Most readers here make a serious effort to eat whole foods and avoid what I call “corporate food” — the obviously unhealthy packaged junk that either is honest about being junk or disguises itself as health food (looking at you, “Beyond Meat“). One of the main reasons to avoid corporate food is the excess of additives, preservatives, and other unknown substances (natural and artificial flavors) inserted into the foods. However, despite some of our best efforts, you can find some of these additives (some controversial) in surprising places. For instance, you’ll find guar gum or even carrageenan used as an emulsifier in store-bought buttermilk or heavy cream, even if you think you’re buying organic. (Seeing guar gum as an ingredient in my “100% pure organic heavy cream” as I was pouring some in my breakfast tea prompted me to write this article.)
Some additives are harmless, or even beneficial. For instance, pectin is found in apples and is a good gelling agent. In fact, I use grated apple in my blueberry pie to achieve that ideal filling texture without the gummy taste tapioca starch or cornstarch provides. Others are controversial, such as carrageenan and furcellaran (more common emulsifying and stabilizing polysaccharides), MSG, and various sugar substitutes. This article will discuss chemical and industrial reasons for food additives, some classes of food additives, and mention some specific examples, with notes on acute or chronic toxicity (if applicable), and which ones sound scary but aren’t.
Polysaccharides as Additives
Polysaccharides are a type of carbohydrate formed by binding monosaccharides together. They are both isolated/synthesized and found naturally, particularly in plants. They are structure forming (such as cellulose or pectin, found in many plants) and water-binding (agar, pectin). Because of these properties, these substances are used as stabilizers for emulsions or dispersions, coatings to prevent unwanted changes in foods (i.e. to slow down spoiling), and inert filler to “increase proportion of indigestible ballast in a diet” . In emulsions/dispersions, these polysaccharides keep the substances in the emulsion and avoid separation of fats and water. That’s why you’ll find these additives in milk, buttermilk, cream, salad dressings, and bottled marinades.
Some specific polysaccharide additives are
This is derived from seaweed. It is indigestible, forms heat-resistant gels, and is moderately good as an emulsifying and stabilizing agent. Its most common advertised use (health-wise) is as a vegan substitute for gelatin. Unless you are on a vegan/vegetarian diet, you probably won’t come across it unless you choose to buy it and use it yourself. There’s no evidence of either acute or chronic toxicity of agar-agar, and its high fiber content can promote bowel regularity.
We’ll find most of the polysaccharide additives are derived from seaweeds. This one is no different. In fact, it constitutes a class of polysaccharide additives whose uses include gel-formation, thickening, and stabilizing. The most common item you’ll see in food in this category is propylene glycol alginate (PGA). It’s used to create the desired creamy consistency in the fillings of baked products such as donuts, danishes, and pastries, salad dressings, and milk chocolates. It’s sometimes used to prevent the formation of large ice crystals in ice cream, though I can’t recall seeing this ingredient much on the “nicer” brands of ice cream. It’s also found in a variety of gel-based products such as instant puddings and fruit gel cups. To be fair, there isn’t evidence of acute toxicity, and none I could find of chronic toxicity. The Paleo Foundation certifies it paleo and KETO, but in my opinion, without further knowledge of the industrial processing and scale of consumption, I’d avoid it. The general claim is that propylene glycol alginate biodegrades readily into acetate, lactate, or glycogen; it is not likely to bioaccumulate. However, saying the compound is “derived from seaweed” doesn’t make it healthy, particularly when industrial processing is considered.
This one is highly controversial. I can say personally that foods with carrageenan as additives absolutely give me digestive issues, particularly when it’s found in ice creams or cake frostings. Carrageenan is derived from red seaweeds and found almost everywhere now, but particularly in dairy products. It’s used to prevent milk coagulation by calcium ions, preventing droplet separation in chocolate milk (just make your own…), and as a stabilizer in ice cream. You can also find it in rotisserie chickens, deli meat, and nutritional shakes. It adds no flavor and no nutritional value whatsoever.
Carrageenan has been linked to various gastrointestinal conditions since the 1960s. It promotes insulin resistance, inhibits insulin signaling, and impairs glucose tolerance. Studies in mice have shown the additive activates inflammatory pathways and temporarily suppresses immune antibody response after consumption. A 2013 report (cited below) goes into detail about how this additive is contributing to gut health degradation and inflammation.
Carrageenan has a unique chemical structure that is not found in most other seaweeds or gums, which is thought to be the driving factor behind its mechanism of action in the body.
For full disclosure, other studies have claimed that carrageenan isn’t absorbed in significant amounts in the body, doesn’t affect nutrient absorption, and has no toxic effects at doses up to 5% of the diet. That last phrase is the “out” for food manufacturers. If you’re consuming a lot of “corporate food”, then I guarantee more than 5% of your diet is carrageenan, given its excessive use. The same journal even claims carrageenan in infant formula is safe. I personally would strongly encourage avoiding it; in fact, upon finding out it’s in buttermilk, I ordered my own cultures and will be making my own buttermilk in the future.
Loosely related to carrageenan, and also derived from a seaweed, this is an additive found in puddings, icings, and cake fillings, processed meat products (deli meat and rotisserie chickens), and used to facilitate protein precipitation during beer brewing. I would generally avoid this one as well, though its health effects aren’t quite as clear. The FDA considers it “generally safe”, but we all know how trustworthy they are.
