Food Additives and Food Badditives

by Ann Lokuta on February 22, 2013

You’ve been in aisle 5 at your local grocer for 20 minutes debating what loaf of bread to buy.  One contains “no artificial flavoring”, another boasts “no sugar”, and a third claims to be “all natural”.  You look to the ingredients list so you can further weigh out your options and are faced with multiple “supercalifradgilisticexpialidocious” looking words (aka food additives).  Left defeated and now 20 minutes behind schedule, you do a blind grab and end up with the “all natural” loaf – but are all the items on that lengthy ingredient list really “all natural”?


Food additives range from vitamins to synthetic compounds and are put into foods to either enhance nutritional value, taste, preserve color, protect against bacteria formation, prevent emulsification, or add pretty coloring to make the food more aesthetically pleasing.  Many additives have been properly tested and considered perfectly safe for use, while others have been banned or recalled – making it ever important to be aware of the different ingredients added to food.

And the list goes on…

A health-conscious shopper must look past the claims on labels and make informed purchases.  This means thoroughly examining nutrition labels and being aware of the ingredients that you might not want in your body.  Admittedly not the most educated on additives, I threw myself into the field (Busch’s Market) to see what’s in our food.  I got my hands on ingredient information from 5 processed items that you will commonly find on shelves at the grocery store: Brownberry 12 Grain Bread, V8 Fusion Strawberry Banana Juice, Fiber One Oats & Caramel Bars, Tostitos Salsa Con Queso, and Multigrain Cheerios.  After the investigation phase, I went to some of the websites that are often visited by the public to see what information on additives is readily available.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) websites served as sources for initial information.  Here’s what is out there on some of the additives (and possibly badditives) found on these products’ ingredient lists:


Ascorbic acid/Sodium ascorbate (Vitamin C): Antioxidant, nutrient, and color stabilizer used in cereals, fruit drinks, and cured meats.  Preserves red color of cured meat, prevents loss of color in other foods, and pumps up vitamin content.

Glycerin/Glycerol: Maintains water content in candy, fudge, and baked goods.  It is considered a carbohydrate and can be used by the body for energy.

Diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides (DATEM): Emulsifier (keeps water and oil mixed together) in bread and biscuits.  Builds a strong gluten network to improve bread volume and keep dough from getting sticky or collapsing.

(Soy) Lecithin: Emulsifier and antioxidant used in baked goods, margarine, chocolate, and ice cream.  Source of the nutrient choline which occurs naturally in egg yolk and soybeans.

Maltodextrin: Texturizer in processed foods.  Made from starch and consists of glucose molecules, which are easily digested and absorbed by the body.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): Antioxidant used in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oil.

Natural and Artificial Flavoring: Used in soda pop, candy, breakfast cereals, and gelatin desserts usually when the real food that provides that flavor is absent.  Some flavoring may occur in nature, while others are synthetic.

Yellow 5: Artificial coloring used in gelatin dessert, candy, pet food, and baked goods.  Many studies have shown Yellow 5 to be completely safe, while some have linked it to hyperactivity in children.

Yellow 6: Artificial coloring used in beverages, candy, and baked goods.  Yellow 6 has been shown to contain small amounts of carcinogens, but most studies have shown that it is safe in the doses that we consume and the FDA has inspected and approved the use of this coloring.

Caramel Coloring: Artificial coloring used in colas, baked goods, pre-cooked meats, soy and worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavored products, and beer.

*All additives listed above have been tested and considered safe for use in foods at certain doses by the FDA.

These additives are really only a chip off the old block.  You will have to put in a little work yourself to be a smart shopper.  Start by becoming familiar with the additives whose safety is debatable by using resources like the FDA and CSPI website, as well as CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine Mobile App (get info on an unknown additive while you’re on-the-go).  Have the website or app on hand and go through all of your already purchased processed foods at home, to see which ones might contain debatable “badditives”.  Make a list of the products that you may be unsure about and look for healthier substitutes during your next shopping trip.

While the safety of food additives is very controversial (and most studies showing them to be harmful can not be proven significiant) you may have made the connection that many of them are used in foods that don’t exactly scream nutrition (pop, candy, baked goods, etc.), which leads me to my second piece of advice: While you’re going through your pantry raid, take note of processed foods that could be swapped for the real thing.  Additives aside – most processed foods rank low on the nutrition scale and fresh, whole foods are almost always your better option.  Do you have cereal for breakfast?  What about having rolled oats with fresh fruit instead?  These switches will make your shopping trips easier and your body healthier.

Lastly, CSPI recommends taking their information on additives with a grain of salt (and I agree).  There is usually not a definite answer when establishing additives as safe or unsafe.  Some may get a bad rap due to conclusions of a poorly designed study, while others might be considered safe because they haven’t been around long enough to exhibit their long-term effects in humans.  The bottom line is that it is important to be aware of the information that is out there.  You should do the research and educate yourself, so you can make confident and healthy choices that you feel comfortable with.

