Sitting down to your favorite meal, you dig in knowing that what you’re about to eat is going to be delicious. But is it truly healthy for your body? Depending on the ingredients that you choose to put into your meal, you might actually be ingesting chemicals that can lead to less than desirable health effects.
Food additives are laboratory-crafted ingredients that add flavor, texture, and appearance to packaged foods. They also can extend shelf-life, allowing products to be sold more widely. Unfortunately, they also can cause health issues for many people.
Luckily, you don’t need to get a degree in chemistry to learn how to read food labels and to ditch foods that are undermining your health. You just need to be informed while shopping and get familiar with the names of chemicals to avoid. Instead of feeling afraid of these ingredients, you can choose to feel empowered in how you care for your body!
Being healthy and choosing your food with caution can put you back in charge of your self-care and make you feel more in control over your overall well being.
Common Food Additives and Possibly Harmful Ingredients
We’ve put together a comprehensive list of ingredients you can look for on labels when out shopping. These ingredients might have a negative effect on your body or they might not. It’s best to be informed about possible toxins and start to pay attention to how they make you feel.
Trans fat is simply vegetable oil that has had a hydrogen molecule forced into the molecular structure in a laboratory. This causes the oil to solidify (similar to shortening) and makes it shelf stable for foods that are meant to last a long time.
Common sources of trans fat include processed snacks like ultra-flavored savory snacks, packaged desserts and cookies, microwave popcorn, and shelf-stable baked goods. It’s also listed as hydrogenated oil or partially-hydrogenated oil, so keep a lookout for those ingredients as well.
After several studies showed that trans fat was likely a cause of heart disease (including an increased risk for heart attacks) and increased risk of diabetes, even the FDA started to warn against it. It’s not outright banned for use in products in the US, however. So while some companies have removed it from their ingredients due to the FDA’s issues with it, other companies just changed the way they labeled it and kept on including it in their products.
Choose foods made with coconut oil, healthy vegetable oils (such as avocado oil), and other natural, organic fats to cut trans fats from your diet.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
This flavor enhancer is added to savory foods to make them have that ultra-addictive flavor. You’ve probably experienced the effects of MSG when you’ve eaten flavored potato chips (and similar products) and found yourself eating chip, after chip, after chip. A popular tagline for some of these products in the past was something along the lines of “I’ll bet you can’t have just one!”
MSG can be found in your favorite processed snacks, frozen foods, and canned soups. It’s also a very common ingredient added to restaurant foods (especially Chinese food), used to enhance the addictive quality of the food’s flavors. There might be a reason why you feel a little out of control when eating at restaurants that use MSG.
The downside of monosodium glutamate is that many people have a sensitivity to it and can have reactions. These symptoms often include headaches, numbness, and sweating. Permanent issues with the substance are hotly debated, but there isn’t a lot of research to back up any of these claims.
That said, if you’re in tune with your body and notice that you feel bad after eating foods with MSG, it’s probably a good idea to start skipping it. You’ll find it listed by its name or acronym, or it could be hinted at by the names “flavor enhancer,” “natural flavors,” or “spices.” Since MSG is sometimes naturally occurring in certain foods, companies sometimes use that guise to label theirs as “natural.”
Generally speaking, by sticking with organic foods, you will avoid all artificial versions of MSG and skip the negative side effects.
If you often enjoy bacon, hot dogs, pepperoni, or other processed meats, you are also probably eating sodium nitrite. This additive is included in foods to preserve them. It also adds a red color and salty flavor to the meat.
Unfortunately, when sodium nitrite is heated at high temperatures, it turns into nitrosamine. This substance is even more dangerous to health in this changed state.
Studies show that nitrites and nitrosamines might be linked to increased rates of type 1 diabetes, as well as many different types of cancer. Avoiding this additive is a smart disease preventative measure.
Choose organic and uncured meats, as well as vegetable-based proteins to replace your favorite meat-based snacks that contain nitrites.
