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Food Additives — Should You Avoid These 7 Common Ones?

Did you know all these additives can be found in most foods?

While we are all aware of the ways additives are present in most of our food, not all Americans are as careful as they should be when it comes to them. Of course, not all additives are going to give you cancer, nor are they extremely harmful to your body. However, the majority of them can have side effects that have probably made you wonder where they came from over the years.

These additives sometimes have their own role to play when it comes to the food they were added to. After all, they are there in some foods to make them last longer. But in others, they are nothing but a bit of extra flavor or there to make the food seem more appealing to the customer, and they are, actually, harming you the more you eat those products.

Because we are all surrounded by additives, and they seem to be in almost everything we are eating, we have gathered some of the most common ones in our foods and explained what they are, where they came from, and what the effects they have on your body. And most importantly, are they actually harmful to your health?

Read along to find out all about these and more! Let us know if anything you read here convinced you to give up certain foods or if you were already an additive expert!

Image By Pixel-Shot From Shutterstock

#1 Fan of Deli Meats? Beware of Sodium Nitrates

Unfortunately, there are a lot of additives in deli meats, which are the core part of our lunch sandwiches. Unless you know a butcher that makes their own dried meats, you’re most likely relying on deli meats from the deli counter of your local store or even the ones from the big supermarkets.

However, all processed meats are known to contain an additive known as sodium nitrate. It is used as a preservative, which stops the growth of harmful bacteria and gives the meats that signature reddish-pink color and salty taste. The problem is that when the meat products that contain this additive are exposed to high heat and other amino acids, the nitrate can turn into another compound called nitrosamine, which is known to have negative health effects, both in humans and animals.

One study has discovered that a high intake of nitrates and nitrosamine is linked with a high risk of developing stomach cancer, while many others have come to support it. What’s more, they also found that consuming a lot of processed meats can also lead to other types of cancer, such as bladder, colorectal, and breast ones.

To make matters worse, sodium nitrate and other nitrates that turn into nitrosamine have been found to cause a higher incidence of diabetes type 1 in some studies, though the results are often inconsistent.

Either way, we think all these findings do show that a high exposure and intake of processed meats (and thus this additive) has a bad impact on people’s health. So, we suggest you try to keep your meals as free of deli meats, hot dogs, bacon, and the like as possible. You can always swap them out for other high-protein foods, like the normal meat cuts that you prefer, but also nuts, eggs, legumes, and even tempeh if you are on a meat-free diet.

Of course, the occasional hot dog is not going to cause you any harm, but it’s always better to eat as few processed foods as possible.

#2 Common Additive: Food Coloring

This one may be the additive you have seen in your food most often, despite maybe not knowing that it was present. After all, it is used to make everything it is added to more appealing to the customer, improving and brightening its appearance. It is widely used in all aspects of the food industry, from condiments to candies!

However, there are some food coloring agents that have been banned over the years (be it in America or in other parts of the world), while others have been linked to other types of negative side effects. Some very specific food dyes are known to cause allergic reactions in people of all ages. They are Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, as well as Blue 1.

What’s more, one study had results that showed that children are susceptible to more reactions when coming in contact with certain food dyes, as many have become more hyperactive after eating foods with a lot of this particular additive. However, there are other studies that have shown this is down to how sensitive the child is when compared to others. This hasn’t done much to assure mothers as we are all aware of how many additives are in children’s food products.

Another fear factor associated with food dye has been the concern that it can cause cancer. Red 3 has been in the middle of such controversies as the additive has been shown to raise the possibility of thyroid tumors in animal studies, which led to it being replaced with Red 40 after the backlash against the additive.

Despite this, other food dyes have not been shown to have the same effects as Red 3, showing no cancer-causing properties in animal studies. Even so, there is more research needed in order to determine whether some of these dyes are actually dangerous to our health or if they are causing more side effects than we know.

Either way, a healthy diet includes as few processed foods as possible (hopefully close to none), so this means also eliminating most food dyes from your diet. Opt for naturally colored foods or whole foods that do not contain any added additives of this nature.

