From potato chips to pasta, food additives are taking up valuable space in everyone’s pantries. Typically added to foods to improve their taste, texture, and/or shelf-life, these additives, sometimes referred to as “Frankenfoods,” also enhance foods’ color and appearance.
We consider some food additives completely harmless. However, research suggests others contribute to a slew of scary side effects, including inflammation, decreased insulin sensitivity, and more. Steer clear of these six whenever possible.
6 Food Additives To Avoid
Though we still have a lot to learn about many of the thousands of additives found in our food, the following have clear consequences for our health and well-being.
1. Sodium Nitrite
Flip over a package of just about any processed meat product and you’ll spot sodium nitrite on the ingredients list. This common preservative is often added to processed meats to extend shelf-life, prevent bacteria growth, and boost flavor and color.
However, when exposed to heat, nitrites (including sodium nitrite) are converted into nitrosamine, a harmful compound the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified as a carcinogen.
Research, like this World Journal of Gastroenterology study, links consuming larger amounts of nitrites with a higher risk of certain types of cancer. A World Journal of Diabetes review has also identified a link between nitrite consumption and risk of developing type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition that impairs the body’s ability to manage blood sugar.
An additive produced from red seaweed, carrageenan is used to thicken and emulsify food products. You’ll find it lurking in a variety of plant-based milks and dairy products like cottage cheese, coffee creamers, and ice cream.
Carrageenan is currently one of the most controversial ingredients on the market. A number of animal and in-vitro (petri dish) studies suggest it can spur inflammation and negatively impact our health.
One study on mice published in European Journal of Immunology, for example, found that carrageenan triggered intestinal inflammation. Additionally, a mouse study published in Journal of Diabetes Research found that carrageenan contributed to increased blood sugar levels when paired with a high-fat diet.
In humans, research (like this Nutrition and Healthy Aging study) has linked carrageenan consumption with earlier relapse in people with ulcerative colitis.
3. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Found in all sorts of sweets and sodas, high-fructose corn syrup has been implicated in a long list of health concerns.
Like table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is made up of a mix of the sugar molecules fructose and glucose molecules. However, it typically contains a much higher percentage of fructose than table sugar. Some concentrated forms contain up to 90 percent fructose and just 10 percent glucose.
Why is that much fructose such a problem for your health? Fructose is metabolized in the liver; however, high amounts can overload the liver, so the body converts any extra fructose into fat.
Research published in Nutrients has linked high-fructose corn syrup consumption to a higher risk of several serious health problems, including obesity, insulin resistance, inflammation, and high blood pressure.
4. Trans Fat
Trans fats are already well-known for their adverse effects on health. In recent years, we’ve learned that trans fats crank up cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. We’ve also linked them with a higher risk of inflammation, cancer, diabetes, and obesity, per research published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology.
Trans fats are primarily found in processed foods, including baked goods, convenience meals, snack foods, and vegetable shortening. (They’re typically listed as ‘partially-hydrogenated oils.’) In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released that it no longer recognized partially-hydrogenated oils as safe—and ordered food manufacturers to phase out the addition of trans fats to their food products. While some of these phase-outs were completed in 2018, others must be completed by 2021.
5. Bisphenol A
Bisphenol A (a.k.a. BPA) is a chemical commonly used in a variety of commercial products. Since it can keep food containers from corroding or breaking, you’ll often find BPA in cans and plastic food and drink bottles.
Unfortunately, the BPA used in food containers can leach into our food, contributing to a slew of health issues. In fact, studies suggest a link between BPA exposure and fertility problems, heart disease, and even type 2 diabetes.
6. Sodium Benzoate
A number of different food products (including pickles, salad dressings and bubbly beverages like soda) contain another preservative called sodium benzoate.
Although the FDA generally recognizes it as safe, several studies have raised serious concerns about some of sodium benzoate’s potential side effects.
For instance, one Journal of Attention Disorders suggested a connection between consumption of beverages rich in sodium benzoate and risk of ADHD symptoms after examining the diets of 475 college students.
Other studies also suggest that the combination of sodium benzoate and artificial food coloring may contribute to hyperactivity in children. Meanwhile, research published in the International Journal of Food Science shows that sodium benzoate can convert into a carcinogenic compound called benzene when combined with vitamin C.
How To Avoid These Frankenfoods
I recommend avoiding these sketchy food additives as much as possible—but I know that can be easier said than done. Consider the following tips to keep your diet as Frankenfood-free as possible.
1. Check Ingredients Lists Carefully
One of the easiest ways to keep these additives out of your diet: Read ingredient labels closely when food shopping.
When checking labels, look for additives hiding under sneaky names not listed here. For example, products may list high-fructose corn syrup as ‘corn syrup’ or ‘crystalline fructose.’ Meanwhile, anything ‘partially-hydrogenated’ really indicates trans fats.
2. Cut Out Processed Foods
Minimizing your intake of processed foods automatically cuts down your consumption of harmful food additives. I recommend focusing on whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes.
3. Switch Up Your Grocery List
I know that completely nixing processed foods from your diet takes time. Luckily, even a few swaps on your grocery list can improve your diet and reduce your additive consumption.
Start by picking fresh or frozen produce whenever possible. From there, select raw, unprocessed meats over smoked, dried, or cured options.
Slowly replace one or two convenience items with fresh, unprocessed alternatives each week. This enables you to make gradual, sustainable changes to your diet.
4. Hand Wash Plastic Containers And Utensils
BPA can leak from plastic and wreak havoc on your health when exposed to heat. Wash plastic containers and utensils by hand (instead of in the dishwasher) to minimize this risk.
5. Choose Glass Or Stainless Steel Kitchen Items
Finally, swap plastic food containers and kitchen tools for those made out of stainless steel or glass whenever possible. In addition to eliminating BPA exposure risk, these materials are also more durable and environmentally-friendly.
References & Further Reading
- World Health Organization: ‘Food Additives’
- Toxicological Research: ‘Distribution of Seven N-Nitrosamines In Food.’
- World Journal of Diabetes: Nitrate-Nitrite-Nitrosamines Exposure And The Risk Of Type 1 Diabetes: A Review Of Current Data
- World Journal of Gastroenterology: ‘Nitrosamine and related food intake and gastric and oesophageal cancer risk: a systematic review of the epidemiological evidence.’
- Nutrition and Healthy Aging: ‘A randomized trial of the effects of the no-carrageenan diet on ulcerative colitis disease activity.’
- Nutrients: Chronic Fructose Ingestion as a Major Health Concern: Is a Sedentary Lifestyle Making It Worse? A Review
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: Trans fats—sources, health risks and alternative approach – A review
- US Food & Drug Association: ‘Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat)’
- Environmental Health Perspectives: ‘Urinary Bisphenol A Concentrations and Implantation Failure among Women Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization’
- JAMA: ‘Association of urinary bisphenol A concentration with medical disorders and laboratory abnormalities in adults.’
- Journal of Attention Disorders: ‘Sodium benzoate-rich beverage consumption is associated with increased reporting of ADHD symptoms in college students: a pilot investigation.’
- Archives of Disease in Childhood: ‘The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children.’
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.