrites, common preservatives used in cured meats such as sausages, bacon and hot dogs. For example, a 2006 study found that people who regularly eat cured meats have a 71 percent greater chance of contracting lung disease than those who never eat cured meats. 14
There are also many cases in which approved additives once thought to be safe were later restricted or banned after being proven harmful to human health. The artificial sweetener cyclamate, widely used in the 1950s and 1960s, was banned by the FDA in 1970 after research suggested that it caused cancer. 15 2 The color additive Violet No. 1 was used by the USDA to stamp inspection grades on beef until it, too, was suspected of being a carcinogen and banned by the FDA. 15 After years of use, a flavoring called Safrole that was used in root beer, as well as the common preservative BHA, were both found to cause cancer. 16
Fruit juices, marketed heavily to parents of young children, nearly always contain additives, including preservatives, artificial sweeteners and colors. A study published in The Lancet in November of 2008 looked at the effects of fruit juice additives on children’s behavior, finding that, "Artificial colors or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population." 17 In most cases, the increase was nearly 50 percent greater than that observed in children who consumed fruit juice without additives. 18
Another study found that one particular dye acts as a “central excitatory agent able to induce hyperkinetic behavior.” And yet another study suggests that the combination of various common food additives appears to have a neurotoxic effect—pointing to the important fact that while low levels of individual food additives may be regarded as safe for human consumption, we must also consider the combined effects of the vast array of food additives that are now prevalent in our food supply.
In a statement released in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asked for reform to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. The group is particularly concerned about the effects these substances have on children and babies.
Many substances used in food production are not officially "additives," and are not regulated with human consumption in mind, but may nevertheless wind up in our food. These include pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metals added to industrial animal feed. It has become increasingly common to package foods—especially meat—using "modified atmosphere packaging," which replaces oxygen in the food package with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. 19 20 While these gases may not be used in amounts sufficient to cause health problems, critics point out that because the practice preserves color but does not prevent spoilage, it may promote spoiled meat to be sold to unsuspecting consumers. 20
Many packaged meats are also injected with solutions of water, salt and chemicals to enhance flavor. A meat industry study in 2004 found that forty-five percent of pork, twenty-three percent of chicken, and sixteen percent of beef in U.S. retail stores had been injected with these solutions. 21
Irradiation, which is used to disinfect and preserve meat, dairy products, nuts, spices, and other products is another common practice that may pose a health threat, yet irradiated food is not required to be labeled as such. In August of 2008, the FDA approved a rule allowing "ionizing radiation for the control of food borne pathogens and extension of shelf-life in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach." 22
You can avoid food additives and health problems they may cause by eating fresh, unprocessed foods grown by local farmers. Since these foods are not transported thousands of miles, they don’t need to be packaged or pumped full of preservatives before reaching you. And since they are whole and unprocessed, they won’t contain colorings or artificial flavors.
When shopping in your grocery store, check labels for additives. Buy more whole foods and fewer "convenience foods," such as ready-made meals. The time you spend preparing an additive-free meal will pay off in fresh flavor and increased food safety for you and your family.
• In August of 2006 the FDA approved the process of preventing the foodborne disease listeriosis by spraying bacteria-eating viruses on processed meats and cold cuts. 23
• To create new flavor additives, chemists sometimes use fungal and tissue cultures—both of which can produce flavorings classified as "natural." 1
• Food: Ingredients and Colors, a brochure produced by the International Food Information Council and the FDA, provides a basic overview of food and color additive use, including an overview of the FDA’s additive approval process.
• The FDA also maintains a document called Everything Added to Food in the United States, which lists all of the additives that have been approved for use.
• The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a useful page on additives, including a guide to each additive’s relative safety.