Take a look at the ingredients label of just about any food in your kitchen pantry and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a food additive.
They are used to enhance the flavor, appearance or texture of a product, or to extend its shelf life.
Some of these substances have been associated with serious health effects and should be avoided, while others are safe and can be consumed with minimal risk.
Here are 12 of the most common food additives, plus recommendations for which ones to keep out of your diet.
1. MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a common food additive used to intensify and enhance the flavor of savory dishes.
It’s found in a variety of processed foods like frozen dinners, salty snacks and canned soups. It’s also often added to foods at restaurants and fast food places.
MSG has been a subject of heated controversy since a 1969 study of mice found that large amounts caused harmful neurological effects and impaired growth and development (1).
However, this additive is likely to have little to no effect on human brain health as it’s unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (2).
MSG consumption has also been associated with weight gain and metabolic syndrome in some observational studies, although other research has found no association (3, 4, 5).
That being said, some people do have a sensitivity to MSG and may experience symptoms like headaches, sweating and numbness after eating a large amount.
In one study, 61 people who reported being MSG-sensitive were given either 5 grams of MSG or a placebo.
Interestingly, 36% experienced an adverse reaction to MSG while only 25% reported a reaction to the placebo, so MSG sensitivity may be a legitimate concern for some people (6).
If you experience any negative side effects after consuming MSG, it’s best to keep it out of your diet.
Otherwise, if you’re able to tolerate MSG, it can be safely consumed in moderation without the risk of adverse side effects.
2. ARTIFICIAL FOOD COLORING
Artificial food coloring is used to brighten and improve the appearance of everything from candies to condiments.
In recent years, though, there have been many concerns about potential health effects. Specific food dyes like Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 have been associated with allergic reactions in some people (7).
Additionally, one review reported that artificial food coloring may promote hyperactivity in children, although another study showed that some children may be more sensitive than others (8, 9).
Concerns have also been raised about the potential cancer-causing effects of certain food dyes.
Red 3, also known as erythrosine, has been shown to increase the risk of thyroid tumors in some animal studies, causing it to be replaced by Red 40 in most foods (10, 11).
However, multiple animal studies have found that other food dyes are not associated with any cancer-causing effects (12, 13).
Still, more research is needed to evaluate the safety and potential health effects of artificial food coloring for humans.
Regardless, food dyes are found primarily in processed foods, which should be limited in a healthy diet. Always opt for whole foods, which are higher in important nutrients and naturally free of artificial food coloring.
3. SODIUM NITRITE
Frequently found in processed meats, sodium nitrite acts as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria while also adding a salty flavor and reddish-pink color.
When exposed to high heat and in the presence of amino acids, nitrites can turn into nitrosamine, a compound that can have many negative effects on health.
One review showed that a higher intake of nitrites and nitrosamine was associated with a higher risk of stomach cancer (14).
Many other studies have found a similar association, reporting that a higher intake of processed meats may be linked to a higher risk of colorectal, breast and bladder cancer (15, 16, 17).
Other studies suggest that nitrosamine exposure may also be linked to a higher incidence of type 1 diabetes, although findings are inconsistent (18).
Still, it’s best to keep your intake of sodium nitrite and processed meats to a minimum. Try swapping out processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and ham for unprocessed meat and healthy sources of protein.
Chicken, beef, fish, pork, legumes, nuts, eggs and tempeh are just a few delicious high-protein foods that you can add to your diet in place of processed meats.
4. GUAR GUM
Guar gum is a long-chain carbohydrate used to thicken and bind foods. It’s widely used in the food industry and can be found in ice cream, salad dressings, sauces and soups.
Guar gum is high in fiber and has been associated with a multitude of health benefits. For example, one study showed that it reduced symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as bloating and constipation (19).
A review of three studies also found that people who took guar gum along with a meal had increased feelings of fullness and ate fewer calories from snacking throughout the day (20).
Other research suggests that guar gum may also help lower levels of blood sugar and cholesterol (21, 22).
However, high amounts of guar gum may cause adverse effects on health.
