25 Food Additives You Always Wanted To Know About, But (Forgot) To Ask

When I used to eat any ol’ thing in the past, I’d sometimes look at the ingredients labels. Even though I was much younger and didn’t very much care about what I was reading as I was eating whatever junk was contained within, I did become somewhat curious as to what some of the oddly-named chemicals and somewhat-recognizable-from-chemistry-class compounds were and/or what they were doing in my food.

This an ingredient statement or a novel? *rimshot*

Nowadays, since I’m so much wiser, I tend to avoid foods with long ingredients labels; I’ve found this approach, eating mostly simple foods like fruits and vegetables for example, makes me miss out on the great sorbates and carrageenans and the like that I used to obliviously gawk at as I swilled this or that soda or made mince with luncheon meats.

Point is, I think a lot of people take the safety of these preservatives for granted; so, I wanted to compile a list of some of the more common additives, and break-down what, if anything, they “do” to your body.

So, without further ado:


25 Food Additives You Always Wanted To Know About, But [Forgot] To Ask

Now, I know in this busy world it’s a lot to ask to not stray off the path of the culinary straight and narrow. I think it goes without saying that most of us, me included, would like to always eat pure; fresh fruits, nature’s bounty of vitamins in vegetables, all that jazz. Sometimes we grab for something quick, though, and even in haste we take a glimpse to make sure there’s nothing too bad in the processed food we’re soon to put in ourselves. “No hydrogenated oils or trans fats, great. No sugar, aspartame, or terrible artificial sweeteners, great. No MSG, great.” Then we grab up that boy like it’s a keeper! However, what of the lesser-known ingredients like carrageenan and sodium benzoate, et cetera? You may or may not have taken a cursory gander online or through other media to check on these things, but I went whole-hog just for you in investigating, and here’re the (sometimes shocking) (sometimes yawn-inducing) results!:

1. Carrageenan

Since I mentioned it first above, figured I’d go ahead and start with this guy. Carrageenan is a stabilizer/thickener/filler substance derived from red seaweed. You’ll find it in everything from milk replacement products to meat products to candies. Carrageenan is one of several “fat replacing” additives you’ll find in foods trying to cut fat and make up calories in the form of carbohydrates, an idea that is past its time and proven inefficient and unsafe for heart health. In any case, that isn’t the nail in the coffin for carrageenan consumption, but there are some things you oughtta know that might make you turn the tide on it (Get it? Seaweed? Tide? Ha..ha…). Bad news-good news; The bad: Carrageenan injected directly into the bloodstream of mammals immediately causes toxic immunological effects which can/has resulted in death. Wait, wait, there’s good news! (I guess) This type of effect is not seen through ingestion, since carrageenan is not absorbed into one’s system and doses we humans are exposed to generally do not have this effect. Not sure if that makes you feel any better, but I will go back into scare-tactic land and say that ingesting extremely high doses over long periods of time has shown adverse effects on mammalian lungs; but again, it’s way more carrageenan than you and I’d be consuming. Carrageenan is not allowed in infant formula in Europe up to a certain point in the child’s development, but this is mostly due to public scrutiny on food additives during the 80s, despite safety tests affirming the low toxicity. In the US, the FDA allows it in baby food; they claim that the carrageenan allows less fat separation in the formulas and thus more uniform nutrition. Another big controversy surrounding ol’ Carrie (my new pet name) is one of molecular weights, viscosities, and potential degredation (stay with me, here). Apparently, carrageenan and carrageenan by-products under the molecular weight of 100,000 daltons are potentially harmful; as unlike food-grade (over 100,000) carrageenan, these types may be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. There is more controversy regarding studies on the negative effects of carrageenan and, in particular, one of its byproducts called poligeenan. Poligeenan is a synthetic polymer that has to be manufactured from raw carrageenan and is not used in food. Some negative studies are thought to review toxicological animal tests on poligeenan (which has a weight of about 20,000) instead of food-grade carrageenan. Though scientists on both sides of the issue recommend a weight of 100,000 daltons or above as the safe way to go, the FDA has not issued a dictum requiring that weight. However, most carrageenan used in foods has molecular weights well over 100,000, which is somewhat-relieving as tests in guinea pigs given carrageenan at molecular weights from 21,000 to 107,000 showed evidence of internal problems for the guineas, though there were different strains of carrageenans and different viscosities amongst them. On the point of viscosity, (which is the thickness of a liquid, for you non science-buffs out there) there is no FDA mandate for optimal viscosity. In the guinea pig test, though, only one strain of carrageenan (called iota) at mid-level viscosities and in drinking water and not food, showed adverse results. In any case, the only further point that scientists from pro and anti-carrageenan sides seem to agree on is that carrageenan, even at high molecular weights, should be tested for possible degradation in food-processing and the like to assure that it does not break down into low molecular weight, readily-absorbed toxic carrageenan.