This long-chain carbohydrate is full of fiber, which actually encourages several health benefits. Studies have shown that guar gum can help reduce IBS symptoms, minimize blood sugar swings, and can even lower your cholesterol. It might also help you stay fuller throughout the day.
But before you run out to find all the foods containing guar gum, there is a dark side to it. You can overdo this additive, which can lead to an obstructed small intestine or esophagus. It can also irritate your gut, causing gas, bloating, and other issues.
The American FDA has a cap on how much guar gum can be added to packaged foods to help prevent these issues from happening. So while it can be an okay thing to ingest, it’s only safe in smaller, more reasonable amounts.
You’ll find it in food products like salad dressings, sauces, and ice creams. It’s a great food binder and thickener, so look for it in products that require thickening.
This lab-produced food additive is used as a flavor enhancer in savory foods and is also called autolyzed yeast. You’ll find it in cheese sauces, salty snacks, and soy sauce. It boosts the saltiness and makes the flavor just a bit “bigger” than it would be otherwise.
It’s made by mixing together yeast and sugar, then spinning it all together in a laboratory. This pulls apart the cell structure, allowing manufacturers to then discard the cell walls.
This process causes a natural type of glutamate (an amino acid) to form in the product, similar to MSG. If you’re someone who is sensitive to MSG you will also likely have the same symptoms with yeast extract.
Yeast extract is generally considered safe by the FDA. That said, it’s quite high in sodium so if you’re on a salt-restricted diet or have high blood pressure it’s best to avoid eating food that contains yeast extract.
Carrageenan is a hard-to-pronounce additive that is used in a lot of vegan and natural food products. It’s derived from Irish moss (a type of seaweed), which makes it sound great. But the reality is a little more confusing.
Some studies link it to cancer, while other researchers say that those studies were poorly constructed. There are a lot of conflicting arguments when it comes to carrageenan. There is another type of carrageenan that is considered degraded and is called poligeenan. This type is absolutely shown to cause cancer in mice. However, in its undegraded form, carrageenan seems to be a risk for cancer but there’s no specific proof one way or the other.
That said, carrageenan is known for its inflammatory properties and for causing stomach ulcers and other digestive upsets. So it’s generally a good idea to avoid it as much as possible.
If you live for almond or coconut milk, you can easily make these at home carrageenan-free. They’re more delicious than the store-bought variety! You can also look for lists of brands that don’t include carrageenan in their products, like this one.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
HFCS is sugary stuff made from a highly-processed, genetically-modified corn starch base, from which fructose is extracted. It’s pretty cheap to make, so food manufacturers often use it in inexpensive, processed food products. This includes soft drinks, snack foods, cold cereal, ice cream, candy, cookies, and so much more.
As fructose is a simple sugar, it’s even more dangerous to our bodies than glucose is. It’s linked to diabetes, weight gain, obesity, and causes inflammation. This inflammatory response can cause diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
More than anything high-fructose corn syrup is totally devoid of anything good for you. It’s pure sugar which means empty calories. It raises your blood sugar levels and messes with your body’s insulin response.
It’s best to stick with natural sugars or just skip the sugar altogether. Choose fresh fruit and fruit juices, as well as naturally low-sugar sweeteners (like stevia) when you have a sweet tooth.
We all know we should eat less sugar, so manufacturers have created fake sugary-tasting “sugar-free” substances to add a sweet flavor to foods without increasing the actual sugar content. These typically include artificial sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose (see our complete list in a section below).
While the FDA and many scientists claim that these sweeteners are safe, many people report various symptoms after consuming them. These include headaches, stomach problems, dizziness, and more.
Other scientists and consumer advocacy groups claim that artificial sweeteners like aspartame are linked to cancer and can cause other very serious health problems.
If you’re following a whole-food-based diet, artificial sweeteners aren’t a great fit for you. Avoiding them as much as possible is a safe way to prevent potential physical symptoms and more serious health issues in the long run. Choose naturally sweet foods like fruit, or adopt a less sweet diet for overall better health effects.
