Common Food Additives & Preservatives

nat_additives_02Often we eat processed foods and when we read labels we may or may not realize what some common food additives are and the role they play in the food. These are some of the most common food additives and preservatives, their purpose, and health effects.

Artificial coloring:

Artificial food colors are chemical dyes used to color food and drinks. It is found in many types of processed foods, beverages, and condiments have artificial coloring in them. It seems to be controversial since is suspected of causing increased hyperactivity in children. Reports suggesting that the food color Yellow No. 5 might aggravate some people’s asthma symptoms date back to the 1950s, however, in most controlled studies Yellow No. 5 has not been shown to have a significant impact on asthma. In the 1970s, the FDA famously banned Red Dye No. 2 after some studies found that large doses could cause cancer in rats.

The following artificial colors are approved for use in food products and must be listed as ingredients on labels:

FD&C Blue No. 1 (brilliant blue FCF)

FD&C Blue No. 2 (indigotine)

FD&C Green No. 3 (fast green FCF)

FD&C Red No. 40 (allura red AC)

FD&C Red No. 3 (erythrosine)

FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine)

FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)

Orange B (restricted to use in hot dog and sausage casings)


High fructose corn syrup:

High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn. It’s sweeter and cheaper than sucrose, which is the form of sugar made from sugar cane. High fructose corn syrup is a common additive in many kinds of processed foods, not just sweets. Most non-diet soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Some experts have proposed that people metabolize high fructose corn syrup in a way that raises the risk of obesity and type II diabetes more than sugar made from sugar cane. Much of the controversy stems from the observation that obesity in the United States and consumption of high fructose corn syrup increased at the same time. The high fructose corn syrups commonly used to sweeten foods and drinks are 55-58% fructose and 42-45% glucose. Sucrose (cane sugar) is a double sugar made of fructose and glucose. Digestion quickly breaks down cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup into fructose and glucose.



Aspartame is an artificial sweetener known by various brand names, including Equal and NutraSweet and is a commonly used additive for sweetening diet soft drinks. Various health concerns have been raised about aspartame since it was introduced in 1981. Most recently, it has been suspected of causing cancer. There have been reports of aspartame causing seizures, headaches, mood disturbances, and reduced mental performance. A study published in 2005 suggested that aspartame could cause leukemia and lymphoma in rats. Another study, published in 1996, argued that an increase in the rate of brain tumors in the United States could be related to consumption of aspartame.


Monosodium glutamate (MSG):

MSG by itself looks like salt or sugar crystals and is used in many foods. It is a form of the naturally occurring chemical glutamate. Glutamate doesn’t have a flavor of its own, but it enhances other flavors and imparts a savory taste. Tomatoes, soybeans, and seaweed are examples of foods that have a lot of glutamate naturally. Some scientists say that glutamate, also known as “umami,” is the fifth essential flavor that the human palate can detect, in addition to sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.  Many people claim to have bad reactions when they eat food seasoned with MSG. Most scientists today agree that if there is such a thing as a sensitivity or allergy to MSG, it’s rare. Studies haven’t found any regular pattern of symptoms that could be typical of a reaction to MSG. Also, people are more likely to have symptoms if they’re given MSG crystals than if they eat the same amount of MSG mixed with food.  Some food labels come right out and say that a product contains added MSG, but there are other ingredients that may contain MSG such as “hydrolyzed soy protein” and “autolyzed yeast.”


Sodium benzoate:

Sodium benzoate is a food additive used as a preservative.  Sodium benzoate is used in a variety of processed food products and drinks.  It’s suspected that sodium benzoate, in addition to artificial food color, may increase hyperactivity in some children. Sodium benzoate in soft drinks may also react with added vitamin C to make benzene, a cancer-causing substance.  In 2006 and 2007, the FDA tested a sample of almost 200 beverages from stores in different states that contained sodium benzoate and vitamin C. Four of the beverages had benzene levels that were above federal safety standards. These drinks were then reformulated by manufacturers and later deemed safe by the FDA.


Sodium nitrite:

Sodium nitrite is an additive used for curing meat and usually found in preserved meat products, like sausages, fish and canned meats that involves the use of salt, sugar, or some form of dehydration. In each case, the goal is to make the food unattractive to the bacteria that cause food spoilage. This works because bacteria are tiny organisms that require, among other things, moisture, oxygen and food. Take away one of these things and they die. There is a theory that eating a lot of sodium nitrite might cause gastric cancer.  There is evidence that sodium nitrite could have been to blame for a lot of the gastric cancers that people had in the past. Until the early 1930s, gastric cancer caused the most deaths of all cancers in the United States. After that, more Americans began to use modern refrigeration and ate less cured meat. Also, producers started to use much less sodium nitrite in the curing process around that time. As these changes took place, deaths from gastric cancer also dropped dramatically.  This theory has been debated for decades, and it is still an open question.

