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The Alarming Truth About 8 Common Food Additives

I am sure many of you at some point have thought to yourself why the heck are kids and adults becoming more intolerant and/or allergic to foods?  If you have kids in school this is not a new phenomenon as I am sure your child has at least 1 or more classmates with a moderate to severe food allergy. Although prevalence of food allergy is only about 2% of the adult population and in children between 3-7% (4 out of every 100 children) the dramatic increase in allergy rates are quite alarming. In 2007, approximately 3 million children under the age of 18 were reported to have a food or digestible allergy in the previous 12 months. From 1997-2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18% among children under the age of 18 years.

Food allergies cause serious immune responses to eating specific foods or food additives. There are more than 3,000 food additives approved for use in the U S and considered ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ (GRAS) by the FDA. However, even though they are approved for human consumption, food additives may still pose a risk to our health. A study in Toxicological Sciences demonstrated the neurotoxic effects of 4 common food additives in lab mice. It is also important to note that while the FDA lists some additives that are approved for food use, many more additives are never approved by the FDA. There is actually very little oversight for many of the additives and other ingredients in our food supply. The food additives that the FDA does regulate are broken down into three categories.

Indirect Food Additives: include packaging materials such as paper, plastic, cardboard and glue that come into contact with food.
-Direct Food Additives include preservatives, nutritional supplements, flavors and texturizers that are added to food.
-Color Additives are used to alter color.

Although many of us know the usual food culprits that account for over 90% of allergic reactions in affected individuals: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shell fish, soy and wheat, many of us may be unaware that there are 8 different food additives that are commonly known to cause adverse reactions. Here is a list of the culprits: 

Sulfites are chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in foods. Sulfites prevent foods from turning brown when the food is exposed to air. Some of these are naturally occurring while most are added artificially to foods. Sulfites can cause mild to life- threatening symptoms in some people with asthma. Symptoms of adverse reactions to sulfites: tightness in the chest, breathing difficulty, hives, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and sometimes, anaphylactic shock.

Aspartame is a calorie-free sweetener used in many foods and beverages. Adverse reactions may include decreased vision and/or other eye problems, marked impairment of hearing, neurologic issues (headache, dizziness and confusion), psychological and psychiatric issues, chest pain and palpitations, gastrointestinal issues, and skin allergies.

Parabens are used to preserve foods and medications. They are also used in sunscreens and shampoos where they can cause reactions such as severe contact dermatitis, hypersensitivity, urticaria, asthma and angioedema. Examples of parabens are ethyl-, methyl-, propyl-, and butyl-parabens.

Tartrazine is a yellow dye most commonly used in beverages, candy, ice cream, desserts, cheese, canned vegetables, hot dogs, salad dressing, seasoning salts, and ketchup. Adverse reactions can include hives or swelling, and possibly a trigger for asthma symptoms.

Monosodium glutamate, glutamic acid (MSG). Manufacturers and restaurants use MSG to enhance flavor in packaged meats and foods. Adverse reactions can cause headache, a burning sensation on the back of the neck, chest tightness, nausea, diarrhea, and sweating.

Nitrates and Nitrites are chemicals used to preserve foods, prevent deadly botulism infection, enhance flavors, and color foods. Symptoms may include headache or hives in some people. Nitrates and nitrites are commonly used in hot dogs, bologna, salami, and other processed meats and fish. Once eaten, nitrates convert to nitrite. Nitrites can combine with amines, products of protein breakdown in meats, to form nitrosamines, which are potentially harmful substances that have caused cancer in animals in a number of studies, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Cancers most commonly associated with nitrosamines include bladder, esophageal, nasopharynx and prostate cancers as well as non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are preservative chemicals added to breakfast cereals and other grain products to prevent them from changing color, odor, and flavor. Adverse side effects include elevated cholesterol, liver and kidney damage, infertility, sterility, immune disorders, increased susceptibility to carcinogens, and behavioral problems. The Department of Health and Human Services classifies the preservative as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. These substances have been linked to chronic hives and other skin reactions on rare occasions.

Benzoates are preservatives used in some foods, including cakes, cereals, salad dressings, candy, margarine, oils, and dry yeast. Adverse reactions may include asthma attacks, rashes, irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes, hyperactivity in children, neurological disorders.

SLN’s Take Home Message

The information mentioned above demonstrates that the vast number of food additives prevalent in our food chain may be a potential cause of increasing rates of food allergies. To prevent an adverse reaction to a specific food additive you must avoid the additive.

Here are a few ways to help you avoid harmful additives:
• Read food labels carefully
• Know the different ways an additive is named. (For example, BHA in place of butylated hydroxyanisole).
• Find out whether there are other additives, which are in the same “family” or similar to the additives you cannot use. Avoid these as well.
• Avoid sulfiting agents by looking for sulfur dioxide; sodium or potassium sulfite; bisulfite; or metabisulfite in ingredient lists.
• Ask restaurant staff about ingredients and what other foods or additives may come in contact with food you want to order.
• Food additives are largely present in processed and packaged foods so limit intake of processed foods.
• Eat organic whole foods that have little or no added synthetic colors or preservatives.
• If you have a question about any food ingredient, dietary supplement or cosmetic contact the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, 888-SAFEFOOD
• Check out to read more about the health issues related to food additives.



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