This is because it can swell 10 to 20 times its size, potentially causing issues like obstruction of the esophagus or small intestine (23).
Guar gum may also cause mild symptoms like gas, bloating or cramps in some people (24).
Nevertheless, guar gum is generally considered safe in moderation.
Additionally, the FDA has set strict guidelines on how much guar gum can be added to foods to minimize the risk of negative side effects (25).
5. HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP
High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn. It’s frequently found in soda, juice, candy, breakfast cereals and snack foods.
It’s rich in a type of simple sugar called fructose, which can cause serious health issues when consumed in high amounts.
In particular, high-fructose corn syrup has been linked to weight gain and diabetes.
In one study, 32 people consumed a drink sweetened with either glucose or fructose for 10 weeks.
By the end of the study, the fructose-sweetened beverage caused significant increases in belly fat and blood sugar levels, plus decreased insulin sensitivity compared to the glucose-sweetened beverage (26).
Test-tube and animal studies have also found that fructose can trigger inflammation in the cells (27, 28).
Inflammation is believed to play a central role in many chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes (29).
Additionally, high-fructose corn syrup contributes empty calories and added sugar to foods without any of the important vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
It’s best to skip sugary snacks and foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
Instead, go for whole, unprocessed foods without added sugar, and sweeten them up with Stevia, yacon syrup or fresh fruit.
6. ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Artificial sweeteners are used in many diet foods and beverages to enhance sweetness while reducing calorie content.
Common types of artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium.
Studies show that artificial sweeteners can aid in weight loss and help manage blood sugar levels.
One study found that people who consumed a supplement containing artificial sweeteners for 10 weeks had a lower intake of calories and gained less body fat and weight than those consuming regular sugar (30).
Another study showed that consuming sucralose for three months had no effect on blood sugar control in 128 people with diabetes (31).
Note that certain types of artificial sweeteners like aspartame may cause headaches in some people, and studies show that certain individuals may be more sensitive to its effects (32, 33).
Still, artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe for most people when consumed in moderation (34).
However, if you experience any negative side effects after using artificial sweeteners, check ingredients labels carefully and limit your intake.
Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan acts as a thickener, emulsifier and preservative in many different food products.
Common sources of carrageenan include almond milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, coffee creamers and dairy-free products like vegan cheese.
For decades, there have been concerns about the safety of this common food additive and its potential effects on health.
One animal study showed that exposure to carrageenan increased levels of fasting blood sugar and glucose intolerance, especially when combined with a high-fat diet (35).
Carrageenan is also believed to negatively impact digestive health, and may be associated with the formation of intestinal ulcers and growths (38).
One small study found that when people in remission from ulcerative colitis took a supplement containing carrageenan, they experienced an earlier relapse than those who took a placebo (39).
Unfortunately, current research on the effects of carrageenan is still very limited and more studies are needed to understand how it may affect people.
If you do decide to limit your intake of carrageenan, there are plenty of resources online that can help you find brands and products that are carrageenan-free.
8. SODIUM BENZOATE
Sodium benzoate is a preservative often added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods like salad dressings, pickles, fruit juices and condiments.
It has been generally recognized as safe by the FDA, but several studies have uncovered potential side effects that should be considered (40).
For example, one study found that combining sodium benzoate with artificial food coloring increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old children (41).
Another study showed that a higher intake of beverages containing sodium benzoate was associated with more symptoms of ADHD in 475 college students (42).
When combined with vitamin C, sodium benzoate can also be converted into a benzene, a compound that may be associated with cancer development (43, 44).
Carbonated beverages contain the highest concentration of benzene, and diet or sugar-free beverages are even more prone to benzene formation (43).
One study analyzing the concentration of benzene in a variety of foods found cola and cole slaw samples with over 100 ppb of benzene, which is over 20 times the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA for drinking water (45).
To minimize your intake of sodium benzoate, check the labels of your food carefully.
Avoid foods that contain ingredients like benzoic acid, benzene or benzoate, especially if combined with a source of vitamin C such as citric acid or ascorbic acid.
9. TRANS FAT
Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that have undergone hydrogenation, which increases shelf life and improves the consistency of products.