The verdict: Since gums like xanthan and guar gum can be used in place of carrageenan, and due to the knowledge that fat is not the prime culprit in weight gain and heart disease, carrageenan or other gums may not need to replace anything at all. I’d say avoid it if at all possible, though apparently in intermittent low doses it won’t kill you.

2. Soy Lecithin

Here’s one we see in a lot of things; if you eat a lot of chocolate and read a lot of ingredients labels, you probably see it more often than most! Soy lecithin is a lecithin derived from- SURPRISE!- soy. Lecithins are used as emulsifiers (Big word for holder-together) in chocolate and other products, i.e. they keep the cocoa and cocoa butter in a chocolate bar from separating. Lecithin is actually naturally found in eggs, and if you do any baking you know of the binding properties of eggs in cookies and pastries. Soy lecithin in particular is very cheap to produce, which is probably why we see it in so many products on the shelves. As 94% of US soybeans are genetically engineered, that oft-seen ingredient on your candy bar label almost certainly has GMO properties. Speaking of, there is quite a bit of processing of that bean to extract soy lecithin: it starts with tempering, cleaning and cracking the soybeans; then, followed by heating and pressing the hull-separated soybeans into flakes. The flakes are distilled, where soybean oil is extracted. The crude soy oil is degummed to make it less viscous, and the thick sludge that is left over contains the lecithin. The sludge contains solvents and pesticides, so the lecithin must be filtered out by a method called hexane extraction. Hexane is a solvent, which is found in gasoline. It is non-toxic at small amounts over irregular periods of time; but the non-profit advocacy group Cornucopia Institute found that soy oil contained 10 parts-per-million of hexane, which is apparently an amount they found unacceptable. Nervous system failure is known to occur in humans exposed to the mainly-used form of hexane, n-hexane, at a constant daily intake/exposure of over 400 parts-per-million. This can be from using cleaning products containing it in concert with ingestion of certain oils. Sounds scary; but soy lecithin has been found to have a few upsides, too. For one, it’s been found to have a use in lowering stress. One of the fatty acids in soy lecithin decreases the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, secreted while being subjected to mental and physical stresses. Another study found soy lecithin, when making up 3.4% of the diet, can lower total cholesterol while keeping plasma HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels high. Yet another study found that a diet containing soy lecithin and corn oil calmed horses, but didn’t specify if they were simply dumbed-down or stressless; just that they had “improved tractability.”

The verdict: Again, this is an additive that seems to be acceptable in the small doses in which it is contained in foods. Exercise caution in using soy products along with industrial cleaners containing hexane or hexane byproducts to minimize any risk of a toxic overload.


The acronym stands for “polyglycerol polyricinoleate” and the substance itself is most usually made from castor oil. Here’s one I really only want to hit on right quickly, and really only because it, like soy lecithin, is something you’ll mostly find in chocolate bars. Now, obviously, sweetened chocolate bars are not something you want to imbibe yourself with, anyway; but hear me out on this one! Apparently, big-dollar candy firms like Hershey’s and Nestlé decided to save a bit of cash by replacing a portion of cocoa butter with this stuff. Apparently, that cocoa butter can be sold off at high dollar for use in cosmetics. So, what of PGPR; is it unsafe? Well, not necessarily; in fact, the fatty acids found in castor oil (a rare polyunsaturate called ricinoleic acid) have been found to have beneficial effects. These include fostering production of CLA, or “Conjugated linoleic acid,” a substance which has been found to assist in shedding off pounds as well as firming the belly. It also has been used since antiquity for its anti-bacterial and pain relieving abilities, though this is mostly for topical use. In the body, it has been found to be a potent laxative. There is a lot of talk online about one of the components of the castor plant, ricin; this protein is deadly toxic at miniscule portions, but the castor oil extraction process seems to be efficient enough (as I suppose there aren’t a lot of dead Hershey’s lovers or bad kids in orphanages dying from too much castor oil). Ricin has also been found to be just as potent at inhibiting, even destroying cancerous B-cells, so while none of this applies to anyone eating chocolate (as the ricin is filtered out), it shows that even such a poison has its beneficial uses.

