5 ways to minimize food additives in your diet

If someone told you that modern food was part of a big science experiment and you were one of the unlucky guinea pigs, would you be surprised?

Seriously though, if you were to evaluate the results of this experiment, your stats would stack with the conclusion that the experiment wasn’t going too well — increased heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer… and the list goes on.

Surely the goal of the experiment couldn’t be to make us sick? Could it?

After all, there are large organizations like the FDA who monitor what goes into food to make sure it is safe.

But how much monitoring do they actually do?

As one example, food additives are recognized as safe by the FDA, getting the common seal of approval: GRAS, which stands for “generally recognized as safe.”

However, the stories of people who are part of this weird food experiment do make you wonder if they are really safe to consume…

Side effects of common food additives

Reported adverse effects from food additives are many. And some of these “every day” additives might surprise you:

  • Aspartame, an artificial sweetener has received more than 10,000 FDA consumer complaints with around 91 different symptoms reported, the most common being heart palpitations, strange eye twitches, headaches, dizziness, nausea, stomach pain and attention disorders.
  • People report headaches and nausea from eating foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), an additive commonly found in potato chips, ranch dressing, gravies, frozen dinners and salty-flavored snacks.
  • Food additives have been shown to trigger the development of an oral mucosal condition called recurrent aphthous stomatitis, also known as canker sores. Picture multiple, painful ulcers in your mouth that last at least seven days and sometimes months — it’s not pleasant and can be difficult to overcome.
  • Some aluminium-containing food additives have led to toxic levels of aluminium intake — we’re talking common bakery products such as donuts, cookies and pound cake; and prepared mixes such as scones and bread mix.
  • Dietary emulsifiers have been linked to increased development of colon cancer tumors and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of symptoms such as insulin resistance, weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar. These dietary emulsifiers include polysorbate-80 (found in ice cream, puddings, sauces) and carboxymethylcellulose (found in ice cream, cheese, toppings, icings, candy). Would you believe a certain amount of wood pulp is considered GRAS as an emulsifier? It’s true!
  • More recently, a common food additive found in everything from chewing gum to milk to chocolate to breads — titanium dioxide — has been shown to decrease the ability of intestinal cells to absorb nutrients, decrease the immune system’s ability to fight pathogens and increase inflammation.

As you can imagine, the list of side effects probably don’t stop there. But by now you get the picture — food additives are a somewhat grey area…

Chronic exposure builds danger

What’s interesting is when researchers looked at titanium dioxide they found that acute exposure to the food additive doesn’t do anything. So, if you were to eat the additive once, you’d be fine. But with chronic exposure over 5 days or more, detrimental health effects occur.

And that’s where it gets even more interesting…

All of the above food additives have been given GRAS by the FDA — that means they were all deemed safe to be consumed at certain doses. Unfortunately though, many have not been tested for cumulative chronic use.

Since most packaged foods are now packed with food additives, it’s easy to consume them on a regular basis — meaning, you may be chronically exposed to additives that are not safe at all.

Clearly you can’t rely on the FDA to look out for your health so it’s time to take back the power…

How can you minimize food additives in your diet?

Become informed. Educate yourself about all the different food additives. The FDA provides a food additives overview on how they go about food labelling and a list of commonly used food ingredient categories — but I’m not sure I’d put too much trust in it. After all, these guys gave some bad offenders the all clear. Do your own research online and explore sites like the Center for Science in the Public Interest or the Environmental Working Group to gain a deeper understanding of the health effects that may occur.

Always read food labels. It may seem obvious, but only a small number of people take the time to read labels. But it’s the only way to know what a product contains, so it’s a good idea to make it a habit. Don’t be fooled by front-of-packet marketing tactics. Become a label-reading food detective.

Here are a couple of tips:

  • When reading food labels, be aware that ingredients are listed in descending order of the quantity in the food. For example, if sugar is listed first, the product is mainly made of sugar.
  • When making your product selection, steer clear of products with a long list of ingredients you can’t recognize. Only choose products with minimal amounts of ingredients. There are good quality products available that only contain 5 or maximum 10 ingredients — all ingredients you can recognize.
  • Get to know the problematic food additives so you can recognize them on food labels and avoid them.

Avoid problematic offenders. Along with the additives mentioned at the beginning of this article, other common offenders include tartrazine, yellow#5, diacetyl, nitrates, nitrites, propyl paraben, olestra or olean, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate and food colorings.

Avoid processed meats. I hate to break the news, but deli meats, bacon, sausage, canned meat, smoked meat and hot dogs are often high in nitrites, nitrates, preservatives and additives. These additives are not to be confused with naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites found in foods like beets that are converted to nitric oxide in your body and support arterial health.

Eat whole foods. The easiest way to avoid food additives is to steer clear of processed and packaged foods and stick to fresh natural whole foods such as grass-fed meat and free-range poultry, wild-caught fish and seafood, free-range eggs, nuts, seeds and a variety of organic fruits and vegetables.

The best news is, by cleaning up your diet and switching to whole food sources, you’ll be doing your body a detox service — your cells will be able to rid themselves of the harmful additive toxins and restore their balance.

If you need a detox-lending hand, support your liver — the body’s most important detoxification organ. Taking a milk thistle supplement and drinking dandelion root tea are two simple daily practices that help make your liver’s detox job much easier.

  1. Food additive found in candy, gum could alter digestive cell structure and function. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-02/bu-faf021617.php
  2. Gulseren D, et al. Is there a role of food additives in recurrent aphthous stomatitis? A prospective study with patch testing. International Journal of Dermatology. 2017;56(3):302-6.
  3. FDA (2016, July 15). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094210.htm
  4. Ogimoto M, et al. Aluminium content of foods originating from aluminium-containing food additives. Food Additives & Contaminants Part B, Surveillance. 2016;9(3):185-90.
  5. Viennois E, et al. Dietary emulsifier-induced low-grade inflammation promotes colon carcinogenesis. Cancer Research. 2017;77(1):27-40.
Jedha Dening

By Jedha Dening

Jedha Dening is a qualified nutritionist (MNutr), researcher, author, freelance writer, and founder of type 2 diabetic nutrition site Diabetes Meal Plans. Her masters thesis on nutrition and inflammation was published and then presented at a national scientific conference. She has millions of words published in the health industry across various print and online publications. Having been in the field for over 15 years, she’s incredibly passionate about delving into the latest research to share the myths and truths surrounding nutrition and health. She believes when armed with the right knowledge, we’re empowered to make informed choices that can truly make a difference.