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Top 10 Harmful Food Additives To Avoid

By Amanda Reck / February 19, 2019

When you pick up a nutrition label to read, sometimes it seems like there a million ingredients that are all acronyms or unpronounceable jargon: this is generally once you reach the list of additives.

If you’re trying to be health-conscious, this can be extremely frustrating, because how can you watch what you put into your body if you have additives that aren’t real “foods” in almost every processed food. While sometimes eating foods with these additives may be unavoidable, at least if you are armed with some background on what exactly these additives are, you can look for alternative ingredients.

So, we’ve put together a list of the top 10 food additives to avoid when you’re buying meals.

Food Additive #1 – MSG

While this concentrated salt is a form of glutamic acid (a naturally occurring amino acid1), the version used in foods to enhance flavor is highly processed and evidence suggests it stimulates appetite, contributing to weight gain.2 Where will you find it? Potato chips, canned soups, canned meats, pepperoni, and flavored crackers, to name a few.

Food Additive #2 – Aspartame

A non-saccharide (non-carbohydrate) sweetener,3the issue with aspartame is that contains methanol. Although it makes up just 10% of aspartame’s ingredients, it’s a chemical whose by-products are formic acid (an acid that naturally occurs in the venom of bee & ant stings) and formaldehyde, which is thought to be a carcinogen. You’ll see aspartame in a variety of diet products: diet sodas, sugar-free drinks, sugar-free chewing gum, mints, yogurts, gelatins.

Food Additive #3 – High Fructose Corn Syrup

This is a refined syrup-sweetener where the corn starch is separated from the corn kernel and then converted to syrup4 through enzymatic processing. Because it is found in so many foods, it’s one of the highest sources of calories in the US diet, contributing to weight gain, and potentially diabetes.5 You may see HFCS in soda, bread, cereal, yogurt, salad dressing, & condiments.

Food Additive #4 – Palm Oil

One of few highly saturated vegetable fats, this is used to keep packaged foods “fresh.” The problem with this ingredient is that its blasted with hydrogen, rather than used in its natural state, becoming a trans fat.6 Since trans fats can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase risk of heart attacks, they’re best avoided.

Food Additive #5 – Sodium Nitrate & Sodium Nitrite

Both salt-based chemical compounds, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are used as a preservatives and color fixatives in cured meats, poultry, and many deli meats. It’s thought that both compounds may increase risk of heart disease.7

Food Additive #6 – Olestra

A fat substitute used primarily in foods that are fried and baked, Olestra is semi-indigestible8; it is linked to gastrointestinal disease, diarrhea, gas, cramps, bleeding, incontinence, and preventing the absorption of some vitamins.

Food Additive #7 – Phosphoric Acid

This acid is used in sodas to dissolve the carbon dioxide9 and increase the fizz. In addition to this use, it’s also used to remove rust.10 Phosphoric acid in soda has been linked to lowering bone density, as well as stripping tooth enamel.

Food Additive #8 – BHA & BHT

Preservatives found in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) keep foods from changing color, changing flavor, or becoming rancid. However, they can also effect the neurological system of the brain, which controls behavior.11 They are oxidants, which are linked to cancer-causing compounds in the body. You can find these preservatives in things edible: meat patties, beer, butter, sausage, hot dogs, …and non: packaging materials, cosmetics, and animal feed.

Food Additive #9 – Brominated Vegetable Oil

A vegetable oil bonded with the element bromine, this is used to stabilize citrus-flavored sodas.12 Bromine, though, is a halogen (a group of elements that are all toxic) and displaces iodine, which can depress thyroid function and cause unpleasant side effects.13

Food Additive #10 – Artificial Coloring

After decades of debate over the safety of artificial coloring, only 7 remain approved by the FDA. Every decade, more issues surface, with their opponents claiming that they are toxic, carcinogens, and contributors to ADHD.14More testing continues on the dyes currently deemed safe for consumers, so it may be wise to avoid them until the “safe” label is 100% sure. Artificial coloring is found in some things you’d expect: drinks, candies, baked goods, cereals, energy bars, puddings & jams, frostings, condiments, fast food, ice cream, sherbet & sorbet…and some that are surprising: bread, mac & cheese, deli meat, meat, and fish.

Hope this list helps clear up exactly what these additives are – and their possible side effects if you’re consuming them in processed food. While it may not be easy, it’s ideal to aim for unprocessed, whole foods to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet.

Show 14 References

  1. “ MSG.” http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/MSG. Medical Dictionary Online. 2013.
  2. “Monosodium Glutamate.” http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm328728.htm. FDA: Additives. 2013.
  3. “What Is Aspartame?” http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/aspartame. American Cancer Society. 2013.
  4. “Whats Wrong With High Fructose Corn Syrup?” http://answers.webmd.com/answers/1193601/what-wrong-with-high-fructose-corn-syrup. WebMD. 2010.
  5. “High Fructose Corn Syrup Fuelling Type 2 Diabetes Epidemic.” http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/253484.php. Medical News Today. 2012.
  6. Bliss, R. “Palm Oil Not A Healthy Substitute For Trans Fats.” http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2009/090415.htm. USDA Agricultural Research Service. 2009.
  7. Grogan, M. “Does Sodium Nitrate in Processed Meat Increase My Risk of Heart Disease?” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sodium-nitrate/AN02119. MayoClinic. 2010.
  8. “Worst Inventions: Olestra.” http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1991915_1991909_1991785,00.html. Time. 2010.
  9. “Phosphoric Acid.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/phosphoric%20acid. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2013.
  10. “Why Is Phosphoric Acid In Soda Pop?” https://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/consumer/faq/why-phosphoric-acid-in-soda-pop.shtml. General Chemistry Online. 2013.
  11. Helmenstine, A. “Chemistry of BHA and BHT Food Preservatives.” http://chemistry.about.com/od/foodcookingchemistry/a/bha-bht-preservatives.htm. About.com. 2013.
  12. “What Is Brominated Vegetable Oil?” http://whatisthatingredient.com/ingredient.php?id=65. What Is That Ingredient? 2011.
  13. Bromine.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bromine. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2013.
  14. Hennessey, R. “Living In Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Dyes” http://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelhennessey/2012/08/27/living-in-color-the-potential-dangers-of-artificial-dyes/ . Forbes. 2012.


  • Seb says:

    Wow didn't know there were food additives in our foods!

  • Tomas says:

    Awesome article! I knew of the dangers of aspartame but would sucrose be a better alternative to sugar? I definitely can relate to the link between artificial colors and ADHD ;)

    [Just a note, shouldn't BHT be butylated hydroxytoluene?]

  • Ed says:

    How does one infer this:
    "the version used in foods to enhance flavor is highly processed and evidence suggests it stimulates appetite, contributing to weight gain"
    from this?

    If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?

    "Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. … However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms."