Food Additives: The Dangers You Didn’t Know + How To Avoid Them

Medically reviewed by Jess Wharton, RN Jess Wharton Jess WhartonRN facebook_iconinsta_icon
Written by , BSc, Professional Certificate in Food, Nutrition and Health Ravi Teja Tadimalla BSc, Professional Certificate in Food, Nutrition and Health Experience: 8 years
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Research shows that food additives may cause health concerns like diarrhea, nervous disorders, and asthma (1). But, that’s not all.

Food additives are substances added to foods to enhance their taste, appearance, and other qualities. Some of the most dangerous of these include trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, which were found to cause serious liver damage (2). Most of these additives have found a way into the commonest of foods. Does this mean there is no way you can avoid their ill effects? Well, let’s find out.

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The Science Behind Food Additives

Food additives are added to food for various reasons, good and bad. They are broadly classified into two types – direct and indirect.

Direct food additives are those that are added to food with a specific purpose. For example, aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener, is added to food with a specific purpose of enhancing the taste without increasing the calorie content.

Indirect food additives are those that unintentionally become a part of the food through the packaging or storage. These include the minute packaging substances that get in the food during packaging or transportation/storage (2).

Food additives, by themselves, are not bad. Preserving food by pickling (by adding vinegar, where it is the additive) is a way of adding a food additive – only, it is not harmful.

In fact, food additives have various uses – and we may not be aware of most of them.

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What Are The Uses Of Food Additives?

  • Increase The Food’s Nutritive Value

Certain vitamins and minerals (and even fiber) are added to a food to make up for those lacking in a person’s diet. Also called fortification, it has helped combat malnutrition in various parts of the world (3). One good example is the breakfast cereal. It is enriched with certain nutrients that may help treat certain nutritional deficiencies (4).

  • Preserve Food From Spoilage

Also called preservatives, these food additives protect food by slowing down the damage caused by microbes or air. One report states the use of plant-derived compounds as food additives for preventing fungal food spoilage (5). Preservatives also help prevent contamination and subsequent food-borne illnesses.

  • Improve Food Taste And Appearance

These include natural and artificial flavors and sweeteners and colors, which are added to enhance the taste and appearance of foods. This is especially true with meat and poultry products (6). Emulsifiers and thickeners give the consistency to foods that consumers expect.

All of this tells us that food additives, at least the ones added directly, have a purpose. But does this make all of them good? Not always.

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What Are The Harmful Effects Of Food Additives?

There’s a ton of research that states the ill effects of food additives. Though these constitute only a few additives, it is important you know about them. These include direct food additives.

  • FD&C1 dyes or color additives have been associated with adverse reactions. Tartrazine is one such dye that has been linked to asthma and urticaria2. The same goes for nitrates and nitrites and other additives like sorbates (7).
  • Nitrates and nitrites can increase the amount of nitrosamines3 in your body, increasing the risk of cancer (8). These additives are usually added to cured sandwich meats, salami, bacon, and sausages to give them the color and prolonged shelf life.
  • Use of food additives has also been linked to childhood hyperactivity. The consumption of artificial food additives may cause children to become hyperactive. Even other neurophysiological disturbances in children can be a result of certain food additives (9).
  • While colorants like tartrazine, which are predominantly used by the soft drink industry, were found to cause effects like blurry vision and a feeling of suffocation, preservatives like benzoates and monosodium glutamate (MSG) have been linked to asthma, burning sensations, and even brain damage in extreme cases (especially in children) (9).
  • Artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucrose, and aspartame have been linked to cancer, congenital malformations, and even destructive behavior in children (9).
  • Studies among thousands of imprisoned juvenile offenders found a clear correlation between high sucrose intake and antisocial behavior (10).
  • High-fructose corn syrup is another dangerous food additive – a sweetener made from corn. It is rich in fructose, a simple sugar that can cause great harm if consumed in large amounts. Fructose-sweetened beverages were found to increase belly fat and blood sugar levels (11).
  • Trans fats are another type of deadly food additives. They increase the shelf life of products and are usually found in biscuits, baked goods, and margarine. Higher intake of trans fats has been linked to coronary heart disease (12).