There’s a label I’m comfortable with (as a person not allergic!).


[Updated on 2/24/13 @ 7:29 pm]

Lola February 22, 2013 at 8:51 am

I really like that you link to the Center for Science in the Public Interest page on food additives. I was introduced to that page just recently and am very glad to have that resource in my toolbox.

Ann Lokuta February 22, 2013 at 11:01 am

I completely agree – such an awesome resource! Thanks for reading Lola :)

Sergey February 24, 2013 at 5:38 am

Very dissapointing. I thought this is scientific blog. I made mistake.
But with the link to CSPI site…I am not sure that this post has any science. I think that author does not clearly understand how science work and what is the difference between science and bad science.

Ann Lokuta February 24, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Hi Sergey,

Thank you for your input – it’s good to receive people’s outlook on sources for information. I am the author and always appreciate constructive feedback. In this instance, I view the CSPI site (as well as the FDA’s website) as good sources to familiarize oneself with the different additives that are on the market – not necessarily a “be all, end all” to the controversial issue, but something to get people thinking. If you could elaborate on your disapproval with the sources referenced, I would be able to get a better understanding of your comment and use this information for developing future posts.

Have a wonderful remainder of the weekend,


Andrew Maynard February 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Hi Sergey,

Yes, this is a science blog, but it is also a student education blog. I expect constructive criticism in the comments and I expect the students to respond to it. In the case of CSPI, it would be helpful if you could articulate your specific concerns with how the CSPI website has been used here. Thanks

Tom February 22, 2013 at 9:19 am

I think this is a very interesting and relevant topic – so thank you for bringing it up and spending the time writing about it. However, I feel that you don’t really dive more deeply beyond the standard superficial review of additives that we get in our standard media. You mention that some of these additives are linked to cancer in laboratory animals. Many substances that we eat can be associated with cancer in laboratory animals (including fat, protein, etc) – at what doses? You are telling people to avoid certain additives, like aspartame when there is no substantial scientific evidence to suggest that there are any safety concerns at low intake levels…and then you totally undermine your article by saying “take additive information with a grain of salt.” well that goes both ways (so there could be no real issues with some of these then?).

an article idea might be to take one additive that has been maligned in the media and show what evidence is actually out there and compare to how much people actually consume. are there any REAL safety concerns? people may learn how to make more informed decisions.

by all means, I totally agree that people should just eat way more whole, unprocessed foods, but that’s mostly because processed foods typically have less nutritional value and are jammed with extra sugar, fat, salt and calories, not b/c they have “additives”, which are consumed at very low levels. If we are going to inform the public about true risks of food, additives etc, let’s provide them with more concrete tools to make better decisions.

it’s not easy putting out your work like this, but it’s important work – keep it up!

Ann Lokuta February 22, 2013 at 10:47 am

Tom – thank you for this comment – it’s definitely an issue that I struggled with while writing this article. In the end, I decided to go this route mainly to promote that people should be aware of what information different organizations and literature are reporting about different additives (and to present some of that info). At the same time, I wanted to clarify that nutritional science and research on additives is a fairly new topic and something that needs to be taken “with a grain of salt”. I had a hard time fluidly conveying this message without undermining myself (like you said). This is a skill that I’m exciting to work on and hopefully improve as the semester goes on.

I do like your idea on featuring a single additive and going through the process of testing and how the FDA and other organizations (like CSPI) determine whether it is “safe” or not. Possibly a structure for a future article…

Thank you again for the constructive criticism!


Margaret Freaney February 22, 2013 at 10:38 am

I agree with Tom on this one. I have had a mostly unprocessed diet for the last year, and I do feel healthier, but I have not found any actual evidence that additives are an issue.
Also, just for myself that last food label is the most dangerous. I have a deadly peanut allergy, so not your fault at all.
Great topic, I think you just need to go a little more in depth.

Thanks for the post!

Ann Lokuta February 22, 2013 at 11:03 am

Hi Margaret,

Thanks for your input – this is very helpful for future posts. I made a few updates that hopefully help the issue a bit (including a disclaimer on the peanut label!).

This was a hard topic for me to tackle, so I’m glad to be receiving constructive feedback.

Have a great Friday,


Angela March 3, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Thanks for bringing up the topic of additives. Wondered if you had followed the latest reports on Democracy Now who focus on the way some of these additives (such as vitamins) are produced (e.g. from sheep grease, petroleum).

One thing I found a bit unclear in the post was the CSPI/FDA info. It is a bit difficult to tell whether it is an actual quote from their website or your summary of their info.

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