Artificial Food Coloring
These laboratory-crafted artificial colors and food dyes are derived from many different sources. Several of them are petroleum-based and have been shown to put animals and people at risk of cancer.
Artificial food colors are used in candies, sodas, juices, ice creams, cosmetics, skincare products, and so many other places. They enhance the colors of products, making them more eye-catching and appealing, especially to children.
Unfortunately, several of these coloring agents have come under scrutiny, especially Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1, and Yellows 5 and 6. In the European Union, many of these artificial food colors are completely banned, citing health dangers. You can read more about the dangers of Red 40 in our article on the topic here.
It’s in your best interest to avoid food products that contain these additives. Choose candies and treat foods that are colored with food-based dyes. Avoid skincare products and cosmetics that artificially dye their products. Read labels carefully as many different words are used to indicate artificial dyes. You can see our comprehensive list of those names in a section below.
These lab-created flavors are made to taste just like your favorite snack, or at least pretty close. From root beer to strawberries and butter to chocolate, you might be eating foods that don’t actually contain what you’re tasting.
Scientists create fake flavorings based on a mix of chemicals that trick our brains into thinking we’re eating the real thing. This is added to food, candy, snack food, and so much more. The reasoning is that the artificial flavoring creates a consistent taste, enhances the intended flavor, and saves money on the cost of the overall product.
Unfortunately, these additives have been shown to cause reduced red blood cell production in animal studies and rat studies, as well as a negative effect on bone marrow cells.
Look for products that don’t include the words “flavor” or “flavorings” paired with the food the flavor is supposed to imitate. For example, choose a product that lists “cocoa” in its ingredients over “chocolate flavor.”
This man-made compound is created when benzoic acid and sodium hydroxide are combined. It’s used as a preservative in fizzy drinks and sour preserved foods, such as pickles and salad dressings.
Sodium benzoate has been shown to be a potential trigger for hyperactivity in children and ADHD in all ages. The combination with vitamin C or with artificial sweeteners causes the substance to change into benzene that then is more likely to cause cancer.
Generally speaking, this is a food additive to skip entirely. Choose carbonated drinks that aren’t preserved artificially or just avoid these types of drinks altogether. Drink water, wholesome juices, herbal teas, or other drinks that are part of a healthy, whole food diet.
Xanthan gum is made through a complex process involving bacteria that live on plants like corn (and sometimes wheat). The result is a gummy product that can then be dried, powdered, and stocked on supermarket shelves.
You’ll find it in any food product that needs a little texturizing and binding. It’s a very common ingredient in gluten-free baking because it adds that extra something that makes it texturally more like wheat-based products.
It’s a newer product, so there aren’t any long term studies to say that it’s bad or good. But so far it seems to be okay. It can cause some digestive upset in some people though, so if you notice any symptoms discontinue use right away. Additionally, if you’re allergic to corn or wheat, you might have severe allergic reactions to it.
In baking, you can replace it with guar gum, chia seeds, and psyllium husk for a similar gluten-free textural effect.
Other Food Additives
The additives above are the major offenders to watch out for, but the reality is that there are so many others to consider when shopping. We’ve included as many as possible so you can get familiar with their names and start to avoid them.
- Sodium nitrate: Similar to nitrite, this is added to meat as a preservative. This one has been linked to cancer, so avoiding it is best.
- Sulfites: A preservative. Some people are sensitive to it and a common reaction is breathing issues.
- Azodicarbonamide: Linked to asthma and commonly used in bagels.
- Potassium bromate: Increases your risk of cancer. Commonly added to bread.
- Propyl gallate: Increases your risk of cancer. An additive used in products with fat.
- BHA/BHT: Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene. Increases your risk of cancer and tumors. Another additive used in products containing fat.
- Propylene glycol: Another name for antifreeze. Used as a thickener for salad dressings and dairy.
- Butane: Increases your risk of cancer. Standard additive in chicken nuggets.
