January 28, 2020  | By

By: Rachel Naar MS, RD, CDN.
Clinically reviewed by Michelle Miller, MSACN.

Have you ever looked at a nutrition label and not been able to pronounce an ingredient? Or wondered what natural flavor really meant? Navigating the plethora of food additives can be a daunting task if you don’t know what food additives are good or bad.

Let’s take xanthan gum for example. Generally, Gums are derived from many natural sources such as trees and bacteria. It is made from the fermentation of Xanthomonas Campestris (a bacteria) with sucrose, glucose, and lactose. The mixture then gets precipitated into a solid by alcohol. The remaining substance is dried and ground into a fine powder where finally a liquid is added to the powder to form the gum. Xanthomonas Campestris is the same bacterium responsible for causing black rot to form on leafy vegetables. YIKES! Xanthan gum gives gluten-free dough batters a “stickiness” while reinforcing the structure. The gum can also be used as an ice-cream stabilizer, sauce thickener, and has a tolerance for enzymes, salt, and heat. It can dissolve easily in water creating a viscous substance. Xanthan gum has been known to cause bloating, gas, and flatulence in some individuals. It is also considered a mild laxative as it binds with water very efficiently. Some individuals could even present with IBS-like symptoms. The Journal of Occupational Medicine looked at flu-like symptoms in workers handling xanthan gum in a bakery. The prevalent symptoms were nose, throat, and skin irritations. The study concluded that the group with the greatest exposure to xanthan gum reported the highest prevalence of nose and throat irritation though they did not show a decrease in pulmonary function over the first week or with long-term exposure.

So, you see, some of these common food additives might be easy to find in foods, but might not be so easy for your system to tolerate. To help out, we’ve taken the guesswork out of knowing what is up with all these additives. Check out our chart below to see how much and how often these various food additives should be in your diet:

Minimal usage suggested:

  • Acesulfame-K:
    • Non-nutritive sweetener
    • 200x sweeter than sucrose
    • Masks bitter aftertaste
    • Flavor enhancer
      • A study published in 2013 concluded that Ace K had negative effects on the neurobiological functions in male mice.
      • Worth noting, Ace-K is utilized to test pools alongside chlorine!
  • Aspartame/Neotame:
    • Sweetener
    • 200x sweeter than sugar
      • This sweetener has been associated with high levels of carcinogen intake.
      • In 2012, a study of 125,000 people found a link between aspartame and an increased risk of lymphoma and leukemia. Individuals with PKU or TD should avoid usage of aspartame.
  • Carrageenan:
    • Thick mouth-feel
    • Emulsifier
    • Gelling
    • Binding
  • Gums (Xanthan/Guar/Locust Bean):
    • Binder
    • Emulsifier
    • Gluten-Free products
      • Xanthan gum has been linked to NEC in infants. Bakery workers being exposed to the product developed upper respiratory issues. It has also been linked to severe GI distress. We recommend limiting intake.
  • Maltodextrin:
    • Sweetener
    • Paste
    • Thickener
    • Splenda is 99% maltodextrin
    • Works as a binder
      • Research links to IBD and Crohn’s.
      • As this is often found in processed foods, we recommend limiting intake.
  • Caramel Color:
    • Water-soluble food coloring
    • Sweetener
    • Balance
    • Stability
    • Emulsifier
    • Flavoring Agent
      • Processing carbohydrates with ammonia under high temperatures can produce a toxic byproduct, 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), that has been linked to convulsions and an increased incidence of cancer, thyroid distress, and liver and lung issues.
  • Synthetic food Dyes (Artificial Coloring- Blue 1,2 Red 3, 40, Yellow 5,6):
    • Adds color
    • Easy identification of foods
    • Offsets color loss
      • Overconsumption of artificial dyes signifies a diet high in processed foods. High impurities could lead to mercury/lead poisoning.
  • Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO):
    • Sedative
    • Emulsifier
    • Used in citrus-flavored soft drinks
    • Prevents fire in carpets
      • Excess amounts are toxic. Bromine itself is toxic and has been linked to behavioral problems, lesions, and severe acne.
  • Transglutaminase:
    • Meat glue
    • Increase viscosity of dairy
    • Create firm texture
      • There is not enough conclusive evidence to demonstrate safety and is highly unregulated.
      • Risk for bacterial contamination – specifically with E. Coli.
      • Risk factor of autoimmune diseases and the ability of transglutaminase to destroy our body’s ability to protect itself.
  • Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite:
    • Dyes
    • Corrosion inhibitor
    • Fertilizer
    • Smoke bombs
    • Pink color
    • Flavor
    • Inhibits lipid oxidation
        • Research shows a connection with: Lung cancer, Type 1 Diabetes, Blue baby and Heart Disease.
        • The World Health Organization has made links to colorectal cancer and created a ban on ham and processed meats.
  • Sodium Benzoate:
    • Preservative
    • Inhibitor of bacteria, fungus, and microorganisms (by altering the pH level of food)
    • Mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant
    • Corrosion inhibitor
      • Naturally occurs in berries, however, the synthetic version is found in high quantities in soft drinks and other baked goods. A chemical reaction occurs when sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) interact, and produces benzene (a highly toxic carcinogen).
      • Some soda contains more PPB than is allowed in our drinking water!
  • Phosphoric Acid:
    • Dental procedures
    • Skin/cosmetics
    • Acidify products
    • Tart/tangy taste
    • Preservative
    • Discoloration inhibitor
    • Source of phosphorous
      • A study showed cola intake was associated with significantly lower bone mineral density.
      • Too much phosphorus can decrease the amount of calcium in your body, leading to bone loss. It can also impair your body’s ability to use other minerals, such as iron, zinc, and magnesium.
  • Titanium Dioxide:
    • Whitener/brightener
    • Makes food more appealing visually
    • Anti-caking agent
    • Helps provide smoother texture for chocolate/toothpaste
    • Often utilized as an excipient in medications/ sunscreen
      • A 2017 study proposed the additive having a negative impact on nutrient absorption and gut lining permeability.
      • A 2013 study showed nanoparticles can cause DNA damage, cause pathological lesions of liver, spleen, kidneys, and brain.
      • Need additional information about how much material is needed to cause a minimal amount of damage.
      • Of note, it was removed from Dunkin Donuts’ donuts (May 2015).
        FDA allows products to contain up to 1% of Titanium Dioxide without noting on the label.

