Food Additive Survival Guide

One glance at the back of a label and you’ll see that the food industry has kidnapped real ingredients and replaced them with science experiments. And lots of them. Milkshakes with 78 ingredients? Bread with 27? Even more troubling is the possibility that if you recognize the name of one of these additives, it could be because it’s been linked to bad news—think cancer in mice, or ADHD in children.

There are more than 3,000 ingredients on the FDA’s list of “safe” food additives, but some still have cause for concern. Here’s a list of nine of the most controversial food additives and what you need to know:

Artificial Flavoring: denotes any of hundreds of allowable chemicals such as butyl alcohol, isobutyric acid, and phenylacetaldehyde dimethyl acetal. The exact chemicals used in flavoring are the proprietary information of food processors, used to imitate specific fruits, butter, spices, and so on.

Found in: Thousands of highly processed foods such as cereals, fruit snacks, beverages, and cookies.

What you need to know: The FDA has approved every item on the list of allowable chemicals, but because they are permitted to hide behind a blanket term, there is no way for consumers to pinpoint the cause of a reaction they might have had. If you’re looking to cut the unknowns out of your diet, search the ingredient list for “Artificial Flavoring”—if a product contains any of the hundreds of allowable chemicals, it’ll be on the list. And you can look for something else.

Aspartame: A near-zero-calorie artificial sweetener made by combining two amino acids with methanol. Most commonly used in diet soda, aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar.

Found in: More than 6,000 grocery items including diet sodas, yogurts, and the table-top sweeteners NutraSweet and Equal.

What you need to know: Over the past 30 years, the FDA has received thousands of consumer complaints due mostly to neurological symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, memory loss, and, in rare cases, epileptic seizures. Human studies have shown aspartame to be completely harmless; a few rodent trials implicate the additive as a carcinogen.

BHA and BHT (Butylated HydroxyAnisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene): Petroleum-derived antioxidants used to preserve fats and oils.

Found in: Beer, crackers, cereals, butter, and foods with added fats.

What you need to know: Of the two, BHA is considered the most dangerous. Studies have shown it to cause cancer in the forestomachs of rats, mice, and hamsters. The Department of Health and Human Services classifies the preservative as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): A corn-derived sweetener representing more than 40 percent of all caloric sweeteners in the supermarket. In 2005, there were 59 pounds produced per capita. The liquid sweetener is created by a complex process that involves breaking down cornstarch with enzymes, and the result is a roughly 50/50 mix of fructose and glucose.

Found in: Although it can be found in every grocery aisle—in products such as ice cream, chips, cookies, cereal, bread, ketchup, jam, canned fruits, yogurt, barbecue sauce, frozen dinners—about two-thirds of the HFCS consumed in the United States is in beverages. Check out our list of the 20 Unhealthiest Drinks in America to see some of the worst examples. You’ll be shocked.

What you need to know: Since around 1980, the US obesity rate has risen proportionately to the increase in HFCS, and Americans are now consuming at least 200 calories of the sweetener each day. Some researchers argue that the body metabolizes HFCS differently, making it easier to store as fat, but this theory has not been proven. But recent research shows another potential concern: a study published in Environmental Health tested 55 common products with HFCS listed as one of the top three ingredients, and found that a third of them contained mercury.

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil: A manufactured fat created by forcing hydrogen gas into vegetable fats under extremely high pressure, an unintended effect of which is the creation of trans fatty acids. Food processors like this fat because of its low cost and long shelf life.

Found in: Margarine, pastries, frozen foods, cakes, cookies, crackers, soups, and nondairy creamers.

What you need to know: Dozens of studies have linked trans fat to heart disease, which is why the cities of Boston and New York, and the state of California, have approved legislation to phase out trans fat in restaurant kitchens. Most health organizations recommend keeping trans fat consumption as low as possible, but a loophole in the FDA’s labeling requirements allows processors to add as much as 0.49 grams per serving and still claim zero in their nutrition facts.

Red #3 (Erythrosine) and Red #40 (Allura Red): Food dyes that are orange-red and cherry-red, respectively. Red #40 is the most widely used food dye in America.

Found in: Fruit cocktail, candy, chocolate cake, cereal, beverages, pastries, maraschino cherries, and fruit snacks.