- Disodium inosinate: Used in snack foods and contains MSG.
- Disodium guanylate: Same as additive above, but a different variety.
- Enriched flour: Bleached white flour with synthetic vitamins added. Common in processed foods.
- Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH): Increases your risk of cancer. A synthetic hormone used to increase milk production in cows.
- Refined vegetable oil: Increases your risk of cancer and heart disease. Omega-6 heavy oils, such as canola oil, peanut oil, and corn oil.
- Sodium benzoate: Increases your risk of cancer and may cause damage to DNA. Soda and salad dressing preservative.
- Brominated vegetable oil: Increases risk of organ damage and birth defects. Used to keep artificial flavors mixed throughout drinks. Often isn’t listed on labels (and isn’t required to be).
- Propyl gallate: Increases your risk of cancer. Included in frozen dinners, popcorn, and meat. Banned in several countries other than the US.
- Olestra: Increases your risk of heart disease and digestive issues. Fake “fat” that replaces real fat in snack products.
- Polysorbate 60: Increases your risk of cancer. Used in baked goods as a thickener.
- Camauba wax: Increases your risk of cancer and tumors. Used as a glaze and as a texturizer in chewing gum.
- Magnesium sulphate: Increases your risk of cancer. Found in tofu.
- Chlorine dioxide: Increases your risk of tumors and the possibility of hyperactivity in children. Used to bleach flour.
- Paraben: Increases your risk for breast cancer. Interrupts hormone activity. A preservative that targets mold.
- Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose: Increases your risk for cancer. Thickening agent used in foods like salad dressing.
- Aluminum: Increases your risk of cancer. Used as a preservative.
Artificial Sweeteners to Avoid
- Saccharin: Increases your risk of cancer.
- Aspartame: Also known as NutraSweet. Increases your risk of cancer. Excitotoxin that can cause headaches, dizziness, and stomach issues.
- High fructose corn syrup: Highly processed simple sugar (highlighted in detail above). Increases risks for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and insulin resistance.
- Acesulfame potassium: Increases your risk for breast and lung cancer. Used in combination with other artificial sweeteners.
- Sucralose: Also known by the brand name Splenda. Increases your risk for swollen kidneys and liver, as well as a reduced thymus gland.
- Tert butylhydroquinone: Increases your risk of stomach ulcers. Fish preservative.
- Agave nectar: Natural sweeter extracted from cactus. It contains high levels of fructose, which can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes, as well as cause inflammation.
- Bleached starch: Increases risk for skin issues and asthma. Found in dairy.
Artificial Food Colorings to Avoid
- Blue #1: Increased risk of cancer. Used in candy, soda, frosting, and other bakery products. Also called: Indigotine, Indigo carmine, CI Food Blue 1, Brilliant Blue FCF, FD&C Blue No. 1.
- Blue #2: Increases your risk for brain tumors. Used in candy. Also called: FD&C Blue No. 2, Indigotine, Indigo carmine.
- Brown HT: Increases your risk for cancer. can cause hyperactivity. Increases risk for asthma. Found in packaged foods. Also called: Chocolate Brown HT, Food Brown 3.
- Caramel coloring: When mixed with ammonia, it increases the risk for cancer (this mix not always indicated on the label). Found in sodas, bread, pastries, and more. Also called: Caramel, Plain Caramel, Caustic Caramel, Spirit Caramel, Caramel Color II, Caramel Color III, Caramel Color IV.
- Citrus red #1: Increases your risk of cancer. A colorant used to make oranges look ripe.
- Citrus red #2: Increases your risk of cancer. A colorant used to make oranges look ripe. Also called: Citrus Red No. 2, C.I. Solvent Red 80.
- Green #3: Increases your risk for bladder cancer. Found in drinks and candies. Also called: FD&C Green No. 3, Fast Green FCF, CI Food Green 3.
- Yellow #5: Increases your risk for kidney cancer and kidney tumors. Found in candy, desserts, and pet food. Also called: FD&C Yellow #5, Tartrazine, CI Food Yellow 4.
