Everything You Need to Know About 10 Common, Scary Sounding Food Additives

Michael Pollan, the best-selling author and one of the leaders of the modern food revolution, is a big one for Food Rules. In fact, he wrote a book by that name. In today's complicated, processed food world, it's helpful to have tips to navigate, like Pollan's Rule #19: 

If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.

Or rule # 36:

Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

What these rules imply is that when foods are unnatural, or do unnatural things, they may not be the best thing to put into our bodies, bodies being temples and all that.  When we pick up a package of food in the supermarket, we might look at the ingredients and be horrified at all the exotic, multi-syllabic chemicals that are listed, often ten, twenty or more horrible sounding ingredients that we didn’t have in mind when we felt like mac ‘n cheese that night.

While Pollan’s seminal advice, “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants” is undoubtedly wise, we cannot always be as mindful as we want to be.  Our busy lives may preclude time to cook one evening, or our children may be whining for that snack their friends get to eat.  In moments of weakness, stress, or just plain desire, we open up the freezer and pull out the TV dinner, chemical listings be damned.  Perhaps if we knew what the chemicals are in these foods, why they are there, what they might do to us, we could either be a little more discerning or less concerned about our occasional indiscretions.  In that spirit, here is a list of ten common chemical items in our supermarket cornucopia of processed foods, and advice on whether to avoid it or go for it.

1. Artificial dyes

Almost all processed foods today contain some sort of artificial coloring to make the food more attractive looking (admittedly, a subjective judgment, since I, for one, find almost no pink food, for instance, very attractive…but I dare you to find a child who does not vehemently disagree…).  Some of you might remember the controversy decades ago when the food coloring Red Dye #2 was found to cause cancer in lab animals when consumed in large quantities.  That particular dye was subsequently banned, but other dyes, with literally colorful names like FD&C Blue #1, FD&C Green #3, Orange B, and FD&C Yellow #6 still abound in our foods.  Aside from the aforementioned Red#2, what do these dyes do to us?  Well, in England, a 2007 study in the esteemed medical journal “The Lancet” found some links between these dyes and hyperactivity in children.  As a result, The European Foods Standards Agency asked food companies to voluntarily remove the dyes from processed food.  In America, the Food and Drug Administration has declined to follow suit on the ESFA action, and still considers the dyes safe.  There were also studies in the 1950s that linked a particular dye, Yellow #5, with asthma symptoms, but subsequent studies did not bear that link out.

Examples of common processed foods containing artificial dyes: sports drinks, Mac ‘n Cheese, Jello, ice cream

What to do: If you have a hyperactive child, best to think twice before giving him Fruit Loops for breakfast.  Otherwise, you are probably OK with dyes.

2. High Fructose Corn Syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup is a sweetener derived from corn, sweeter than cane sugar, and cheaper.  That latter combination accounts for its presence in a seemingly infinite number of processed products and beverages.   The United States has been suffering through a veritable epidemic of obesity for decades, and many experts (and non-experts) have fingered HFCS as the culprit.  They point out that the obesity problem began at about the same time as high fructose corn syrup became widespread as a substitute for cane sugar.   There have also been some studies that link HFCS to type 2 diabetes.  The claim is that the body metabolizes HFCS differently than cane sugar, resulting in increased risk for type 2 and obesity.  Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, on the website WebMD, disagrees, however.  "It's just sugar.  Biochemically, there's no difference…The body can't tell them apart."  Meanwhile, the American Medical Association has found little evidence that HFCS is any better or worse than cane sugar, and that you should essentially limit both.

Examples of common processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup: almost anything that is sweetened, including breakfast cereals, sodas, crackers, condiments like ketchup

What to do: Don’t lose any sleep over high fructose corn syrup, but, like all sweets, a little goes a long way.

3. Aspartame (brand name NutraSweet or Equal)

Almost any processed “diet” food or beverage contains an artificial sweetener, and that sweetener is usually aspartame.  Once upon a time, that sweetener was usually saccharin, but lab studies (since refuted) linked large amounts of saccharin to bladder cancer, and it was subsequently removed from many food items.  Aspartame has gone through similar close inspection, and some studies have linked it to cancer (including leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors), seizures, headaches, even lowered IQ.  Some people may have difficulty metabolizing aspartame, according to the website phys.org, a leading science and research news organization.  However, a large-scale study (500,000 people) by the National Cancer Institute found no link between aspartame and cancer.  A survey by the National Institutes of Health of over 2000 cancer patients also found no link.  The FDA has deemed aspartame safe numerous times. 

Examples of common processed foods containing aspartame: most diet sodas and beverages, sugarless gums, sugarless yogurt

What to do: Pop open a Diet Coke if you want.  It's definitely not good for you, but it probably isn’t the aspartame that is hurting you.  (Just remember, that stuff cleans off car batteries…). 