Utilize with caution:

  • Stevia:
    • Non- nutritive sweetener
    • 300x sweeter than sucrose, AKA table sugar
      • Non-nutritive artificial sweeteners provide all the sweetness without energy (calories) causing you to likely overeat to obtain that energy later on in the day. As a type of steroid, steviol glycosides can interfere with hormones controlled by the endocrine system as seen in this study. For this reason, we vote to use this sparingly.
  • Xylitol/Sorbitol:
    • Non-nutritive sweetener
    • Thickener
    • Adds to volume/texture
    • Absorbs moisture
      • Non-nutritive artificial sweeteners provide all the sweetness without energy (calories) causing you to likely overeat to obtain that energy later on in the day. But be careful, as we rate xylitol to be used with caution as it has been associated with abdominal pain and excessive flatulence.
  • Sucralose:
    • “Splenda”
    • 600 x sweeter than sucrose
      • Sucralose at high temperatures can create chloropropanols, which pose a cancer risk. We suggest not baking with sucralose! High levels of sucralose in the diet have been shown to decrease beneficial bacteria in the microbiome. For these reasons, we vote to use it rarely.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup:
    • Liquid Sweetener
    • Sweeter than sucrose
    • Preservative
    • Retain moisture
      • Recommendations generally include reducing added sugars as you are able, but in this list of additives, this poses fewer safety issues. It is, however, important to note that ongoing studies of HFCS show a link to increasing inflammation and insulin resistance in the body.
  • Polysorbate:
    • Volume
    • Binder
    • Emulsifier
    • Defoam in fermented products
    • Amber color
      • Mouse studies show the promotion of Ulcerative Colitis. More research is needed, but at this time we would recommend steering clear.
  • Soy Protein Isolate:
    • Texturizer for meat
    • Increase protein content
    • Moisture retention
      • Soy protein isolate is extracted via hexane, which is considered a neurotoxin. The amount of hexane in this process is not regulated.
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein:
    • Flavor enhancer
    • Protein content
      • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is generally impure and may contain up to 30% of MSG. If sensitive to the impurities, individuals complain of headaches and for some, even fainting.
  • MSG:
    • Flavor enhancer
    • Umami taste
      • MSG has inconsistent data regarding allergies. It is generally found in most Asian foods in Asia and the US. Intolerance generally causes chest pain, sweating, flushing, and dizziness. We recommend limiting this additive.
  • Azidocarbonamide:
    • Aging
    • Bleaching
    • Dough Conditioner
    • Makes bread rise/stay soft
      * banned in the EU and Australia

