The truth about common food additives

Grocery shopping involves purchasing a lot of packaged foods, so most of the time chemicals have been added

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Food additives were never an issue when most foods came from farms. Today, however, grocery shopping involves purchasing a lot of packaged foods, so most of the time chemicals have been added. These additives make our food taste better, look better and last longer, but they may come with adverse reactions ranging from diarrhea and asthma to hyperactivity and skin rash. Here are some controversial food additives being used today, and what research has to say about them.

Artificial food colorings

Artificial food colorings are chemical dyes that make food look pretty. They are used in candy, condiments, soda, cheese and sports drinks to enhance the color of food. Artificial food colorings have been associated with hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. They have also been found to worsen asthma.

For more than 30 years, scientists have examined the side-effects of artificial food colorings, but the results remain mixed. As a result, it is always safer to avoid them. To know if a product has artificial food colorings, look for the following on food labels: Brilliant Blue (Blue No.1), Indigotine (Blue No. 2), Fast Green (Green No. 3), Erythrosine (Red No. 3), Allura Red (Red No. 40), Tartrazine (Yellow No. 5) and Sunset Yellow (Yellow No. 6). Look for products with natural food colorings such as Betanin, which is extracted from beets.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

MSG does not quite have a flavor of its own, but works to enhance other flavors. Although MSG has been classified “general recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many people claim to have a bad reaction to it.

MSG is widely found in restaurants that serve Chinese food, so “Chinese restaurant syndrome” took off. However, it is also found in a variety of packaged foods such as canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. Adverse reactions, known as MSG symptom complex, include headache, flushing, numbness, tingling, palpitations and nausea.

Researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. However if you think you have a problem with it, it is best to avoid it. Although most food labels list it under monosodium glutamate, others may list it as hydrolyzed soy protein or autolyzed yeast.


Aspartame, a common artificial sweetener, has been under scrutiny since it was introduced in 1981. It has been suspected of causing headaches, seizures, mood disturbances, and most recently cancer. Dozens of studies have tested for effects related to aspartame consumption, even at doses higher than anyone could ever consume - most did not find a link between aspartame and any of the suspected disorders.

Although aspartame is generally safe, if you do not have a medical reason to consume it, such as in the case of diabetes, you are better off without any artificial sweeteners. Instead, practice portion control and reduce sugar intake. Aspartame can be known by various brand names such as Equal, Canderel and Nutrasweet.

Sodium nitrite

As food preservatives, nitrites are commonly used in cured meat products such as sausages, deli meats and hotdogs, among others. It gives cured meat its pinkish color, increases its shelf life and inhibits the growth of bacteria.

Nitrites have been blamed for cancer, and for good reason. There is evidence associating the consumption of nitrites with cancer, but it varies depending on how much you consume. The salts in sodium nitrites can cause a reaction that produces a chemical called nitrosamines, which increases the risk of developing cancer. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), sodium nitrites can lead to gastrointestinal and brain cancer.

Restricting your intake of cured meats can help prevent these reactions. Today, with the availability of refrigerators, cured meats are no longer a necessity. Furthermore, nitrite-free cured meats are being offered in some supermarkets.

High-fructose corn syrup

The use of high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener made from corn, is controversial. Because it is cheaper than sucrose made from sugar cane, it has become a common additive in many processed foods such as soft drinks, breads, jams, cereal bars and fruit juices.

Some experts say high-fructose corn syrup is more dangerous than regular sugar due to the way it gets metabolized, thus raising the risks of obesity and type-2 diabetes even more than sugar. The jury is still out, and there is scant evidence to prove whether high-fructose corn syrup is more dangerous than sugar. Nevertheless, both add empty calories and may ultimately lead to obesity and type-2 diabetes.