A Few Facts and Tips about Food Additives

Threat to Good Health


Food additives are chemicals that are added to the food either during or after its preparation or during storage due to the following reasons:

  • To keep them fresh
  • To enhance the colour
  • To give it a unique flavour
  • To give it a unique texture and taste


Food additives are listed on the product label at the back of the packet or container along with other ingredients. These are listed in a descending order by weight. Sometimes the abbreviated form is given or sometimes a code is given to identify the food additive. For instance, cochineal may be listed as Colouring (120) or sodium sulphite as Preservative (221) or Monosodium glutamate as MSG.

Food additives and their uses

Anti-caking agents: These prevent ingredients from becoming lumpy.

Anti-oxidants: These are used to prevent foods from oxidising.

Emulsifiers: These are used to prevent fats from clotting together.

Artificial sweeteners: To sweeten juice and food.

Food acids: These help to maintain the right acid level.

Colours: These are used for enhancement or adding colours.

Humectants: These food additives keep foods moist.

Flavours: These are used to add flavours to food.

Foaming agents: These are used to maintain uniform aeration of gases in foods.

Mineral salts: For enhancing texture and flavour, mineral salts are used.

Preservatives: These help to prevent spoiling of the food.

Thickeners and vegetable gums: These additives increase texture and consistency.

Glazing agent: Glazing agents are used to improve appearance.

Gelling agents: Gelling agents are used to change the texture of foods through gel formation.

Bulking agents: Such food additives are used to enhance the volume of food without much change to its available energy.

The most common types of food additives:

Artificial colouring: Chemical dyes to colour food and drinks. Found in processed foods, beverages, and condiments.

High fructose corn syrup: A sweetener made from corn, it is considered to be cheaper than sugar. It is found in sweets and processed food as well as in diet soft drinks.

Aspartame: An artificial sweetener used as an additive for sweetening diet soft drinks.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Looks like sugar or salt, obtained from naturally occurring chemical glutamate. It enhances other flavours and gives a savoury taste. It is used in many foods.

Sodium Benzoate: This is used as a preservative in many processed food products and drinks.

Sodium Nitrite: Used for curing meat and found in preserved meat products, like sausages and canned meats.

Trans fat: Trans fats are food additives which are used in food during its preparation process. Artificial trans fats are created actually in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil. Trans fats are present naturally in animal fat. Also known as hydrogenated oils, they are used most often for deep-frying food, and in baked goods.

Disadvantages of Certain Food Additives:

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): It is found in potato chips, butter, cereal, crackers, instant mashed potatoes, preserved meat, beer, baked goods, dessert mixes, chewing gum and many foods with added fats. BHA is considered the more dangerous. The Department of Health and Human Services classifies the preservative as mildly carcinogenic, that is, an agent that tends to produce cancer.

Trans Fat: When used in excessive quantity, these can cause heart disease.

Caffeine: It is used as a stimulant in high energy drinks and too much consumption may lead to jitters and disturbed sleep.

Corn Syrup: No specific threat but has no nutritional value other than calories.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): The FDA receives complaints of reaction such as nausea, headaches, chest pains, and weakness.

Food Colouring: Colours like Blue #1, Blue #2, Yellow #6 and Red #3, are used in various food products, such as baked goods, sodas and candy. It has been reported that all four of the food colourings possess cancer-causing properties.

Aspartame: A well-known artificial sweetener, found in soft drinks, frozen, sugar-free desserts, gum. It can cause neurological problems like hallucinations. If taken over extended time periods, it increases risks of cancer.

Potassium Bromate: It improves the action of flour. It is found to promote the onset of tumors in the kidney and thyroid.

Sodium nitrite: It is used as a preservative, as well as for flavouring and colouring and can cause the formation of nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing chemicals.

Some helpful tips:

It is advisable that you read labels before purchasing food products with additives. Try to avoid the following food additives as much as possible.

Artificial Colours: Avoid colours that begin with FD&C (e.g. FD&C Blue No. 1)

Chemical Preservatives: BHA, Sodium Nitrate, Sodium Benzoate

Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, Saccharin

Added Sugar: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup etc

Added Salt: Check the sodium content and choose foods with low amounts of sodium.