What you need to know: The FDA once considered imposing a ban on the use of Red #3 in food, but thus far has not. However, after the dye was linked to thyroid tumors in rats, the FDA had the liquid form of the dye removed from external-use drugs and cosmetics.

Saccharin: An artificial sweetener that’s 300 times sweeter than sugar. Invented in 1879, saccharin is the oldest of the five artificial sweeteners used in the United States.

Found in: Diet foods, chewing gum, toothpaste, beverages, sugar-free candy, and Sweet ‘N Low.

What you need to know: Rat studies in the early ‘70s linked high doses of saccharin with bladder cancer, and the FDA moved to ban it. Congress, reacting to public pressure, intervened and mandated that a warning be printed on the label of every product containing saccharin. The warning was removed after 23 years, in the wake of findings that the cancer process saccharin triggers in rats does not apply to humans, and that no human studies found any cancer risk. More recent research found that rats on saccharin-sweetened diets gain more weight than those on sugar-sweetened diets.

Sucralose: A zero-calorie artificial sweetener made by joining chlorine particles and sugar molecules. It’s 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Found in: Sugar-free foods, pudding, low-calorie beverages, some diet sodas, and Splenda.

What you need to know: Despite the controversy surrounding Splenda, sucralose is considered by many scientific bodies to be the least damaging of the artificial sweeteners. After reviewing 110 human and animal studies, the FDA concluded that the use of sucralose does not cause cancer. The sweetener is one of only three artificial sweeteners deemed safe by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Yellow #5 (Tartrazine) and Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow): The second and third most common food colorings, respectively.

Found in: Cereal, pudding, bread mix, beverages, chips, cookies, and condiments.

What you need to know: Researchers in the Untied Kingdom found that 3-year-olds given a drink containing both dyes (and other additives) showed more symptoms of hyperactivity than those who didn’t ingest the chemicals. One study found that mice fed high doses of sunset yellow had trouble swimming straight and righting themselves in water.

(Source: By David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding; Men’s Health)

Does this information surprise you? Do you agree?


34 Responses

  1. I really hate that. I was reading the ingredients label for a “health” bar and couldn’t believe how many ingredients there were. I’d rather eat a piece of white bread and butter than all of the unpronounceables in that “healthy” snack. Sometimes it’s like all we’re doing is trying to create nonfoods to make eating easier. Though I’m guilty of liking Splenda. I really hope it doesn’t turn out to cause cancer or something years down the road. Because I’d be screwed.

  2. Doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a bit depressing and sucks a little that all this stuff is everywhere!

  3. I avoid those ingredients like the plague!

  4. GREAT post! It’s good to see this information organized in such an easy to understand format.

  5. This is very thorough and informative, yet easy to reference. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Wow found this really enlightening! Thanks for the research! I always knew when some foods/ingredients were “bad” but not always why. And I find it shocking that ADD can be linked to a chemical we all injest and sometimes unknowingly. Scary! I took a philosophy class on Surveilance and we even covered topics of genetic modification in foods, etc, and how it can actually be linked to gov’t control…granted it could also be kind of a stretch to debate that – however, if the gov’t pays the scientists to come up with food substitutions for companies to put in our food that we are marketed to eat and not told otherwise, they are in fact controling the population’s diet and not in a good way. I personally think some additives, especially in moderation, can be ok. But making it the main focus of one’s diet is not (just like anything). I was surprised on some of your research but then once I thought about it, the shock value was more shock of not having easy access to this informtaion or being told/informed and how most of the population wouldn’t necessarily have the resources to know it(i.e. internet/computer to know the info, money to buy healthier options, etc.). We live in a very scary world…

  7. I haven’t heard much about BHA/BHT, and it scares me that they’re found in beer. I am by no means a big drinker but I enjoy a beer occasionally. Do you know if all beers contain these preservatives?

  8. I can’t say I am surprised by any of it. I knew some, but not all. Not that I don’t have the occasional processed treat loaded with some manufactured products, but seriously, we need to all be more focused on eating closer to the natural state of things! I think we train ourselves to want that stuff. Thanks for the info!

  9. Oh wow, lots of interesting info here. I definitely need to cut out even more processed foods from my life. Real, whole foods are the way to go. That’s for sure!!

