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May 8, 2014

Are food additives necessary?

by Helene van den Berg

Food additives are necessary in mostly PROCESSED foods, because they preserve the freshness, safety, taste, appearance and texture of processed foods and increase shelf life. Food additives are added for particular purposes whether it is to ensure food safety or maintain food quality during the shelf-life of a product e.g. antioxidants prevents fats and oils from becoming rancid: preservatives prevent or reduce the growth of microbes (e.g. mould on bread); thickeners allow fruit preparations to “gel” so they can be spread onto toasted bread.

Food colorings are used to make food look more attractive. Food additives supply specific sensory properties (e.g. taste and texture) to foods to meet cultural habits and consumer’s expectations. Thickeners, emulsifiers and stabilizers give texture to the food.

Many common foods, such as breakfast cereals and breads, are also fortified with vitamins and minerals that might be lacking in the diet, or they are enriched with nutrients that were lost in the refining process e.g. orange juice are fortified with calcium, to build strong bones in children.

Additives may be extracted from natural sources or synthesized in the laboratory to be chemically the same as the natural materials or synthetic compounds. Additives may be listed on food labels either by name or their E (European) number.

The FDA’s regulations of food additives focuses primarily on safety. The manufacturer must satisfy the FDA that the additive is:

  • Safe (when fed in large doses to animals under strict controlled conditions, it causes no cancer, birth defects or other injury)
  • Effective (it’s intended function can’t be performed cost-effectively another way)
  • Detectable and measurable in the final food product; it does not disguise inferior quality food or faulty processing
  • It benefits the customer…and outweighs the risks (does not significantly reduce the nutritive value of the food; does not deceive the customer).

The FDA has a GRAS list (generally recognized as safe –list): food additives that have been long in use and are believed to be safe. This list is subject to revision, especially if the substance can cause cancer/carcinogen (Delaney Clause uses zero risk for cancer, while FDA uses “negligible- risk” standard).

Indirect food additives may get into foods unintentionally before or during food processing/packaging/storing/cooking:

  • Acrylamide – carbohydrate rich foods (french fries, potato chips, breakfast cereals, cookies), containing sugars and asparagines cooked at high temperatures. It is classified as a carcinogen and genotoxicant.
  • Food packaging – materials can migrate into products at high temperatures in a microwave if it is not “active packaged” /microwave safe ( container must stay cool after 1 min of microwaving); bisphenol A can leach from hard plastic bottles into water.
  • Dioxins – compound formed during chlorine treatment of wood pulp during paper manufacture (paper plates, milk cartons, coffee filters).
  • Decaffeinated coffee – manufacturers use methylene chloride to remove caffeine from coffee beans, leaving traces of this chemical in the coffee.
  • Hormones – treating cattle with bovine growth hormone (BGH), produce leaner meat and dairy cows produce more milk.
  • Antibiotics – causes allergic reactions in people; overuse of antibiotics in the food industry, causes the ineffective treatment of antibiotics in human disease.

Intentional food additives are put into foods on purpose.

The 5 classes of intentional food additives are:

1. Texture and stability:

  • emulsifiers (egg yolks, soy lechitin, polysorbates)
  • stabilizers and thickeners (gelatin, pectin, gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan.
  • Anti-caking agents (calcium cilicate)

2. Decreasing bacterial, viral, fungal growth:

  • Antimicrobials – salt, sugar, nitrites (sodium nitrate), bacteriophages.
  • Antioxidants – vitamin C, vitamin E, sulfites, BHA, BHT, citric acid

3. Adding color and flavor:

  • Tatrazine (FD&C yellow no.5),
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG),
  • sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame)

4. Improving nutritional value (fortify):

  • Added vitamins and minerals (B-complex vitamins, vitamins C, D calcium , iron)

5. Leavening agents:

  • Baking soda, calcium carbonate, yeast – to make baked goods rise in breads, cakes, cookies
  • Acids – control acidity



While additives can help make food last longer, look nicer and taste better, we should avoid them due to allergies, food sensitivities and concerns about cancer and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder risk. Additives have been approved as safe for use up to certain amounts in foods by Food and Drug Administration, but they are only tested in isolation. Few studies have been done to determine the effects of chemicals in the human body over the long term.

What is not mentioned is that these food additives ACCUMULATE in the body and we ingest these amounts dozens of times DAILY. How much of a strain is it on the body’s organs to process and rid itself of these harmful substances?. Do all of them leave the body?. How do these chemicals react on one another while they are in the body?.

Many of these additives have been linked to serious health concerns. Among the most dangerous are:

  • Olestra – zero-calorie fat substitute found in chips. The body is unable to digest this additive; it causes diarrhea and interfere with the absorption of vital nutrients.
  • Caramel coloring – used in soda and baked goods; linked to cancer. Other artificial colors e.g. Green 3 (bladder and testes tumor); Red 3 (thyroid tumors); yellow 6 (adrenal gland and kidney tumors); FD&C yellow no.5 (hyperactive effects on children , allergic reaction and hives)
  • Saccharin – artificial sweetener; linked to tumor growth and weight gain.
  • Aspartame – artificial sweetener in cola drinks; causes headaches, memory loss, dizziness and cancer.
  • Trans fat (hydrogenated/partially-hydrogenated oils) – fast food, crackers, baked goods and margarine – to keep fresh food longer; increase bad cholesterol, while decreasing good cholesterol.
  • Sodium sulfite – asthma, headaches and rashes even cardiac arrest.
  • Sodium nitrite – any processed meats (ham, hot dogs, salami etc.) – detrimental to liver and kidney health and can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • Potassium bromate – baked goods; can cause cancer.
  • Sulfur dioxide – beer, wine, juices, soda and food made from potatoes; cause asthma and low blood pressure.
  • MSG – add flavor to soups, frozen foods and restaurant foods; cause depression, fatigue, headaches and obesity.
  • Azodicarbonamide – baked goods (bagels, hamburger buns); asthma
  • Carrageenan – ice cream bars; linked to ulcers and colon cancer.

These days it is PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to not unknowingly eat some food additives.

The only protection we have is to eat:

  • As many fresh, whole foods, organically grown (USDA seal), as we can and fortify ourselves with natural foods or supplements derived from them. We can prepare our own meals and snacks from whole foods, rather than processed and we’ll avoid most of the additives.
  • Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein (grass -fed meat) in our diets.
  • Make some meals vegetarian – limit exposure to antibiotics and hormones found in meat- increase the fiber and micronutrient content of your meals.

Ways to minimize pesticide residues:

When shopping for foods:

  • Select fruits and vegetables without holes.
  • Select a variety of foods to minimize exposure to any one pesticide.
  • Buy certified organic foods in the following produce- most contaminated is: apples, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, potatoes, spinach, lettuce, kale, celery, bell peppers.

When preparing foods:

  • Trim fat from meat, remove skin from fish and poultry, discard fats and oils in broths/pan drippings.
  • Wash fresh produce in warm running water, use a scrub brush.
  • Use a knife to peel an orange, do not bite into the peel.
  • Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Peel waxed fruits and vegetables, waxes don’t wash off.
  • Peel carrots and apples (removes pesticides, but also removes fiber, vitamins and minerals).




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