      • During bread making, ADA completely breaks down to form other chemicals, one of which is SEM. At high levels, SEM has been shown to increase the incidence of tumors in animal studies.
  • Diacetyl:
    • Buttery flavor and odor to foods
    • Adds creamy texture
    • A natural byproduct of fermentation
      • Most studies show an association with lung disease but cannot prove a causal relationship due to conflicting factors.
      • Bronchiolitis obliterans (BO) among factory workers (fatal lung disease)- “popcorn lung” as well as in a cookie dough factory in Brazil.
      • Diacetyl is volatile, exposure changes with heat.

Generally regarded as safe*:

  • Agave:
    • Low Glycemic index sweetener
    • Less viscous than honey
    • 56% fructose, 20% glucose
    • binding agent
      • As with all sugar derivatives, it should be used sparingly.
  • Monk Fruit:
    • 200-300x sweeter than sucrose
    • Non-caloric sweetener
    • Cough remedies
    • Prevent spoilage
      • Monk fruit extract is a great way to sweeten foods and drinks, however, it’s expensive. Some monk fruit sweeteners add stevia and erythritol, so mind your labels!
  • Modified food starch:
    • Stability
    • Thickening
    • Fat replacer
    • Extends shelf life
    • Emulsifier
    • Freeze-thaw
      • Often utilized in highly processed foods.
  • Agar:
    • Forms gels
    • Increases fiber content
    • Adds texture
    • Vegan form of gelatin
      • It can be consumed in large amounts without complication, except for the occurrence of diarrhea or flatulence, so if you have IBS/IBD, you may want to limit your intake.
  • Sulfites:
    • Part of the wine fermentation process
    • Antioxidant
    • Preservative
    • Shelf-life
    • Bleaching
      • If you are sensitive/allergic to sulfites you may experience an asthmatic-like reaction, flushing, headache, or hives. However, if you are not sensitive you should be able to tolerate some sulfites, on occasion and in limited quantities.
  • Pea Protein:
    • Increase fiber content
    • Increase protein content
    • Increase fullness
    • Help with weight loss
      • Complete amino acid profile, very bioavailable, keeps you full. Important to drink a lot of water with this as some individuals state it may be hard to digest.
  • Mycoprotein:
    • Satiating power
    • Texture similar to meat
    • Used in burgers, sausages, chicken tenders
      • Increases satiety, and may help to decrease LDL cholesterol.
      • It has high protein content, we just need proper labeling if someone has a sensitivity/allergy. Some individuals complain, that if taken in large quantities, could create some GI upset.
  • Calcium Carbonate:
    • Building and industrial uses
    • Food coloring (drugs for surface coating)
    • Dietary supplement excipient
    • In milk alternatives (soy/almond)
    • Anti-caking agent
    • Dough conditioner
    • Leavening agent
    • Firming agent
    • Source of calcium
      • Consuming in small amounts does not seem to be harmful. There are some controversies with long term usage of calcium carbonate in supplement form as it releases the calcium and deposits causing artery blockage and may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%.
  • Inulin/Chicory Flower:
      • Prebiotic fiber
      • Decreases pathogenic bacteria
    • Relieves constipation
    • Biomarker to measure kidney functions
    • Fat/fiber substitute
    • Contributes to texture
    • Brown coloring
      • Inulin has been noted to prevent or slow the development of color cancer by inhibiting tumor necrosis and preventing polyps.
      • Not recommended with IBS or GI distress, individual tolerances should be considered.

*Doesn’t necessarily mean healthful, but more benign.

If you’re interested in learning more about food additives and how to avoid them, feel free to call us now and schedule an appointment with our Clinical Nutritionist, Michelle Miller, MSACN, or fill out the form below to get started:


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