5 Food Additives to Avoid
A list of common food additives to avoid.
Ever pick up a product in the grocery store to read the ingredients and encounter words you’ve never even heard of before? You’re likely not alone. With hundreds of approved food additives on the market, it is difficult for even the savviest of consumers to stay on top of things. Although some present minimal risk, others have been shown to be quite detrimental to our health. Here is a list of the top 5 food additives to avoid.
What are Food Additives?
Health Canada defines food additives as “any chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage and either becomes a part of the food or affects its characteristics for the purpose of achieving a particular technical effect.” (1) Essentially, food additives include anything outside of the actual food itself, added vitamins and minerals, spices, and packaging, and Canada currently has over 850 approved food additives on the market. (2) Food additives are used to enhance the appearance and flavour of food and prolong their shelf life.
However, all of these “benefits” come at a cost, mostly in the nutrient density of our food, but also in their negative impact on our digestive system. Despite the fact that many of these food additives have been approved in small amounts, it is their cumulative consumption and effect that could be harmful in the long-term.
Food Additives to Avoid
Although I always recommend opting for whole foods over packaged foods (to alleviate these exact problems), there is certainly room for some packaged foods here and there, but that doesn’t mean ignorance is bliss. So for those moments, here is a list of the top 5 food additives to avoid.
1. Artificial Sweeteners
Often found in diet or sugar-free foods, artificial sweeteners are added to products to help sweeten food without adding calories. Originally designed as the solution to added sugar, it turns out artificial sweeteners are not quite what they were cracked up to be. Although they were originally used in diet foods to help keep calorie intake low and reduce weight gain, they have now been shown to enhance appetite and increase hunger. Every time you consume something sweet, the body prepares itself for a large influx of energy, however as no energy is provided with artificial sweeteners, your body is encouraged to continue eating until your body receives the necessary calories. Research suggests that chronic consumption of artificial sweeteners creates a situation where the brain no longer ‘believes’ that a sweet taste is connected to an influx of energy, so your body is encouraged to eat more, not less, which becomes a concern for weight gain. Yet, weight gain is only the beginning of why artificial sweeteners should generally be avoided. Aspartame is said to be a potential carcinogen, while other artificial sweeteners have been linked to digestive issues, disrupted gut flora, as well as emotional disorders making it one of the top food additives to avoid.
Can be found in: Diet sodas, diet drinks, sugar-free jello, desserts, sugar-free gum, drink mixes, coffee sweeteners
What to look for? Aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, Ace-K, Equal™, Nutrasweet™, Splenda™
2. Artificial Colours
Ever wonder why your cheese is so orange? Your sports drink is so blue? Or your maraschino cherries are so red? Food dyes. Artificial colours are often used to make foods bright and vibrant, especially in products geared toward children. Although natural food dyes (such as beets for red colouring) are safe, artificial colours are most often derived from coal tar. Artificial food dyes are identified by a name and number on an ingredients list, such as blue #1, red #3 or yellow #5. Unfortunately, common artificial food dyes have been linked to behavioural issues, most notably in children, increased risk of cancer, and allergic reactions.
Can be found in: Drinks, macaroni and cheese, candy, cereals, yogurts, condiments, snack foods
What to look for? Yellow 5, tartrazine, red 40, allura red, blue 1, brilliant blue, blue 2
3. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Although most people associate this flavour enhancer with Chinese food, it is, in fact, used far more broadly than that. Use to provide that umami flavour, MSG can be found in everything from fast food to soup to chips. Health Canada does not technically regulate MSG as a food additive, but rather as a flavour enhancer. Glutamate is an amino acid naturally occurring in many foods and it is the primary component of MSG, however, too much of it can interfere with the brain’s normal chemical messengers. MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain dysfunction and damage to varying degrees, hence it makes the list as one of the common food additives to avoid.
Can be found in: Snack foods, chips, cookies, canned soups, bouillon cubes, soy products
What to look for? Monosodium glutamate, yeast extract, flavour enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, textured protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, vegetable protein extract
4. Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Also known as “trans fats”, partially hydrogenated oils are commonly found in spreads, margarine, crackers, chips, store-bought baked goods, and snack foods, just to name a few. Trans fats are made when liquid vegetable oil is changed into a solid fat and are often added to processed foods because it can improve taste and texture and helps the food stay fresh longer. Studies have shown that industrially produced trans fat can increase the risk of heart disease, and increase LDL cholesterol levels while decreasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Health Canada has proposed to add partially hydrogenated oils to its “List of Contaminants and Other Adulterating Substances in Foods”, aiming to ban their use in all food products sold in Canada by September 2018.
Can be found in: Margarine, chips, crackers, baked goods, fast food
What to look for? Partially hydrogenated oils, hydrogenated oil, shortening
5. BHA & BHT
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives found in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils. Used to help prolong shelf-life, and in turn increase profits, these common preservative keeps foods from changing color, changing the flavor or becoming rancid. Health Canada has categorized BHA as a “high human health priority” on the basis of carcinogenicity and BHT as a “moderate human health priority”, and both chemicals have been flagged for future assessment. Cereal is one of the worst offenders for BHT and unfortunately even some of the “healthy” brands, like this one and this one, still contain added this additive preservative, so be sure to read the label before buying as these are some of the top food additives to avoid.
Can be found in: Cereal, Potato chips, gum, frozen sausages, enriched rice, lard, shortening, candy, jello
What to look for? Butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene, BHA, BHT