What do Mountain Dew, Swiss Rolls, Frosted Flakes, Coffee Mate, Skittles, and Wheat Thins all have in common? They are all manufactured through multiple industrial processes and contain added ingredients known as additives. That makes them ultra-processed food products. In this article we’re going to focus on those additives: what are they, why are they added to foods, and how are they regulated?
Since food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients on the food label, one way to identify additives in our food is to put your reading glasses on and take a look. The first thing you might discover is that there seem to be a lot of different additives. And you’d be right—in fact the FDA has compiled a list of over 3,000 items that can be added to food (1). Yes, you read that correctly, there are more than 3,000 substances that manufacturers put into food which, for the most part, were not put there by Mother Nature.
The second thing you might notice is that some ingredients are listed as “flavors,” “spices,” “artificial flavoring,” and “artificial colors.” Each of these can appear to be a single additive but could contain many additives under the associated umbrella term.
In any case, 3,000 is a daunting number, but since ultra-processed foods form a large and increasing percentage of the American diet*, food additives are a topic that we should all know something about.
The first thing to know is that there’s growing evidence that diets high in ultra-processed foods increase the risk of chronic diseases, so it’s probably best to just avoid them altogether. But since that can be hard to do if you want to have a social life, let’s take a few minutes to decipher what kinds of additives there are, and which ones might be worst offenders. Here are the basics:
- Additives are used for many reasons, here are several of the most common:
- Preservation: Sodium benzoate, Ascorbic acid, citric acid, BHA, BHT, tocopherols
- Sweetening: Fructose, Sorbitol, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Aspartame
- Color: FD&C Blue, Green, Red, Yellow
- Adding and Enhancing: Natural flavoring, artificial flavor, MSG, hydrolyzed soy
- Emulsification (essentially, making things blend that wouldn’t otherwise mix with each other):Soy lecithin, polysorbates, Sorbian monostearate
- Stabilizing, Thickening/Binding/Texturizing: Gelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum
- The FDA definition of additives which it regulates includes any substance that is used in the production, treatment, packaging, transportation, or storage of food. The Food Additives Amendment of the Federal Drug, Food, and Cosmetic Act in 1958, requires manufacturers to provide safety assessments for all NEW food additives.However, this EXCLUDES additives approved by the FDA or USDA prior to the food additives provisions of the law in 1958!
That means that sodium nitrite and potassium nitrite, commonly used to preserve lunch meats, and additives “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) , such as, salt, sugar, spices, vitamins, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) do NOT require FDA approval to be put in your food.
- As this FDA approach to regulation illustrates, in the US there’s an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to many chemicals approved before the 1958 amendment. However, this is not the case in other parts of the world. The European Union and the U.K. for example, have a much more cautious approach. Because of this, some food companies re-formulate their US products to be fit for international consumption. Remember that list of American “foods” listed in the first sentence? Besides sharing the dubious distinction of being ultra-processed, they also share the common factor that they all contain ingredients that are banned in many other countries!
- Here are some examples of additives restricted by the European Union but allowed in American foods:
- Potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide (ADA): Added to flour to make the dough rise higher and give it a white glow. ADA is a whitening agent used in cereal flour.
- BHA and BHT: Flavor enhancers and preservatives.
- Brominated Vegetable Oil: Prevents separation of ingredients in some citrus-flavored sugar sweetened beverages.
- Food Dyes including Yellow 5 and 6 and Red 40.
Have you ever traveled abroad and noticed that you experienced fewer food sensitivities and reactions to specific foods? The difference could be that American additives are innocent-until-proven guilty and European additives must be proven-not to-be-toxic before they’re allowed in foods.
Here’s the takeaway:
Food additives are one of the defining characteristics of ultra-processed foods. With the increasing prevalence of ultra-processed foods and chronic disease, it’s important to be mindful of the ingredient list of processed foods you normally eat.
If you don’t want to have to bring along a magnifying class and a 7-pound copy of the page-turner Handbook of Food Additives to understand what’s been added to the processed foods and ultra-processed foods you pick up in the inner grocery aisles, there’s an easy solution. Pack your cart with food from the perimeter of the store, where you’ll find the real food.
* A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that US consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased to 57% of total calories