- Yellow #6: Increases your risk for kidney cancer. Found in candy and desserts. Also called: FD&C Yellow #6, Sunset Yellow, CI Food Yellow 3.
- Red #2: Increases your risk for cancer and asthma. Found in packaged foods. Also called: Amaranth, FD&C Red No. 2, C.I. Food Red 9, Acid Red 27, Azorubin S, red azo dye.
- Red #3: Known carcinogen. Increases your risk of thyroid cancer and nerve damage. Found in packaged foods. Also called: FD&C Red #3, Erythrosine, CI Food Red 14.
- Red #40: Increases your risk for cancer and can cause hyperactivity in children (and other behavioral problems). Banned in most EU countries. Found in candies, packaged foods, drinks, and more. Also called: FD&C Red #40, Allura red, CI Food Red 17.
- Orange B: Increases issues with liver and bile duct. Found in sausage casings. Also called: CI Acid Orange 137.
- Bixin: Increases cases of asthma and can cause hyperactivity in children. Found in packaged food products. An oil-soluble form of annatto.
- Norbixin: Increases cases of asthma and can cause hyperactivity in children. Found in packaged food products. A water-soluble form of annatto.
- Annatto: Increases cases of asthma and can cause hyperactivity in children. Found in packaged food products.
Other Chemicals Hiding in Our Food
In addition to all the additives and chemicals that are added to the inside of our food products, there’s another product that’s often on the outside: insecticides and pesticides. These toxic chemicals are used to keep crops from being ruined by animals and bugs. But they often also cause serious health issues in humans and pets.
To steer clear of these carcinogenic substances, you’ll want to get your food as organic as possible. You can read more of the details in our article all about these dangerous toxins, as well as the top foods to always eat organic.
Between food additives, soil toxins, and pesticides/insecticides you might be wondering how safe most of the food at the grocery store really is. The short answer is that lots of it aren’t very safe. But we have some ideas to help you eat the good stuff and avoid the harmful stuff.
Two IAWP Graduates’ Experiences with Food Additives
“Starting at 12 years old, I would get migraines if I ate certain foods. I learned that I had to start reading labels and pay attention to what each ingredient was. The ones I stay clear of per my doctor’s recommendations are red dye 40, yellow 5, any artificial food coloring, MSG, nitrates, BHT, artificial sweeteners, and high-fructose corn syrup, to name a few. All of these have been linked to the migraines that I used to suffer from to the point of hospitalization. With these removed, I no longer have migraines. I would encourage you to read your labels and start learning what you are eating, drinking, and how those ingredients are impacting your health.”
–Kim Goeltom, IAWP Certified Master Wellness Coach at Creating Legacy Wellness
“I have learned through my own personal experiences the effects of artificial food additives. I suffered from chronic pain, headaches, brain fog, etc. for years until I cut them from my diet.
Most food additives, such as artificial sweeteners, MSG, and food dyes, are not natural. They have been shown to contribute to inflammation, headaches, chronic pain, and even cancer. My best advice, and what I tell my clients, is to stick with whole foods as much as possible. When buying foods that have a label, read them to know what you’re putting into your body and learn about what the long term effects could be.”
–Melanie Austad, IAWP Certified Master Wellness Coach at Renovate Wellness
Conclusion: How to Avoid These Chemicals
At the IAWP, we promote a whole food diet with as many pesticide-free foods as you can afford. When you avoid packaged foods, eat nutritionally dense foods, and try to get your food as unaltered as possible, you avoid most of the additives that are commonly found in products at the store.
When you support your local farmers, CSAs, and farmers markets, you’re ensuring that you are doing good for your community and for your body. These foods are typically grown in soil that is mineral-dense, are grown without pesticides and insecticides, and are picked when they’re ripe — which ensures they contain as much nutrition as possible! Skip the unknown toxins in packaged foods and fast foods, then learn to love the food that our bodies were made to eat.