Food Additives to Avoid

With the recent food and nutrition movements encouraging us to buy from local farms, grow our own produce, and lessen our processed food intake, most of us have heard something about preservatives and other food additives. Growing Up in the Valley decided to take a look at some of the more common chemical additives. We researched what they are, how they can affect our bodies, and why they’re even added in the first place.


The US Food and Drug Administration breaks chemical additives into two groups: Food Additives and Color Additives. A food additive refers to “any substance that becomes a component of or affects the characteristics of any food.” These substances include direct additives, or components that are added intentionally, as well as indirect additives. The indirect additive seems to refer to accidental or residual trace amounts of packaging or other elements that may become part of the food during handling or storage. Eating packaging material may sound pretty gross, though the FDA assures that these minute amounts are safe. Still, it likely doesn’t make you want to jump at the chance to eat a diet comprised of mainly processed foods.

Color additives are dyes or pigments which alter the color of the food in some way. Companies often use color additives to maintain or enhance color during changes in temperature, moisture, and light. They are also used to “provide color to colorless and ‘fun’ foods.” The FDA explains that without adding color to foods like mint chocolate chip ice cream, cake frosting, cola and margarine, foods would look less appealing because of their lack of color or strange color.

Is it Necessary?

The FDA identifies three main reasons why certain ingredients are added to foods:

  1. To maintain or improve safety and freshness.
  2. To improve or maintain nutritional value.
  3. To improve taste, texture and appearance.

To Add or Subtract?

Granted, there are certain foods that would be difficult to have access to without preservatives. Fish, for example, will spoil quite quickly unless preserved in some way. Whether frozen, smoked, or put through another process, inland-dwellers may not have the opportunity to enjoy this healthy protein. However, there are natural preservatives such as the afore-mentioned smoke, vinegar, sugar or salt, which can be better alternatives to chemically-processed food products.

There is a school of thought and research increasing in popularity, which has challenged food additives’ unquestioned acceptance in the average American diet. Nutritional consultants from Hungry for Change, explain that because many commonly used chemical additives are man-made substances, our bodies are not designed to process them, which can cause adverse health effects, including diseases and weight gain.

6 Additives to Avoid

1. Aspartame

Artificial sweeteners like Aspartame, often found in diet sodas, are at the top of the list of additives to avoid. Though the FDA believes that the research is inconclusive, many nutritionists argue Aspartame to be carcinogenic. There are also studies which have deemed Aspartame a neurotoxin, and attribute consistent long-term use with diabetes, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

2. Food Dyes

So what about those color additives? Despite the claims of the FDA, some studies have  shown that these artificial colors can lead to behavioral problems and hyperactivity in children. Joel Fuhrman, M.D. and nutrition spet, sites 16 studies from 2004 in which children who struggled with hyperactivity had increased hyperactive behavior after ingesting color additives. Several of these dyes are even banned in European countries because of their negative effects on laboratory animals. Hungry for Change sites Blue #1 and Blue #2 with chromosomal damage, Red Dye #3 with thyroid cancer and Yellow #6 with kidney and adrenal gland tumors.

3. Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite

Some bacon, hot dog, and lunch meat packages claim that they are Nitrate-free. Sodium nitrate is the same as sodium nitrite, and is said to be highly carcinogenic to the liver and pancreas. The USDA apparently tried to ban sodium nitrite nearly forty years ago, but food companies argued that there was no alternative to meat preservation. Sodium nitrate also acts as somewhat of a disguise for older, unfresh meats, as it turns them more red in color.

4. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Though this ingredient hides under several aliases; hydrolyzed vegetable protein, vegetable protein, natural flavorings, and spices, MSG is likely one of the most controversial ingredients. Found in most convenience foods such as pizza, soups, chips and canned goods, this flavoring can make even the most bland foods taste delicious. It works by overstimulating the nervous system and is classified as an excitotoxin. Glutamate is said to be an amino acid that when in overabundance, can cause neurons in the brain to die. An excitotoxin acts as a neurotransmitter and much like a drug, over-excites excites our neurons. MSG has been added in great quantities to less than nutrient-rich foods, in order to cause our brains to crave them.

5. Trans Fat

The American Heart Association explains that there are two main types of trans fats: those which occur naturally, and those artificially made. Animal proteins may contain a small amount of natural trans fats as a result of fat produced in the digestive system of the animal. The main source of trans fats comes from partially hydrogenated oils. Doughnuts, cookies, crackers, and other packages carbohydrate-rich foods often contain these artificial trans fats. Even the FDA has declared that partially hydrogenated oils are not safe for human consumption.

Companies continue to use these oils in packaged and fried foods mainly because they are inexpensive taste enhancers. This barely seems worth raising LDL cholesterol levels and lowering HDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats also increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

6. Added Sugars

Perhaps one of the most ignored and most accepted food additives is sugar. Breakfast foods like muffins, cereals, milk, and even fruit juices often contain heavy amounts of added sugar. We get natural sugars from fruits (fructose), and since added refined sugar is not a source of nutrients, our bodies don’t actually need it to function properly. It’s super easy to consume five, ten, or even more times the amount of sugar your body should be consuming in one day. Significant sugar consumption over time can lead to obesity and insulin-resistance, which causes diabetes and heart disease, among other illnesses.

Sugar is disguised as maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and many other names, which can be difficult to identify. A good place to start, is to look at the beverages that your family consumes each day. Replacing juice, milk, or flavored coffee drinks with tea or water and lemon can decrease your sugar intake significantly.

Try It

One of the best ways to avoid ingesting harmful chemical additives is to eat fresh organic vegetables, fruits and meats, and to lessen the amount of convenience foods we purchase on a regular basis. This can take some rewiring at first, but instead of just subtracting additives, think about eating more of the fruits and veggies your family already loves. Introduce new recipes and grab some celery and peanut butter instead of that pudding cup for snack time. Try a weeklong additive detox by eliminating some of the processed foods in your pantry and adding more fresh produce and see how good your family feels at the end of the week.


Tracy Fisher

Tracy Fisher is Growing Up in the Valley's head designer. She has been a part of the publication since March 2012. She is the proud mother of Charlotte, 6. She also eats too much chocolate.
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