  10. Great read thanks for posting. I have been trying to eliminate all processed food from our diet because there is so much proof on how harmful it is. One thing that is really scary is the increase in autism and I am sure these and other ingredients are the cause. Very sad that these big companies are allowed to make food containing these ingredients!

  11. thanks for the info kelly! although i am still a sugar free gum addict, it is a habit im trying really hard to break! i know artificial sweetners cannot be good for the body…

    – Beth @

  12. Thanks for all this great information Kelly! This is why I am so big on making everything myself from whole, fresh ingredients. We are really trying to eat as locally and organic as possible these days as well. It’s sad what can be in our foods 😦

  13. I swear, I’m not having kids! Clearly I will be putting their lives at risk every time I feed them processed food! And all kids want is processed food!

  14. Great info. Our food chain has definitely been hijacked. Thanks for spreading the word.

  15. Thanks for posting this! It can be so difficult to avoid this stuff because it’s EVERYWHERE, but I certainly try!

  16. no it does not surprise me but it makes me ILL!

  17. ACK! Thanks for the info–not too surprised but still shocking to read!

  18. YIKES!! It doesn’t surprise me, just because I have been trying to read up on it more so I understand what the unknown ingredients are, but it really is disturbing when you read things like this. Thanks so much for sharing, you really summed it all up nicely! 🙂 Have a great night!

  19. I have to admit that I haven’t been the best at avoiding chemicals like this. I honestly just haven’t paid too much attention. After reading this post I’m definitely going to be more cautious.

    Actually, I’m heading to the kitchen right now to see what my bread label says!

  20. Thank you so much for this info! It’s so scary the chemicals they get away with putting into our foods!

  21. Until recently I had no idea how many random things could be found in my food. Once I figured it out I eliminated anything from a box and cook 99% of what we eat from scratch! Scary stuff.

  22. It doesn’t SURPRISE ME but it pisses me off. It really is crazy to look at ingredient lists these days. In Food Inc, they say “Our diet has changed more in the last 50 years than the last 10,000” Scary!!

  23. The amount of chemicals found in our food is just amazing.
    Its no wonder so many people are getting cancer. That was one of the main reasons I started being more careful with what I eat, and people still say to me “but everything causes cancer Leah, dont be ridiculous”. Maybe so, but why WOULDNT you do everything in your power to avoid it?

  24. 9 more reasons to eat fresh veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds and grains. Thanks for the reminders!

    Just read your post on the Body exhibit in the Austin paper blog. I commented over there, but in case you don’t see it…Have you been to Body World? It is a really similar (so it seems) exhibit. As a nerdy scientist, I LOVED it. my mom thought it was gross! 😀

  25. I’m not surprised at all. Unfortunately.

    It’s just stunning to look at labels and see what we’re really eating.

  26. wow, this is a lot to take in, but definitely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  27. thanks for this post kelly. i was aware of most of these items but not all of them. i wonder with a bit of sarcasm if ignorance is truly bliss. i’m already so paranoid and as i become more and aware, i think i might go crazy! like one comment above, we should just stick with the natural foods as fuel for our bodies but that’s a lot easier said than done when you’re trying to feed kids. my first and most important change to THEIR diets was to avoid taking them with me to the grocery store as much as possible. if they don’t see it, they don’t want it. but, they’re still kids, so i’ve been on the hunt for cereals that they will like and i thought i’d hit the jackpot when i found quaker LIFE maple and brown sugar. they had it with sliced banana’s this morning and loved it. then i read this post.

    quaker LIFE maple and brown sugar contains both yellow dyes and BHT. sigh. other than these things, the list of ingredients is stellar.

    keep on ….

  28. Thanks for this post Kelly! You always provide such great info 🙂

  29. recently rated the best health bars. Check out the article at

  30. This is AWESOME! Thanks for sharing, Kelly!

  31. Great information on additives. I enjoyed reading this!

  32. wow! You are one smart lady! 🙂 Thanks for sharing…I’m slowly switching over to all natural one thing at a time! (yesterday was all my cleaning products!

  33. Wow I’m honestly the only reply to this incredible article?!?

  34. If only I had a dime for every time I came here! Great article!

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