4. MSG (AKA monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast)

Humans are able to discern four flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty.  In recent years, foodies have added the “flavor” umami” to that list.  Umami is that savory sensation you can detect when eating meats, tomatoes, soybeans, and mushrooms, for instance.  MSG is a chemical that enhances that umami flavor.  Chinese restaurants are famous (or infamous) for adding MSG to their dishes.  In the 1960s, customers began complaining that Chinese food was making them ill, with headaches, flushing, and chest pains being some of the symptoms.  MSG was suspected as the agent of their symptoms.  Over the past 40 years, many studies have been made on MSG, and there have been no definitive links between it and any specific symptoms.  What links may have been discerned have been exceedingly rare.  While some people may indeed be sensitive to it, the majority is apparently not.

Examples of common processed foods containing MSG: potato chips, salad dressings, dry roasted nuts, cold cuts

What to do: Bring on the egg rolls, unless you feel are one of those rare souls who are allergic to MSG.

5. Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative found in lots of food and beverage products.  Most processed foods have some sort of preservative(s), as they are likely to be sitting on a shelf for a significant amount of time.  As with food dyes, “The Lancet” listed sodium benzoate among the chemicals linked to hyperactivity in kids.  Additionally, it was found that in items containing both sodium benzoate and Vitamin C, the two ingredients reacted together to form benzene, a known carcinogen.  The FDA, in 2006 and 2007, had the manufacturers of over 200 beverages reformulate those drinks, which were then deemed safe by the FDA.  FDA testing was limited, however, and benzene exposure may still be a problem in some cases.

Examples of common processed foods containing Sodium Benzoate: soft drinks, salad dressing, pickles, condiments

What to do: A no-no for hyperactive children.  Probably not a great idea for their adult parents either.  In any case, look for sodium benzoate and vitamin C together.  If it is there, don’t eat it or drink it.   Probably OK for the car battery though…

6. Sodium Nitrite

Everything is good with bacon on it, right?  Think twice about that.  Bacon and most cured meats and sausages contain sodium nitrite, which gives preserved meat a reddish color, preserves it, and inhibits the formation of harmful bacteria on the food.  The chemical was used extensively in food processing before the 1930s, and was suspected as the cause of gastric cancer, which was the leading cause of cancer deaths at that time.  When meats containing sodium nitrite are overcooked or charred, they form a compound called nitrosamine, which is a known carcinogenic.  Since the 1930s, refrigeration plus moderating the amount of the sodium nitrite used has cut down the mortality rate of gastric cancer significantly.  Studies on a direct link between sodium nitrite and cancer have proven inconclusive, and the jury is still out.

Examples of common processed foods containing Sodium Nitrite:  cured meats, smoked fish, jerky, hot dogs

What to do: A BLT once in a while won’t kill you.  Maybe cut down on the sausage pizza.  Ditch the bacon ice cream.  Don’t overcook your meats (don’t undercook them either!).  As with most things, moderation is a wise course.

7. Trans Fat (AKA partially hydrogenated vegetable oil)

Once upon a time, the jingle went “Everything’s better with Blue Bonnet on it,” (Blue Bonnet being the leading margarine product). Those were the days. Butter bad, margarine good. How times have changed. Many studies have now borne out that margarine (and any of the multitude of products containing trans fat) is much worse for you than momma nature’s real stuff, butter. Trans fats have been linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They lower your good cholesterol (HDL) and raise your bad cholesterol ((LDL). The American Heart Association tells us we should get no more than 1% of our calories from trans fat.

Examples of common processed foods containing trans fat: margarine, shortening, non-dairy creamer, microwave popcorn

What to do: When you see “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” among the ingredients listed on your food package, know that that product is definitely not your friend.  Don’t be chowing down on that stuff. 


The preservatives BHA and BHT are both used in of crackers and cereals as a means to keep foods with fats and oils from going rancid. They are derived from petroleum.  The World Health Organization has listed BHA as a possible carcinogen, and the FDA, while approving it, has left the door open for further studies as to its safety.

Examples of common processed foods containing BHA/BHT:  breakfast cereals, bread, crackers

What to do: Petroleum-derived ingredients don’t qualify as real food…  Avoid them if you can.

9. Carrageenan

You see carrageenan a lot in ice cream (and dressings and sauces), and you probably ask, what does carrageenan do to enhance my chocolate chip experience?  Carrageenan is a thickener.  Manufacturers use it to make their ice cream (or dressing or sauce) creamier in texture.  It is made from seaweed.  Some complaints have been made that carrageenan causes stomach and digestive problems, but studies have not shown any link (degraded carrageenan has been shown to cause this in lab animals, but degraded carrageenan is not used in food products).  The FDA has approved it as safe.

Examples of common processed foods containing carrageenan:  ice cream, yogurt, sour cream

What to do:  Don’t lose any sleep over carrageenan (some very preliminary studies have even shown that it may be helpful to digestion).

10. Calcium Propionate

Calcium propionate is used primarily in bread and baked goods as a preservative.  There is a reason supermarket breads aren’t moldy after a few days (I guess it puts the wonder in Wonder Bread).  Some people have pointed at calcium propionate as a trigger for migraine headaches, but no medical studies have shown any link.

Examples of common processed foods containing Calcium Propionate: bread, condensed milk, cheese

What to do: Good to go.  Calcium propionate won’t hurt you (won’t help you either, unless you count avoiding moldy bread on the plus side).

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