Given that sodium nitrate occurs naturally in some foods like spinach, carrots and celery, as well as the fact that nitrite has never been shown to cause cancer, all the fuss about nitrates and nitrites might seem like typical media-driven hysteria. Moreover, the supposedly “natural” or “organic” versions of these products can contain many times more sodium nitrate than their conventional counterparts. But when you consider the increased likelihood of contracting botulism, it’s actually the nitrate-free products that present the real health risk.

Sodium nitrate, a preservative that’s used in some processed meats, such as bacon, jerky and luncheon meats, could increase your heart disease risk.  It’s thought that sodium nitrate may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease. Nitrates may also affect the way your body uses sugar, making you more likely to develop diabetes. And you already know that processed meats are high in sodium and saturated fat, which can disrupt a heart-healthy diet. If you eat meat, it’s best to limit processed meat and instead choose lean, fresh meat and poultry, and keep serving sizes small. For greater heart health, consider going one step further and increasing the amount of seafood in your diet.

Sodium nitrate (NaNO3) and its close relative sodium nitrite (NaNO2) are preservatives that you find in lots of processed meats. Stuff like salami, hot dogs, pepperoni, bologna, ham, bacon and SPAM all normally contain sodium nitrate as one of the ingredients. Fresh meats generally do not contain any added chemicals, so the question is, “Why is sodium nitrate added to all of these processed meats?” There are two reasons for adding these chemicals to processed meats, one is they preserve the color of the meat (meaning that it looks pink like SPAM rather than gray like cooked hamburger). You have probably noticed that nearly all meats that contain sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite remain pink or red even though they are cooked during processing and second is these chemicals inhibit botulism to some degree.


Trans fat:

Trans fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. They are food additives in the sense that they’re mainly added to the food supply by manufacturing processes, although small amounts of trans fats are present naturally in animal fat. These “partially hydrogenated oils” are used most often for deep-frying food, and in baked goods. Margarine and vegetable shortening may also be made with partially hydrogenated oil.  Trans fats are believed to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes and most scientists now agree that eating trans fats can be very harmful to health. Trans fats have been found to lower people’s HDL (good) cholesterol and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 1% of your daily calories from trans fats. Product labels are now required to list the amount of trans fat in a serving. Partially hydrogenated oil may also be listed as an ingredient.


Potassium Sorbate:

Potassium sorbate is used in a wide variety of products due to its role as a preservative and its ease of manufacturing. It is a white crystalline powder that has antimicrobial properties. It is one of the safest and most commonly used preservatives today. In foods, potassium sorbate increases shelf life and reduces the risk of food-borne illnesses, without adversely affecting taste, color or flavor. It also has several commercial applications in the coatings, rubber and personal car product industries. It is a chemical that is formed when potassium salt bonds with sorbic acid, creating a fatty acid salt that is polysaturated. At room temperature, it looks like a white crystalline powder, but the mixture will quickly dissolve in water, which will revert it back to sorbic acid as the potassium dissolves. Many consider potassium sorbate ideal for applications in foods because it is highly soluable and can be used at a wide range of pH levels, so it can be applied to a number of products without worry that it will break down.

Most food monitoring organizations consider the substance to be non-GMO related and kosher so it does not affect the legal distribution of products.

  • Winemakers will also use potassium sorbate as part of the fermentation process so that the wine can develop without yeast that would alter the flavor by devouring the sugar content of the berries.
  • Many waxed wrappings or coatings on foods will also contain potassium sorbate as a way to increase preservative levels without altering the recipe of the food.
  • Personal hygiene or beauty products will also use potassium sorbate in their solutions. Shampoo, lotion, cream-based concealers and other liquid products will often contain preservatives to prevent the products spoiling or breaking down as they sit on the shelf or in room temperature storage for long periods of time.
  • Sealants, glosses and industrial coatings will often use potassium sorbate as well. This will help prevent the seal from breaking down over time and will help preserve the materials underneath. If the gloss is used on an organic material such as wood, it will prevent mold, fungus or yeast from attaching to the surface and causing damage.

Those who consume large amounts of food containing potassium sorbate may suffer from diarrhea which can cause them to deplete the nutrient value in their system. In lesser cases, the patient may suffer from nausea as your body becomes overwhelmed with the amount of potassium in your system. Those who frequently use cosmetic products that have potassium sorbate as a preservative can experience rashes or irritation if their body becomes overexposed to the drug. It can also cause irritation to the eyes if it comes in contact with them. Those who are allergic to potassium are even more likely to develop a negative reaction to potassium sorbate. Currently, the only legitimate health concern with this ingredient is a rare allergic reaction or sensitivity (that could lead to migraines or diarrhea). But even that type of reaction can vary from formulation to formulation, so some products might cause irritation, while others don’t.



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