Food Additives: Friends or Foes?
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Food Additives: Friends or Foes?

Image for food additive article Food additives have often been vilified in the press. They have been associated with allergies, behavior problems, and an increased risk of cancer. This has led many people to attempt to avoid them by choosing additive-free products whenever possible. But, do food additives really deserve all this bad press?

What Are Food Additives?

Food additives include things like salt, sugar, vinegar, baking powder and soda, vitamins and minerals, gums, flavorings, synthetic and natural colorings, and a variety of chemicals. Direct additives, as their name implies, are added directly to the food during its preparation. Indirect additives are substances that may slowly leach into the food from the packaging.

Why Are These Things Added to Foods?

Food additives serve a wide variety of purposes, such as:

  • Providing flavoring and/or sweetness
  • Preserving foods
  • Slowing spoilage
  • Leavening baked goods
  • Preventing fats from separating
  • Preventing caking of powdered or granulated substances
  • Increasing the food’s nutritional value
  • Preventing fresh fruits from turning brown
  • Sharpening flavors or colors
  • Controlling the acidity or alkalinity of foods

So Food Additives Aren’t All Bad?

No, food additives are not all bad. Wise use can improve food safety and flavor, help make food quality more consistent, and add nutritional value.

Are Some People Sensitive or Allergic to Food Additives?

Some people are sensitive, or even allergic to food additives. These people may notice stomach upset, headaches, hives, runny nose, sneezing, or wheezing after exposure to foods containing certain food additives. In the worst case scenario, a person may have an anaphylactic reaction to an additive. Anaphylactic reactions are rapidly developing, life-threatening allergic reactions that usually include swelling, itching, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing.

Are Some Food Additives Worse Than Others?

Some of the most infamous food additives include sulfites, monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, caffeine, olestra, saccharine, nitrites, nitrates, BHT, BHA, and potassium bromate. The following table outlines some of the claimed risks and side effects of these common food additives. It’s important to note that many of these are controversial, and some are not widely accepted by the scientific community.

Name of AdditiveFoods It’s Found InPossible Problems
Acesulfame K (artificial sweetener)Packets or tablets, beverage mixes, coffee or tea beverages, desserts (gelatins, puddings)May increase risk of cancer (controversial)
Artificial coloringsNumerousSome are suspected of being cancer-causing (for example, red dye #2 was banned after testing) (controversial)
Aspartame (artificial sweetener)Packets or tablets, beverage mixes, coffee or tea beverages, desserts (gelatins, puddings), yogurts, a myriad of “sugar-free” products Dangerous when used by individuals with the inherited disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU)
BHA/BHT (preservative)Added to foods that contain oil to prevent them from oxidizing and becoming rancidMight increase risk of cancer (controversial; these strong antioxidants could have anti-cancer effects.)
CaffeineCoffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks Increases blood pressure, may cause insomnia if ingested late in the day, may affect the developing fetus, mildly addictive, can cause excess energy or hyperactivity in vulnerable people, especially children
Monosodium glutamate or MSG (flavor enhancer)Often added to certain seasonings, especially in Chinese food, in order to boost the overall flavor Thought to cause migraine headaches, chest tightness, wheezing, asthma attacks in vulnerable people (Double-blind studies have cast doubt on this “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”)
Nitrites and nitrates (meat preservatives)Processed meats Claimed to increase risk of stomach cancer (controversial; nitrites might have beneficial effects.)
Olestra (synthetic fat replacement)Potato chips, snack foodsDiarrhea, loss of important fat-soluble vitamins
Potassium bromateBread productsMay increase risk of cancer (controversial)
Saccharine (artificial sweetenerPackets, diet beverages Might increase risk of bladder cancer (controversial)
SulfitesDried fruits, shrimp, wineProvokes asthma attacks in vulnerable individuals

So What Can I Do to Keep Myself and My Family Safe?

The truth of the matter is that food additives are almost impossible to avoid. And you won’t want to avoid all of them—you’ll want your muffins to rise (thanks to baking soda and powder) and your bacon to taste at least a bit salty. You might be glad to get extra calcium with your morning orange juice, and your baby actually needs the iron in her rice cereal. If you are trying to lose weight, you’re probably delighted that you can choose sugar free soft drinks.

But extreme quantities of food additives are probably wise to avoid. Even if future studies reveal that eating food additives does not increase the risk of cancer, eating the least processed form of a food is likely to be the most healthful choice.

Here are some suggestions for limiting your intake of food additives:

  • Extra additives like synthetic dyes can be avoided without sacrificing nutritional value, food safety, or flavor. If your food is not a color found in nature, you might want to consider avoiding it.
  • Limit your intake of processed snack foods like chips and cookies, which can be heavy in salt, sugar, food coloring, and preservatives.
  • Choose naturally decaffeinated products like herbal tea over caffeine-containing soft drinks.
  • Be aware of which processed meats are likely to contain nitrites and nitrates.


Food Additives and Ingredients Association

Food and Nutrition Information Center


Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition

Health Canada


Clinical and diagnostic approaches to adverse reactions to food and drug additives: commonly reported additives causing adverse reactions. In: Adkinson NF, Busse W, Holgate S, Middleton E, Yunginger JW, Bochner BS, eds. Middleton’s Allergy: Principles and Practices. 5th ed. Mosby-Year Book, Inc.; 1998. 1183-1186.

Color additives fact sheet. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Accessed March 16, 2008.

Food additives. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Accessed October 8, 2003.

Food additives to avoid. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: Accessed March 16, 2008.

Last reviewed March 2008 by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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