Functional vs. Harmful

Food additives are contained in most of today’s nutritious food supply. They help keep foods safe, wholesome and tasty year-round. Plus, they make convenience foods possible. Americans eat approximately 6 to 9 pounds of chemical food additives per year; over one billion pounds of chemical additives are consumed every year. Your liver is in charge of detoxifying them.

Salt, baking soda, vanilla and yeast are harmless additivies often used in foods today, yet people are likely to think of any additive added to foods as complex chemical compounds. As you can see, this isn’t always the case. It is helpful to know what to watch for as harmful and which additives you needn’t worry about.

All food additives are carefully regulated by federal authorities and various international organizations to ensure that foods are safe to eat and are accurately labeled.

Food Additive Facts

  • The outside leaves of lettuce may contain some harmful additives for freshness, so they should be discarded.
  • Beta-Carotene (pre-cursor to vitamin A), found in all plants and animals, has a yellowish-orange color and is used in carrots and squash.
  • Bromelin: Extracted from pineapple, bromelin is used in meat tenderizers. It is a very effective protein digesting enzyme. If a piece of meat is allowed to set in bromelin for a prolonged period, you will be able to drink your steak.
  • Citrate Salts: Used in cheese spreads and pasteurized process cheeses.
  • Colorings: The majority of the colorings presently being used are derived from coal tars (carcinogens). As the years go by more and more of these colorings are being further tested and banned.
  • Gelatin: Derived from boiling skin, muscle and hoofs of animals. Mainly used as a thickener and stabilizer for fruit gelatin. Also helps strengthen fingernails.
  • Methylene Chloride: A gas used in the decaffeination of coffee. Residues may remain and coffee companies do not have to tell you their method of decaffeination on the label. Only drink decaf if you know the method used by the manufacturer. Water is the best method.
  • MSG: Monosodium glutamate has no taste of its own but helps to bring out the natural flavors as well as helping foods blend better with one another. MSG has been implicated in enough adverse physical problems that is recommended not to use it. When eating Chinese food always inquire whether MSG has been used in the food. If you find out it has, it is highly recommended you refuse to eat it.
  • Sorbitol: Extracted mainly from berries and some fruits. Sorbitol is an alcohol that produces a sweet taste and is used in dietetic products as a replacement for sugar. Also, has numerous other uses as a food binder, thickener, texturing agent, humectant and food stabilizer.
  • Sulfites: Three types may be used as an anti-browning agent. Sodium potassium and ammonium can be used on any food except meats or a high vitamin B content food. Used on salad bars to prevent fruits and lettuce from browning. Also used to enhance their crispness. Physiologic reaction to sulfites are numerous with the most common taking the form of acute asthmatic attack. Recommended to avoid any food that has been treated with sulfites.
  • Sulphur Dioxide: A chemical formed from the burning of sulphur. A food bleach, preservative, anti-oxidant and anti-browning agent. Its most common visibility is in golden raisins. Tends to destroy vitamin A and should not be used on meats or high vitamin A content vegetables.


One of the most dangerous additives used in our foods are the nitrites and nitrates. They are found in almost all processed meats, such as luncheon meats. bacon, sausage, hot dogs, smoked fish and canned meats. However, according to the American Meat Insitute:

“Numerous studies and experts show that processed meats are safe and nutritious and that nitrite in cured meats 1) is safe, 2) does not cause cancer, 3) actually has health benefits, 4) is naturally produced by the human body and 5 ) is found at higher levels in vegetables, fruits and water. Processed meats are a minor source of nitrite exposure. In fact, a liter of pomegranate juice, for example, contains 100 times more nitrite than a serving of cured meats.”. They also state that, “Saying that nitrite is “one of the most dangerous” additives is both misleading to consumers and scientifically false. “. (Thomas J. Super, Director, Media Outreach, American Meat Institute)

The chemical is used mainly for cosmetic purposes, to stabilize the color of the product. The industry also claims it is needed to retard bacterial growth and also reduce the possibility of botulism. Because of the risks involved with this chemical, the general consensus among scientists is that companies should be researching a new and safer chemical compound instead of taking the easier and less expensive way out.

High levels of nitrites and/or nitrite poisening in food have caused cardiovascular collapse in humans and even death from eating hot dogs and blood sausage that were produced by local processors in different areas of the U.S.

The biochemical changes that occur in the food take the following course: Nitrites are broken down into nitrous acid which combines with the hemoglobin of the meat or fish, forming a permanent red color.

In humans, there are two pathways that the ingested nitrites may take that could be harmful: Nitrite is eaten and may react with the hemoglobin of the blood to produce a pigment called meth-hemoglobin which may seriously depress the oxygen carrying capacity of the red blood cell. The possible cancer connection is when nitrites are biochemically altered to a substance called nitrosamine. This reaction usually occurs in the stomach and requires the presence of amines and gastric juices. Amines are usually in adequate supply, since they are a product of protein metabolism, and protein foods often carry the nitrites. The end results are the formation of the nitrosamines, which are classified as carcinogenic (cancer forming agents).

It is necessary to clarify two points:

  1. Just because you may eat meat containing nitrites does not mean that you will automatically produce nitrosamines.
  2. If the nitrosamine is produced, your immune system may destroy it as soon as it is produced.

Vitamin C has been found to neutralize the reaction that takes place in the stomach, by interfering with the amine combining with the nitrite. Due to recent studies, relating to these neutralizing effects of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), some manufacturers are adding ascorbic acid to their products.

As a measure of protection it would be wise to indulge in a vitamin C tablet or drink a small amount of orange juice before consuming foods that contain nitrites.

Natural Food Additives

Some food additives are completely natural, although you might not realize it from their names, which may sound anything but.

  • Ascorbic acid: This is simply another name for vitamin C. When added to foods, this citrus fruit derivative acts as a preservative, helping prevent oxidation. (Every time you squirt avocado with lemon juice to prevent browning, you are using ascorbic acid in this manner). Citric acid, although similar, is used mainly to impart a sour taste.
  • Acacia and guar gum: These binding agents help thicken a food. Each is harvested from a tree or shrub of the same name.
  • L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus: These are two of the beneficial bacteria most commonly added to yogurts. Other examples of helpful bacteria may include L. acidophilus, Bifidus, L. casei, and L. reuteri.
  • Lecithin: This emulsifying and moisturizing agent is a component of soybeans or egg yolks and is used to help foods stay moist.

Food Additives May Make Your Kids Misbehave

Researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK found that artificial food coloring and sodium benzoate preservatives are directly linked to increased hyperactivity in children. The additives included Yellow #5, Yellow #6, Red #40, and sodium benzoate, which are commonly found in packaged foods in the United States, but the researchers don’t know if it’s a combination of the chemicals or if there’s a single one that’s the primary culprit. You can find Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6 in Lucky Charms and sodium benzoate in some diet sodas, pickles, and jellies.

Read More: Food Facts