Used as an emulsifier and stabilizer in baked products, it also retards sugar crystallization and fat separation in confectionary products, and slows ice crystal formation in ice cream. There isn’t much evidence to suggest this one is dangerous, but some people (like me) have a sensitivity to it that can cause digestive upset.
Locust Bean Gum
Similar to Arabic gum, it’s a thickener, binder, and stabilizer. It’s found in ice cream (is there such a thing as unadulterated ice cream anymore?), soft cheeses (I’m not sure if it has to be listed as an ingredient; I’d assume so?), canned meat (sometimes), and salad dressings (seriously, just make your own).
Used again as an emulsifying agent and as a constipation reducer. You’ll find this in a lot of “diet” baked goods because it’s used as a filler. Side effects include bloating and intestinal gas; I avoid.
The point of a flavor enhancer is to either intensify the perception of certain flavors/aromas (like sweet, salty), textures (fatty, satisfying, volume, freshness), and (in my opinion) to cover up the nutrient deficiencies of processed foods.
This classic “umami” food additive gives broths and other meat products an additional “meaty” flavor. Like carrageenan, the harm has been a subject of controversy and debate. It’s been associated with cardiotoxicity, low-grade inflammation, neurotoxicity, metabolic disarray (the non-PC term for this is “Chinese restaurant syndrome”), and even behavioral changes. It is known to interfere with carbohydrate metabolism. A large 2019 meta-analysis  reviewed the “alleged health hazards” and ultimately came up mixed. I highly recommend reading the paper below if interested. It goes into quite a bit of detail. In summary, I would recommend avoiding it.
Along the same lines is 5′-nucleotides such as 5′-inosine monophosphate (IMP) and 5′-guanosine monophosphate (GMP). The properties are similar to MSG but heightened by a factor of 10-20, particularly with food perception. These are common in canned soups.
This additive has a caramel-like odor and enhances the perception of sweetness in carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruit juices. It’s used in order to make “low sugar” products, while retaining the sweetness intensity. This one is also associated with digestive issues such as gas, bloating, and flatulence. Avoid.
Dioctyl Sodium Sulfocuccinate
I came across this one mentioned almost as a footnote in the below-cited food chemistry text. Apparently it’s used in low concentrations to provide a perception of “freshness” to sterilized milk, but doesn’t expand beyond that. Wikipedia cites it as used most often in cream cheeses and pasteurized cheese spreads. Ingestion can cause the usual digestive upset symptoms. I am unable to find evidence of its use in store-bought milk, but perhaps it’s used in milk powder. I’d keep an eye on this one, and will update if I can find more information on it.
There’s not really much new to be said here. All of these should be avoided. These include saccharin, cyclamate, stevioside (stevia), aspartame, etc.
Food dyes and colors also are controversial. Some are naturally derived (lycopene is from tomatoes and imposes a red color, beta-carotene from carrots, chlorophyll is green, and beet juice is red or purple), and many others are synthetic. These synthetic ones are usually known by their vague names, such as:
- Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine)
- Food Orange 8 (Canthaxanthin)
- Red No. 2 (Amaranth)
- Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF)
These things are easily avoided if you avoid sodas, confectionary/candy products (especially colored ones), canned sauces, etc. There are plenty of studies suggesting that these synthetic food dyes are toxic and even carcinogenic.
Acids sound scary but generally aren’t. Citric acid is found in oranges naturally. Acetic acid is vinegar. Lactic acid is a normal by-product of pyruvate (the result of glucose oxidation) which is produced during exercise, particularly sprinting or other power exercises.
Phosphoric acid is a weak acid found in soft drinks, and too much phosphorous can put you at risk for heart disease. Avoid sodas, but phosphoric acid isn’t really the main reason to do so.
Conclusion – Part 1
To avoid making this article too long, I’ll divide this into two parts. The next article will discuss bases, antimicrobial agents, antibiotics, chelating agents, fat substitutes, bleaching agents, clarifying agents, and humectants (water retention).
Not all food additives are inherently bad; many “additives” are in fact compounds you eat in your whole foods every day (citric acid, vitamins, fiber). Some have scary chemical names and are ultimately harmless, and others are likely harmful, particularly in the long term. There is still quite a bit of controversy surrounding many food additives, such as carrageenan and food dyes. The purpose of this article and the next is to sort out what these labels mean and what the chemicals do in order for you to make your own informed nutritional decisions.
- Belitz, H., Grosch, W. Schieberle, P. Food Chemistry: Volume 1(2004). Springer. IBSN: 978-3-540-40818-5-1
- Zanfirescu A, Ungurianu A, Tsatsakis AM, et al. A review of the alleged health hazards of monosodium glutamate [published correction appears in Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2020 Jul;19(4):2330]. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2019;18(4):1111-1134. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12448
- Cornucopia Institute Carrageenan: How a “Natural” Food Additive is Making Us SickLink
- Paleo Institute. Is Propylene Glycol Alginate a Safe Food additive?
- Link, R. Agar Agar: The Vegan Gelatin Substitute that Promotes Satiety and RegularityLink
- Zanfirescu A, Ungurianu A, Tsatsakis AM, Nițulescu GM, Kouretas D, Veskoukis A, Tsoukalas D, Engin AB, Aschner M, Margină D. A review of the alleged health hazards of monosodium glutamate. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2019 Jul;18(4):1111-1134. doi: 10.1111/1541-4337.12448. Epub 2019 May 8. Erratum in: Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2020 Jul;19(4):2330. PMID: 31920467; PMCID: PMC6952072.
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