Food Additives

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Latest Edit: Iva Lloyd, ND 2017-10-11 (EDT)

See Also Clinical Nutrition

Food Additives are artificial ingredients that are added to foods, medications and cosmetics in order to enhance flavour, colour, and texture, and facilitate in preparation and prevent spoiling. The most common food additives are: Aspartame, BHA & BHT, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Sodium Nitrate, Parabens, Sulfites and Tartrazine (Yellow Dye #5).[1]

Use and Consumption

Although many of these individual additives are included in small amounts, it has been estimated that the average person consumes 5 pounds of synthetic additives in total each year. If you include sugar in that data - as it’s the most frequently used additive by the food industry - then that number increases to 135 pounds a year! [1]

Following is the origin and use of the most common additives in food processing:

  • Aspartame: Aspartame is made up of three chemicals: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol.
  • Aspartame is known as an ‘intense sweetener’ as it approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar but has virtually no calories.
  • It has been used throughout the world in soft drinks and other low-calorie or sugar-free foods since 1974, and was first approved for use in the UK in 1982.
  • Aspartame is also known by the name NutraSweet or E951. [2]
  • BHA & BHT: Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are two preservatives commonly used to keep fats from going rancid as they protect the fats from oxidation.
  • These substances were originally designed for use in petroleum products and rubber.
  • BHA & BHT are frequently used in cosmetics, breakfast cereals, frozen dinners, fats, oils, chewing gum, and baked goods.
  • MSG: Monosodium Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid and the predominant amino acid in most proteins.
  • It occurs as a product of the hydrolysis of the glutamine contained in proteins which plays a vital part in brain function.
  • MSG on its own does not have a very pleasant taste but it used to enhance other taste-active compounds to improve their overall taste appeal.
  • MSG is widely used in processed foods and and some restaurants (e.g. Chinese food)
  • It is most often used with meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, sauces, soups and marinades. [1], [2]
  • Sodium Nitrate: Sodium nitrate is a type of salt used as a preservative to cure meats.
  • It is used extensively in processed meat products such as sausages, bacon and ham, as well as artificially smoked fish.
  • When sodium nitrate is used as a curing agent it is converted to sodium nitrite, which possesses antimicrobial properties that make it a good preservative.
  • It is very rare to find a product that is totally nitrate-free. Instead, manufacturers will claim that "no nitrates have been added” and substitute another substance for the sodium nitrate.
  • Celery juice is a common substitute as it has more consumer appeal. It’s important to realize however, that celery juice essentially does the same job – it contains a lot of sodium nitrate which is converted to sodium nitrate when consumed.
  • Parabens: Parabens is the general term used for methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben.
  • They are widely used in personal care products because they are an inexpensive and effective preservative.
  • Parabens stop fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing in creams and makeup.
  • Dietary Sulfites: Sulfites are widely used because of their ability to sanitize beverage containers and preserve foods including: baked goods, condiments, juices, soups, frozen vegetables, potato chips, french fries, jams and alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine coolers and wine.
  • Tartrazine (Yellow Dye #5): Of all of the synthetic colourants, Tartrazine (FD&C yellow dye #5) is the most widely used.
  • It is added to virtually every packaged food product and many over the counter drugs such as antihistamines, steroids, antibiotics and sedatives.
  • In fact, in the United States the average daily consumption of certified dyes per capita is 15 mg, of which 85% is tartrazine.
  • This percentage is even greater in children due to the high levels of synthetic dyes used in the production of foods targeted to this group. [2] , [1]

Health Risks of Food Additives

Regardless of the type, food additives provide no nutritional value and can have detrimental effects on overall health as they are synthetic in nature and not something the body can easily process or clear. Although a certain food additive might be deemed “safe for use” by governing bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration, it doesn’t mean there aren’t adverse health effects associated with its use.

The most common health issue that occurs from the intake of food additives is the worsening of asthmatic symptoms and development of allergies and other food reactions. However, ingestion of additives over a period of time, can cause a wide array of concerning physical, cognitive and behavioural issues.

Following are the potential health risks associated with the most commonly used food additives:

  • Aspartame: A number of significant adverse side effects have been linked to the consumption of aspartame including:
  • It is also believed that certain chronic illnesses can be triggered or worsened by ingesting aspartame including: multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, parkinson’s disease, alzheimers, birth defects and diabetes.
  • Aspartame causes poorer diabetic control in diabetics on insulin or oral drugs.

