What food additives are harmful?

In this brief guide, we are going to answer the question, “What food additives are harmful?”. We will discuss the potential health risks from eating these food additives and how you can avoid eating foods containing these additives.

What food additives are harmful?

Yes, there are many harmful food additives, although most of them are safe.

Consuming small amounts of additives may be safe, but health risks increase if you consume a lot of processed foods, which contain additives (1). A diet high in processed foods is associated with chronic diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and cancer. Also, some individuals can develop protein allergies, gluten or lactose intolerances (2).

What additives should you think twice about consuming?

You should think twice when the label contains these additives: aspartame, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)/butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); carrageenan; monosodium glutamate (MSG); nitrites; saccharin; sulfites; tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ); artificial coloring (yellow dye #5 and #6, citrus red dye #2); trans fats (3).

You may avoid consuming any food with additives as much as possible, but these are the ones that can cause the greatest damage to your health (4). We will discuss each of these below.

Aspartame is used as a sugar substitute, diet sodas, etc. They give food an artificial sweetener. It is associated with headaches, dizziness, rashes, depression, etc (3).

Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is used as an emulsifier and clouding agent. BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss. It is commonly used in soda and sports drinks (5). The use of brominated vegetable oils is prohibited in most other countries (6).

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)/butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) prevents rancidity in food and is added to food packaging. You can find it in Cheese/cereal packaging. This additive slows the transfer of nerve impulses and affects sleep, weight in test animals, and aggressiveness (3).

Carrageenan is used as a stabilizer and thickening agent; linked to ulcers and cancer. Also linked to allergies and intolerances. It is added to ice cream, jellies, cakes, decorations, cheese, and salad dressings to thicken the product (4).

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is harmful because it is a probable carcinogen. It is used to color oranges. A probable carcinogen. The US FDA has recommended it is banned (3).

Nitrites are used as preservatives in cured meats. This food additive has been associated with cancer and birth defects and also forms cancer-causing compounds in the gastrointestinal tract (3).

Saccharin is an artificial sweetener and used as a sugar substitute, diet soda, etc. Research shows that it can be carcinogenic (3).

Sulfites can cause breathing problems and gastric irritation. Sulphites destroy vitamins as well as the above illnesses. It is used as a preservative in foods, such as shrimp, dried fruits and vegetables, frozen potatoes, alcoholic beverages, fruit juices, soft drinks (7).

Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is used to preserve candy bars, fast foods and baking sprays. It is extremely toxic even in low doses and has been associated with cytotoxic, genotoxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic effects (8).

Artificial coloring as blue #1 (Brilliant Blue FCF) & blue #2 (Indigotine, Indigo Carmine), yellow dye #6 (Sunset Yellow FCF), yellow #5 (Tartrazine) are used in candy, sodas, gelatin desserts, pet food, cereal, and baked goods (5).

It causes brain cancer and inhibits nerve-cell development; it can cause genotoxicity, a deterioration of the cell’s genetic material with the potential to mutate healthy DNA; causes tumors in the kidneys and adrenal glands of laboratory animals (5)

Trans fats affect multiple cardiovascular risk factors and contribute significantly to increased risk of coronary heart disease events. (9). It is used as an emulsifier (10).

Are there more restricted additives?

Yes, there are some additives that are more restricted:

Natamycin (E 235) can only be used as a preservative for the surface treatment of cheese and dried sausages (11).

Erythorbic acid (E 315) can only be used as an antioxidant in certain meat and fish products (11).

Sodium ferrocyanide (E 535) can only be used as an anti-caking agent in salt and its substitutes (11).

Are there any prohibited food additives?

Yes, there are some food additives prohibited. In 2018 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed 7 synthetic flavoring substances and flavor enhancers (adjuvants) from the Food Additives List. They had de-listed synthetically-derived benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether (methyl eugenol), myrcene, pulegone, pyridine (which cause cancer in laboratory animals under the conditions of the studies) and styrene (which is no longer used by industry) (12).

FDA prohibits many other food additives. The complete list is available in 21 CFR Section 181.

Are there any benefits of using additives for the consumer?

Additives are added to foods whose function is to maintain or improve safety, minimizing degradation and increasing its shelf life, in addition to ensuring freshness, improving flavor, texture and appearance, in addition to improving or maintaining the nutritional value of the food. (13, 14)

How to avoid foods with additives?

There are some options to avoid foods with additives.

You must substitute processed food (i.e. beverages, cooks, fruit juices, smoothies, extruded products, chocolates, yogurt, buttermilk, dahi, ice cream, soymilk, frozen desserts, jellies), for natural and fresh foods. Beyond you will consume fewer additives, you also reap health benefits (15).

There are some food industries producing foods that are “preservative-free” or “additive-free” (16). It could be an alternative, although foods with additives dominate the market.

Also, there are natural additives that are used widely in many foods such polyphenols, carotenoids, tocopherols, curcumin, beetroot, lutein, anthocyanins, carminic acid/carmine, chlorophyll,/chlorophyllin, caramel, lycopene, annatto, carotene, paprika, sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, steviol glycosides, etc (17, 18).

Finally, you need to make a habit of reading the labels in the search for additives and their alternative names of everything you will consume (4). 

Other FAQs about Beer that you may be interested in.

Are food additives safe to eat?

What are natural food additives?


In this brief guide, we answered the question, “What food additives are harmful?”. We also discussed the health-related risks from eating these food additives and how you can avoid eating foods containing these additives.

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


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