#3 Yeast Extract

While a few years ago, not many knew what yeast extract was (except the few that were fond of the British spread Marmite or the Aussie version, Vegemite), there has been a boom when it comes to it, as it has become widespread in the meat replacement industry. As yeast extract is not derived from any animal component, it is ideal for the conception and making of vegan alternatives. But you shouldn’t be surprised to know that it has been used extensively before as well!

After all, yeast extract is an additive that is also known as hydrolyzed yeast extract or autolyzed yeast extract, and it has been used as a flavor enhancer in salty snacks, cheese, and even soy sauce! It is fairly easy to make, as it is just a version of yeast without the cellular walls in the natural product. It is made by combining yeast and sugar in a warm environment before being pinned in a centrifuge, which gets rid of the cell walls of natural yeast.

But why is it controversial, and is it dangerous to your health? Generally speaking, it is not, but when compared to normal yeast, this additive contains glutamate, much like monosodium glutamate (more on it down below). Glutamate has been linked with a certain sensitivity that not everyone is prone to.

If you are among those people who are sensitive to yeast extract, you will experience mild discomforts like swelling and headaches, alongside more serious ones like mild numbness. None of them are life-threatening; they are just a mild inconvenience that some people rarely experience.

One other reason why people have been on the fence about yeast extract is because of the high levels of sodium it contains. Experts have always suggested people limit their sodium intake as it is linked to high blood pressure, which can become dangerous. Otherwise, the fear of this additive based on this is unfounded as most foods that make use of it use very little of it, so they are not going to cause you to feel bad unless you are sensitive to glutamate.

Back in 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed yeast extract to be safe for consumption. As always, make sure your intake of the additive is in moderation and stop eating it if you experience negative effects.

Image By vanillaechoes From Envato Elements

#4 Sodium Benzoate

If it sounds a little scary to you, you are right to think so. While sodium benzoate is not harmful and should be banned immediately, it is a preservative that has been polarizing despite the FDA considering it safe to consume. You will mostly find this additive in acid-prone foods like pickles, fruit juices, condiments, and salad dressings, alongside some carbonated drinks.

It may be seen as safe for consumption, hence why it is so widespread in the generic foods a lot of us consume, but there have been several studies that have looked at the side effects the additive could have on the human body, with various concerning results. To exemplify, a study found that when combined with food coloring, the mixture caused hyperactivity in 3-year-old kids.

Another continued to explore the side effects, and the results showed that even college-aged students who drank a lot of carbonated beverages that contained sodium benzoate were affected as most of them had increased symptoms of ADHD. When the additive is combined with vitamin C, it creates a benzene compound that has been widely associated with cancer development.

All carbonated drinks containing sodium benzoate, as well as ostensibly healthier diets or sugar-free alternatives, are extremely prone to benzene formation.

It is a good idea to strive to minimize the intake of this additive, both by checking the labels closely and by avoiding foods that are otherwise not valuable for your nutrition, like carbonated drinks. Include any foods that contain benzene, benzoate, or benzoic acid, especially if other ingredients include vitamin C derivatives such as ascorbic or citric acids.

#5 MSG: Monosodium Glutamate

If there is one additive you have previously heard of on our list, it must be monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. Especially since a few years ago, there was a craze around the foods that contained this additive, and it was thought to be the worst thing you could have in your food. But what is it exactly, and is it as bad for you as everyone makes it out to be?

MSG is a fairly common additive that can be found in a variety of foods because it is essentially a flavor enhancer for savory dishes: many of the natural flavors of the foods will be intensified, leading you to believe they are much more flavorful. It is commonly found in canned soups, frozen dinners, and a variety of healthy snacks, but it is also found in some restaurant foods and is definitely found in fast food restaurants!

Despite the scandal about this additive breaking out again in the last decade or so, MSG has been the subject of controversies left and right ever since a study from 1969 yielded some terrifying results.

The study was conducted on rats, and the results indicated that large amounts of the additive lead to impaired development and growth, as well as harmful neurological effects. The good news about this study, however, is the fact that there is little to no impact on the actual human brain since the substance has no chance of breaking the blood-brain barrier!