  • It can also lead to the aggravation of other complications such as retinopathy, cataracts, neuropathy and gastroparesis. [2]
  • BHA and BHT: These substances can adversely affect the nervous system and are known to cause behavioural problems in children. [3]
  • Long-term exposure to high doses of BHT is toxic in mice and rats and causes liver, thyroid and kidney problems and affects lung function and blood coagulation.
  • It has also been shown that BHT can act as a tumour promoter in certain situations, and new evidence suggests that high doses of BHT may mimic estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, and prevent expression of male sex hormones, resulting in adverse reproductive affects. [4]
  • MSG: In 1978, MSG was removed from baby food because it was shown to cause damage of the brain stem in infants. [1] [3]
  • Recent research has proposed that excessive brain receptor cell activation, caused by too much glutamate, can destroy the cells.
  • It has been further suggested that this could play a part in neurodegenerative diseases such as alzheimer's, parkinson's and huntingdon's but the part that dietary glutamates contribute to these diseases is still somewhat controversial.
  • It is known however, that exposure to MSG over time can result in behavioural disorders or impaired intellect, and common symptoms of usage include:
  • Sodium Nitrates: Processed meats are a major sources of cholesterol and saturated fat, which can increase the risk for heart disease. [5]
  • A study in 2010 involving over one million people who ate meat found that only processed meat had an adverse risk in relation to coronary heart disease. The study concluded that eating 50g (less than 2oz) of processed meat per day increases risk of coronary heart disease by 42%, and diabetes by 19%. [6]
  • Processed meats have also been found to be associated with higher risk lung, esophageal, liver, colon and breast cancer. [7]
  • Parabens: The safety of parabens has long been debated with respect to male and female breast cancer, testicular cancer and fertility.
  • Parabens have a weak ability to mimic estrogen.
  • These chemicals can be absorbed into our skin and have the potential to disrupt the endocrine system.
  • A recent Danish study showed that parabens could be detected in the blood and urine of healthy young male subjects a few hours after paraben-containing lotions were applied to their skin and concluded that since the chemicals could be absorbed, metabolized and excreted, they “could potentially contribute to adverse health effects.”
  • Sulfites: Sulfites are counted among the top nine food allergens.
  • Mild to moderate symptoms from the consumption of sulfites include:
  • Hives
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe reactions can result in anaphylactic shock and even death. [2]
  • Tartrazine: Health Canada has highlighted tartrazine as a primary irritant and allergen as 0.1 to 10 out of every ten thousand people (0.01% to 0.1% of the population), has a sensitivity to this food colouring. [8]
  • Adverse reactions to the consumption of Tartrazine include:
  • These reactions are more common in people with asthma or a sensitivity to aspirin. [2]


  • The use of food additives is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration and an investigation regarding the safety of the additive must be carried out before it is allowed to be included in food products.
  • The Canada Food Inspection Agency stipulates that food additives are considered to be ingredients in a final pre-packaged product.
  • Added ingredients must be included in the list of ingredients and accompanied by nutrition facts table.
  • Wax coating compounds and their derivatives are not required to be shown on the label of a prepackage fresh fruit or fresh vegetable as an ingredient or component thereof. [9]
  • Apartame, MSG, Sulfites & Nitrates: The addition of chemicals such as MSG, sulfites, nitrates and aspartame must be clearly indicated on packaging, however they are not always easy to identify.
  • For example, products containing aspartame often bear the phrase “Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine” which is cryptic for even the most savvy of consumer.
  • MSG is also often called by a number of different names including: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, vegetable powder or natural flavours, thus also making it difficult to distinguish. [1]
  • BHA & BHT: The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified and classified BHA as a possible human carcinogen, and The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed BHA as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. [10], [11], [12]
  • BHA and BHT have been banned in England and throughout countries in the European Union.
  • The use of substances in Canada is unrestricted in cosmetics despite the fact that Health Canada has categorized BHA as a "high human health priority" on the basis of carcinogenicity, and BHT as a "moderate human health priority".
  • Both chemicals have been flagged for future assessment under the government's Chemicals Management Plan. [13]
  • Parabens: Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (U.S.-based industry-sponsored panel of experts that evaluates the safety of cosmetic ingredients) have all deemed that parabens are 'safe' at current exposure levels.
  • Tartrazine: Tartrazine is banned in Norway and Austria but is currently approved for use in Canada despite its known health risks.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Busch Felicia (2000) The New Nutrition: From Antioxidants to Zucchini New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 UK Food Guide UK Food Guide, Retrieved 21 March 2012
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bateson-Koch Carolee (1994) Allergies Disease in Disguise Books Alive
  4. Schrader, TJ and GM Cooke "Examination of selected food additives and organochlorine food contaminants for androgenic activity in vitro" Toxicological Sciences 53, no. 2 (February 2000): 278-88. Retrieved 3 March 2012
  5. Margen S (1992) The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition Random House
  6. Snowdon, D et al (1984) "Meat consumption and fatal ischemic heart disease" Preventive medicine 13 (5): 490–500
  7. Cross Amanda et al (2007) "A Prospective Study of Red and Processed Meat Intake in Relation to Cancer Risk" PLoS Medicine 4 (12): e325
  8. Health Canada, (Feb 2010) Letter - Health Canada Proposal to Improve Food Colour Labelling Requirements
  9. Canadian Food Inspection Agency Guidelines for the Use of Food Additives and/or Processing Aids Intended for Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Retrieved 3 March 2012
  10. U.S. National Library of Medicine "in Haz-Map: Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Agents" 2010 Retrieved 3 March 2012
  11. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans vol. 17 vol. 40 (1986). Retrieved 3 March 2012
  12. Study on Enhancing the Endocrine Disrupter Priority List with a Focus on Low Production Volume Chemicals, Revised Report to DG Environment (Hersholm, Denmark: DHI Water and Environment, 2007), Retrieved 3 March 2012.
  13. "OSPAR List of Substances of Possible Concern. Fact sheet for Butylhydroxyanisol." (OSPAR, April 15, 2002),