The Truth About Food Additives

Adding substances to foods to make them taste better, look more appealing, or last longer goes back nearly as far as our species does. Distant ancestors preserved meat by smoking it, for instance. The addition of “enhancers” to food shifted into overdrive early in the 19th century as new synthetic compounds—including those mentioned here—offered nearly limit-less ways to alter our food.

Color Enhancers

Artificial colors, many of which are derived from coal tar, petroleum, and other questionable sources, were developed to reduce costs and avoid toxicity from older metallic pigments containing mercury, copper, and arsenic. Testing by watchdog agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed that some of these newer colorants came with their own hazards, so many are now banned. Manufacturers still add dyes to make food look appealing, but the chemicals used to create certain colors are energetic molecules, and many of these can damage DNA. In turn, that can injure the immune system, accelerate aging, and increase cancer risk. I suggest avoiding artificially colored foods.

Flavor Fortifiers

Artificial flavors are typically harmless. However, their use may indicate low-quality or overly processed foods. If the label lists artificial flavors, make sure the food doesn’t also contain other, less desirable ingredients.

“Healthy” Sweeteners

Zero-calorie sweeteners represent an important exception to the “typically harmless” artificial-flavor rule. In a recent review of 37 studies over the past 10 years, consumption of them was linked to higher risk of weight gain, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. These compounds may also hurt the gut microbiome. If you use a noncaloric sweetener, I recommend monkfruit or erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Natural sweeteners like pure maple syrup are ideal; just use them sparingly.

Shelf-Life Boosters

Preservatives and stabilizers help maintain the taste, texture, nutritional properties, and appearance of food. They prevent spoilage, protect against food-borne illness, and maintain fresh-ness and color. However, this category also has its snares. For instance, nitrates and nitrites (found in processed meats)and monosodium glutamate may play a role in migraines. Another preservative, propionate, is commonly used in baked goods to slow down mold growth; a 2019 study suggests it may contribute to rising levels of obesity and diabetes. Seek foods with natural preservatives such as vitamins C and E.

The Bottom Line

Many food additives are rated “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA. However, per a 2014 study, 1,500 new compounds enter the market every year, and while toxic ones are eventually phased out, those deemed safe are not thoroughly tested for long-term cumulative effects on humans. To lower your risk of health issues, I suggest avoiding artificial additives when you can. Prepare food using fresh ingredients whenever possible, and try to eat less packaged food.

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Prevention.

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