Yet, the question still stands. Is MSG harmful to human bodies? And the answer is a bit more complicated than it seems at first glance. It will not lead to any serious health risks or kill you in the long run. But there have been some observational studies that have led some to believe it is linked to weight gain or metabolic syndrome, but other studies have yielded no such results.

The fact that some people are sensitive to MSG has been widely reported, and after eating it, some people experience sickness symptoms such as sweating, headaches, and even numbness if they eat too much of the additive. This only proves that there is such a thing as MSG sensitivity, but if you do not eat it in large quantities, you should be fine.

If you realize you have any of the symptoms we mentioned after eating foods that contain MSG, you should probably try your best to avoid the additive. Otherwise, there are no health risks associated with the moderate consumption of MSG. It will just make your dishes taste better.

sugary drinks, additive
Photo by monticello from Shutterstock

#6 High-Fructose Corn Syrup: actually an additive

You probably know this syrup very well, as corn syrup has been on our shelves for as long as most of us can remember. However, what you probably didn’t know is that high-fructose corn syrup is also considered an additive, and besides its general syrup form that we all know it as, it is also an ingredient in most juices, sodas, breakfast cereal, candy, and even snacks!

However, while it has a high concentration of fructose, which is a type of simple sugar, it is also known to cause a myriad of health issues if consumed in high amounts. The most common ones that should be universally known are diabetes and increased weight gain. Chances are that if you are trying to lose weight and you cut down on sugary drinks, you will see quite the result once this additive leaves your diet.

There have been studies made that have tested what happens to people’s bodies when they drink fructose-sweetened drinks when compared to glucose-sweetened drinks. The 32 people hadn’t been told what type of beverage they were drinking, but they had to drink one every day for 10 weeks. In the end, the results showed that the people who had been drinking the fructose-sweetened drinks (aka those with corn syrup) had increased blood sugar levels, developed belly fat, and had decreased insulting sensitivity when compared with the people who had been drinking the other beverages.

Other lab tests and animal studies have also shown that this type of additive used to sweeten foods has led to inflammation of body cells. This inflammatory reaction is thought to be the main factor in triggering chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Moreover, corn syrup that’s high in fructose is known to be useless when it comes to bringing in any type of nutrient or mineral to the body; it is just plain sugar.

Health experts all over the world have recommended skipping snacks and foods that have corn syrup in them and urged people to make more health-conscious choices: unprocessed foods are always better than the ones with added sugar, and if you’re craving something sweet, you can either choose some fresh fruit or go with foods that have been sweetened with yacon syrup or stevia!

#7 Carrageenan

Despite it being extracted from red seaweed, this additive has been controversial since it was declared. It is used as a thickener, preservative, and emulsifier for a lot of products, many of which you probably never thought contained such an additive! It is prevalent in some dairy-free products like vegan cheese and almond milk, as well as in other dairy products like coffee creamers, cottage cheese, and ice creams!

If it is so widely spread and used, you may be asking yourself why people are so concerned about the health effects of carrageenan and what other safety issues it could have. There have been studies made on animals that have shown that the additive can end up increasing glucose intolerance and the levels of sugar in your bloodstream, especially if the animals were on a high-fat diet. Prolonged exposure to the additive has increased these effects when compared to occasional exposure to it.

What’s more, tube tests and other animal studies have shown that the additive triggers inflammation responses in the body, which especially impacts digestive health in a negative way. They have also suggested that carrageenan could be linked with intestinal growth and ulcers.

Other human studies have not been done as extensively as the ones on animals. In one of the studies done with people who were in remission from ulcerative colitis, the ones who took a supplement containing the additive as opposed to the ones who took the placebo went into relapse faster. However, we need more studies before being able to say it is definitely something that causes these types of intestinal problems.

In the meantime, if you know you have a sensitive stomach, it would be a good idea to limit your intake of carrageenan and see if there are any improvements in your gut health. There are plenty of carrageenan-free products online, you just have to search for them!

Here are some of the best (and practical) ways in which you can remove the excess processed foods from your diet!

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