Are food additives safe to eat?

In this brief guide, we are going to answer the question, “Are food additives safe to eat?”. We will discuss the use of food additives and the potential risks of eating food additives.

Are food additives safe to eat?

Yes, food additives are safe to consume. This is because the use of food additives is subject to controls, based on scientific studies that demonstrate their safety for human health (1). 

Some consumers might regard the use of food additives, especially artificial ones, with suspicion; food additives are considered unnatural, unhealthy or even a public health risk (2). However, food additives are safe and make our life easier, being in our daily lives. They are convenient, portable and stay cool for a long time.

Why are food additives used?

Additives are added to foods to maintain or improve safety by combating microbial degradation, and increasing their shelf-life. Also they guarantee freshness, improve or maintain nutritional value, improve taste, texture and appearance (3).

Among the additives that you will possibly find on food labels are: i) antioxidants (these stop food becoming rancid or changing color by reducing the chance of fats combining with oxygen); ii) colors; iii) emulsifiers, stabilizers, gelling agents and thickeners (these help to mix or thicken ingredients); preservatives (used to keep food safer for longer); sweeteners (including intense sweeteners like stevia and aspartame which are many times sweeter than sugar) (4).

How safe are food additives?

Food additives are safe because they must pass a thorough safety evaluation, which includes determining the real danger to public health based on the quantities at which a food additive is likely to be eaten. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating all additives to ensure that foods containing additives are safe to eat, contain only approved ingredients, and are properly labeled (5).

Unfortunately there are scientific limitations, which fatally prevent the FDA from being absolutely sure of the absence of any type of risk from the use of any substance. Given this, FDA must determine – based on the best available science – whether there is reasonable certainty that there is no harm to consumers when an additive is used as intended (5).

Eventually new evidence may emerge that a product, already on the market, may be unsafe, or that consumption levels have changed. Once this is found, federal authorities can ban its use or conduct further studies to determine its safety (5).

Then, you should feel safe about the foods you eat. In the meantime however consumption should be moderate.

What are the possible adverse effects of eating food additives?

Although consuming small amounts of additives may be safe (10), there are some health risks that are increased if you overindulge in processed foods (which inevitably contain food additives). A diet high in processed foods is linked to chronic diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer (11).

There are some food additives that you must avoid and its risks (11). Below are some examples and the main harmful effects:

– – Sodium nitrites: it may cause smooth muscle relaxation, vasodilation and, consequently, a decrease in blood pressure and methemoglobinemia (17).

– Sulfites: it can induce various respiratory diseases in some individuals, induce cardiovascular diseases and neurological diseases such as abdominal pain, hives, asthma, lung cancer, myocardial ischemia and brain cancer (18).

– Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) it causes cardiac, circulatory, gastrointestinal, muscular, and neurological disorders (19): 

– Artificial coloring (FD&C yellow no. 5 and no. 6): allergic reactions such as bronchial asthma and urticaria in susceptible people (20)

– Trans fats: it affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors and contributes significantly to increased risk of coronary heart disease events (21). 

Who should avoid food additives?

There are some food additives that everybody must avoid. Though some people can have hypersensitivity reactions to food additives (6). There are many clinical features such as chronic urticaria (also called ‘hives’ or ‘nettle rash’, consists of blanchable, erythematous, oedematous papules or ‘wheals’) or angioedema (characterized by localized swelling of sudden onset affecting the skin and/or mucous membranes), atopic eczema (inflammatory skin disease ), flushing (endocrine disorders), hypotension, abdominal pain, diarrhea and asthmatic reactions (7, 13, 14, 15, 16). Studies have been evaluating the potential of food additives to cause adverse symptoms, but robust research is difficult to conduct (8).

Also people who are diagnosed at birth with phenylketonuria need to avoid foods containing certain sweeteners – i.e. aspartame and aspartame-acesulfame salt. This is because they cannot consume foods containing phenylalanine (9).

How can you avoid unhealthy food additives?

Although food additives are a necessary component in most processed foods, you should avoid harmful food additives whenever possible. For that, you must buy and eat fresh; cook your own meals; read the labels (12).

“Peel more and unpack less” is the basis of healthy eating (12).

Other FAQs about food additives that you may be interested in.

What food additives are harmful?

What are natural food additives?


In this brief guide, we answered the question, “Are food additives safe to eat?”. We discussed how food additives are safe when consumption is moderate.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know.


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11. Heart, Team V. 5 Food Additives You Should Avoid [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. 2020 [cited 2023 Jun 4].

12. Ministério da Educação. “Descascar mais e desembalar menos” é a base da alimentação saudável. Empresa Brasileira de Serviços Hospitalares [Internet]. 2019 Apr 8 [cited 2023 Jun 4].

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17. Mortensen A, Aguilar F, Crebelli R, Di Domenico A, Dusemund B, Frutos MJ, et al. Re‐evaluation of potassium nitrite (E 249) and sodium nitrite (E 250) as food additives. EFSA Journal. 2017 Jun;15(6).

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19. Kazmi Z, Fatima I, Perveen S, Malik SS. Monosodium glutamate: Review on clinical reports. International Journal of Food Properties. 2017 Feb 22;1807–15.

20. Moutinho Ild, Bertges Lc, Assis Rvc. Prolonged use of the food dye tartrazine (FD&C yellow n° 5) and its effects on the gastric mucosa of Wistar rats. Brazilian Journal of Biology. 2007 Feb;67(1):141–5.

21. Mozaffarian D, Aro A, Willett WC. Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009 May;63(S2):S5–21.

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