It can be found in many types of processed foods like baked goods, margarine, microwave popcorn and biscuits.
A number of potential health risks have been associated with trans fat intake, and the FDA even recently decided to revoke their GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status (46).
In particular, multiple studies have linked a higher intake of trans fats to a higher risk of heart disease (47, 48, 49).
One study found that eating foods high in trans fats increased several markers of inflammation, which is one of the major risk factors for heart disease (50).
Research also shows there may be a connection between trans fats and diabetes.
A large study with 84,941 women even showed that a high intake of trans fat was associated with a 40% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes (51).
Cutting processed foods out of your diet is the easiest and most effective way to decrease your trans fat intake.
You can also make a few simple switches in your diet, like using butter instead of margarine and swapping out vegetable oils for olive oil or coconut oil instead.
10. XANTHAN GUM
Xanthan gum is a common additive that’s used to thicken and stabilize many types of food such as salad dressings, soups, syrups and sauces.
It’s also sometimes used in gluten-free recipes to help improve the texture of foods.
Xanthan gum has been associated with several health benefits.
One study found that consuming rice with added xanthan gum resulted in lower levels of blood sugar than consuming rice without it (52).
Another study also found that eating xanthan gum for six weeks reduced levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, plus increased feelings of fullness (53).
However, recent research on the potential benefits of xanthan gum is still limited.
Furthermore, consuming large amounts of xanthan gum may also be linked to digestive problems, such as increased stool output, gas and soft stools (54).
For most people, though, xanthan gum is generally safe and well tolerated.
If you do experience negative symptoms after eating xanthan gum, it’s best to reduce your intake or consider eliminating it from your diet.
11. ARTIFICIAL FLAVORING
Artificial flavors are chemicals designed to mimic the taste of other ingredients.
They can be used to imitate a variety of different flavors, from popcorn and caramel to fruit and beyond.
Animal studies have found that these synthetic flavors could have some concerning effects on health.
One study found that the red blood cell production in rats was significantly reduced after they were fed artificial flavorings for seven days.
Not only that, certain flavors like chocolate, biscuit and strawberry were also found to have a toxic effect on their bone marrow cells (55).
Similarly, another animal study showed that grape, plum and orange synthetic flavorings inhibited cell division and were toxic to bone marrow cells in mice (56).
However, keep in mind that these studies used a much more concentrated dose than you might find in food, and further research is needed to determine how artificial flavoring in the amounts found in foods may affect humans.
In the meantime, if you want to limit your intake of artificial flavoring, check the ingredients label of your foods.
Look for “chocolate” or “cocoa” on the ingredients label rather than “chocolate flavoring” or “artificial flavoring.”
12. YEAST EXTRACT
Yeast extract, also called autolyzed yeast extract or hydrolyzed yeast extract, is added to certain savory foods like cheese, soy sauce and salty snacks to boost the flavor.
It’s made by combining sugar and yeast in a warm environment, then spinning it in a centrifuge and discarding the cell walls of the yeast.
Yeast extract contains glutamate, which is a type of naturally occurring amino acid found in many foods.
Much like monosodium glutamate (MSG), eating foods with glutamate may cause mild symptoms like headaches, numbness and swelling in people who are sensitive to its effects. (6).
Additionally, yeast extract is relatively high in sodium, with about 400 milligrams in each teaspoon (8 grams) (57).
Reducing sodium intake has been shown to help decrease blood pressure, especially in people who have high blood pressure (58).
However, most foods only contain a small amount of added yeast extract, so the glutamate and sodium in yeast extract are unlikely to cause much of a problem for most people.
As of 2017, yeast extract is still recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (59).
If you do experience negative effects, consider limiting your intake of processed foods with yeast extract and adding more fresh, whole foods to your diet.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While certain food additives have been linked to some pretty scary side effects, there are plenty of others that can be safely consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Start reading the ingredient labels when grocery shopping to take control of your diet and determine what’s really being added to your favorite foods.
Additionally, try cutting back on processed and packaged foods and incorporating more fresh ingredients into your diet to minimize your intake of food additives.