Common Food Additives: What They Are And What They Do

This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.

You hear the word "additive" and you immediately picture white labels on the side of every food product you've ever picked up listing a string of indecipherable five-syllable words. The truth is, though, that "additives" are nothing new. We've been supplementing our food with natural ones for millennia. Anthropologists believe the ancient Mesopotamians pickled foods more than four thousand years ago. Vinegar, sugar, and salt, these are all additives — and you're no more scared of them than you are of your salad, ice cream cone, or rest-stop beef jerky (okay, you probably are scared of that). As for the more modern, more complicated ones, until recently we haven't paid them much attention, either. We know they're there. We've heard that they may or may not be good for us. And yet they're so difficult to decipher in our busy lives that we tend to shrug our shoulders and take another bite of that fast-food burger whose meat filler has been exposed to ammonium hydroxide.

Today, we're becoming a little more cognizant of these invisible, polysyllabic substances. While words like azodicarbonamide may not be on the tip of everyone's tongues, outrage over the fact that it's a substance found both in our Subway sandwiches as well as in rubber soles and yoga mats is. Similarly, it didn't go over so well last year when it was revealed that Gatorade contained brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a controversial flame-retardant chemical. What about all the other things that lurk in what we eat, though? Some of them may be just fine, but wouldn't you like to know for sure?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a database of more than 3,000 ingredients ("Everything Added to Food in the United States"), which can be separated into about 20 categories:

Acidity Regulators Control foods' acidity and alkalinity.

Acids Sharpen flavors, preserve, and prevent oxidation. Examples include: citric acid, fumaric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and vinegar.

Anti-Caking Agents Prevent powders from caking and sticking.

Antifoaming Agents Reduce or prevent foaming.

Anti-oxidants Act as preservatives by inhibiting the effects of oxygen on food. Examples include vitamin C.

Bulking Agents Increase the bulk of food without affecting their taste.

Color Retention Agents Preserve a food's existing color.

Emulsifiers Keep water and oil emulsified. Think mayonnaise.

Flavors Give food a taste or smell. They can come from natural ingredients or be artificially created.

Flavor Enhancers Enhance a food's existing flavors. May be extracted from natural sources or created artificially.

Flour Treatment Agents Added to flour to improve its color or its use in baking.[pullquote:right]

Food Coloring Added to replace colors lost during preparation.

Glazing Agents Provide a shiny appearance or protective coating.

Humectants Prevent foods from drying out.

Preservatives Prevent or inhibit food spoilage from bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms.

Stabilizers Add texture and help stabilize emulsions.

Sweeteners Add flavoring. Non-sugar sweeteners are added to keep calories low.

Thickeners Increase a food's viscosity without modifying its other properties.

Tracer Gas Guarantees shelf life by preventing foods from being exposed to atmosphere.

Additives are approved by the FDA, which has the primary legal responsibility for determining safe. For additives to pass muster, manufacturers or sponsors must petition the FDA for approval. But its website notes, "Because of inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance. Therefore, FDA must determine – based on the best science available – if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when an additive is used as proposed."

And while most additives are FDA-approved, independent researchers have found strong links in many to cancer and other side effects. Reasonable use of additives is one thing. We know some of them are probably necessary. But drinking flame retardant doesn't seem so reasonable and significant studies have demonstrated that it's worth questioning the people behind the companies who make our food to be sure that they're doing everything they can to look out for the consumer — which ultimately includes themselves. After all, they haven't necessarily had a great track record.

Take for instance the 2007 study which concludes that artificial coloring and preservatives can make kids more hyperactive. That was enough to move the European Food Standards Agency to urge companies to remove them from their food products. There have been reports suggesting that the food coloring Yellow No. 5 might aggravate people's asthma symptoms. And many studies have shown that aspartame, an artificial, non-saccharide sweetener used as a sugar substitute in some foods and beverages, might be responsible for all kinds of different cancers.

What are some of the scariest things that some reports have speculated food additives can do to us?

Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame-K) While results aren't conclusive, some animal studies have linked this calorie-free artificial sweetener to thyroid issues and breast and lung tumors.

Blue 1 and Blue 2 Both colorings are used in candy and beverages. Studies have shown they may cause cancer in animals.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) BHT is an anti-oxidant that prevents food from going rancid and is found commonly in chewing gum, dry breakfast cereals, and potato flakes. Though considered to be safe, it is linked to adverse interactions when consumed alongside hormonal birth-control methods or steroid hormones.



Carrageenan Used as a thickening agent in ice cream, yogurt, pudding, and cottage cheese, carrageenan is a water-soluble polymer derived from red seaweed. While the FDA deemed it safe, there's evidence that it may cause lesions in the stomach and ultimately lead to cancer.

Glyphosate This systemic herbicide is taken up by the plants it's used on, and then transferred to you when you eat them. Some studies have shown that exposure to glyphosate can lead to infertility and learning disabilities.infertility.

Olestra This fat substitute takes the calories and cholesterol out of food products, but also affects your body's ability to absorb essential vitamins and can have side effects like gas, loose bowels, and cramps.

Potassium Bromate This oxidizing agent is used as an additive to increase volume in white flour, breads, and rolls. When given directly (orally), it was found to be carcinogenic in rats and nephrotoxic in both humans and tested animals.

Propyl Gallate Like BHA and BHT, propyl gallate is an anti-oxidant that helps to slow the process of food spoilage in food. Those who have an allergy to it may experience asthmatic symptoms, irritable skin, and an upset stomach. Research indicates that consumption will lead to kidney and liver complications. Animal studies also point to cancer-causing tendencies.

Red No. 3 Used to color candy, cherries, and baked goods, red No. 3 was recognized in 1990 by the FDA as a thyroid carcinogen in animals.

Titanium Dioxide This mined substance, sometimes contaminated with toxic lead, is used to make overly processed items appear whiter — which, in the food industry, typically means coffee creamers, icing, and salad dressings.

Yellow No. 6 Found in baked goods, candy, gelatin, and sausages among other products, Yellow No. 6 has been found to cause adrenal gland and kidney tumors.

This is just a sampling of some of the additives we know about. There are many more, and more that we don't know anywhere near enough about — reason enough for stringent oversight and for taking a close look not just what's in our food, but the processes and people responsible for allowing them to be added to them. This is up to us.

Is our food killing us? If so, we're doing it to ourselves.

Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Read more articles by Arthur, reach him by email, or click here to follow Arthur on Twitter.