These are the most common food additives you want to watch out for. But these are not all. There are certain indirect additives too that may cause harm.

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What Are The Indirect Food Additives That Can Harm You?

The following list can help you.

  • Bisphenols – They can imitate the estrogen hormone and interfere with puberty and fertility. They can also increase body fat and cause issues with the immune and nervous systems. They are usually found in the lining of soda and food cans, plastic bottles, and plastic cups (13).
  • Phthalates – They can impair male genital development and increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. They are found in plastic packaging, inflatable toys, hairsprays, fragrances, nail polish, and lotions (14).
  • Perchlorate – it can interfere with thyroid function and disturb early brain development. It is found in some dry food packaging (15).
  • Perfluoroalkyl Chemicals – They can cause low birth-weight babies and issues with immunity, fertility, and the thyroid gland. PFCs are commonly found in cardboard packaging, grease-proof paper, and other commercial household products like nonstick pans and water-repellent fabric (16).

Food additives are all around us. It is almost impossible to prevent them from getting into most foods, but we can be wary and avoid them to the maximum extent possible.

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How To Avoid Harmful Food Additives

Avoiding harmful food additives may take some effort, but it is not difficult. The following pointers can help.

  • Prepare Foods From Scratch

Home cooking works best. This way, you will have complete control over the ingredients going into your preparations. Cooking at home is economical as well.

  • Avoid Processed Meats

These are likely to contain several additives. They include deli meat, sausage, bacon, smoked meat, canned meat, and even hot dogs. Choose leaner and less processed protein sources. Baking fish, chicken, turkey, lean beef, or pork at your home can help.

  • Order Mindfully At Restaurants

You can eat out once in a while, but make sure you are ordering the right foods. Visit restaurants that prepare their food fresh. Don’t reheat frozen or pre-made foods. Check for restaurants that use local ingredients. You can also ask your waiter or the chef about the ingredients in a particular food before you place the order.

  • Read Ingredient Labels

These list out every ingredient contained in the food product. Try to avoid those products that contain the additives we have discussed in this post. Watch out for the following codes as well – benzoates 210, 211, 212, 213; nitrates 249, 250, 251, 252; sulphites 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225, 228; aspartame 951; yellow 2G107, sunset yellow FCF110, and cochineal 120.

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Food additives have become an industry. And as modern humanity progresses, they are bound to become more common. Good health starts with knowing what you are ingesting. You definitely wouldn’t want to ingest harmful additives, do you?

Be wary of the additives we have mentioned. Spread the message among your friends and family. Share your experiences with us by leaving a comment in the box below.


  1. FD&C – Food, Drugs, & Cosmetics
  2. Urticaria – Round rashes on the skin that itch intensely
  3. Nitrosamines – A particular compound known for its carcinogenic properties


  2. What is a food additive?” US Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. Overview of food ingredients …” US Food and Drug Administration.
  4. The roles of food additives” Department of Human Nutrition.
  5. Prevention of fungal spoilage in food…” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, US National Library of Medicine.
  6. Additives in meat and poultry products” United States Department of Agriculture.
  7. Adverse reactions of food additives” New England and Regional Allergy Proceedings, US National Library of Medicine.
  8. How to avoid added nitrates and nitrites…” Environmental Working Group.
  9. The adverse effects of food additives on health…” CiteSeerX, sponsored by National Science Foundation.
  10. Critical analysis of the diets of chronic juvenile…” National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
  11. Consuming fructose-sweetened…” The Journal of Clinical Investigation, US National Library of Medicine.
  12. Association between trans fatty acid intake and…” Lancet, US National Library of Medicine.
  13. Bisphenol A” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
  14. Phthalates” US Food and Drug Administration.
  15. Perchlorate questions and answers” US Food and Drug Administration.
  16. Basic information on PFAS” United States Environmental Protection Agency.
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Jess Wharton
Jess WhartonAdvanced Dip Nutrition & HPN
Jess Wharton is Registered Nutritionist based in Auckland, New Zealand. She works with clients around the world to help them reach their health and wellness goals. She believes that food is medicine and proper nutrition is healing and essential for well-being and quality of life.

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