The verdict: This is a weird one, as it is a fat being replaced with a fat (even though the replacement fat is polyunsaturated, to the original fat’s saturated-ness). I think this is more an issue of product authenticity than safety. What I mean is that you’re getting a product that isn’t really what you think you’re buying; if you’re looking for the genuine taste of true chocolate, you’re not gettin’ it here, sweetheart! (Though I can’t recall ever liking Hershey’s chocolate, myself; weird aftertaste). I just find the whole “ingredient replacement” option distasteful at best and defying of nutrition at worst (That is, the natural molecular structure may and probably does work better “uploading” whatever nutrients to one’s body than a strange mash-up of perhaps non-coagulating ingredients). Again, this substance is added to replace an ingredient that the “chocolate” makers can make big money on, and it even lowers the viscosity (thickness) of the final product. The natural antioxidant-containing phenols found in the chocolate’s cocoa butter are lost, witha refined version of castor oil put in their place. I say leave anything containing this junk on the shelf.

4. Palmitate

Here’s another one I see fairly often, nowadays. Palmitates are the salts and/or esters of palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid. Palmitic acid is the predominant saturated fatty acid in the American diet, contributing approximately 7–8% of the total energy intake. Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant and a source of vitamin A added to low fat milk to replace the vitamin content lost through the removal of milk fat. Palmitate is attached to the alcohol form of vitamin A, retinol, to make vitamin A stable in milk. To the point, prolonged consumption of palmitate causes endoplasmic reticulum stress. The endoplasmic reticulum is the part of a cell which synthesizes proteins and fats for use in the body. This stress ultimately results in death of cells; this causes improper synthesis, which is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Palmitate also induces insensitivity to glucose (sugar) in cells over the long term, which contributes to destructors of cell respiration like lowered pyruvate dehydrogenase activity (basically transforming of ketone bodies into cell energy). There is also evidence that high levels of free fatty acids like palmitate in concert with adrenaline (from stress reactions, et cetera) increase metabolic rate, which induces an increase in hunger and also a danger of hyperthyroidism. Palmitate has also been found to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and an FDA study found that retinyl palmitate, the very same one found in low-fat milk to imbue it with vitamin A, accelerated tumors and lesions in the sun when sunscreen containing it was applied to animals. Yipes.

The verdict: There is virtually nothing good about this stuff, so I caution you to stay away from it. Palmitate used as an antioxidant and vitamin A source/protector of degradation of vitamin A and shelf-life of foods has been seen to be inferior to using tocopherols (a.k.a. vitamin E; see below!), and even iffy additives like carrageenan can do what it does at much less the risk. This is another example of a danger of replacing natural fats with preservatives, so do yourself a favor and just get the full-fat stuff.

5. Casein

Casein is the main protein found in cow’s milk. It’s used in cheese, paint and glue making, plastics, and protein supplements. While I’m not sure most people actually see it on food labels since it’s a natural part of dairy, I know I’ve seen it around most notably in body builder’s supplements. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any good news to report on the stuff. On the note of such positive news, it seems casein’s only redeeming factor is its potential to promote the growth of helpful probiotics, especially in cow milk-based infant formulas. It just about ends there with the good, though. Casein inhibits iron absorption in humans, has been found to have the potential for creating blindness in mammals with gastrointestinal maladies, and it contains opioids (i.e. opiates). The opiates do more than addict you to the stuff, as you’ve probably guessed (especially if you look in most dairy-filled American refrigerators); they cause constipation, pseudoallergic skin reactions in children, and wanton histamine release in adults, which also spurs on allergic skin reactions. One study found the addictive quality of casein insignificant, but said study tested rats’ preferential places in a cage containing pure morphine on one side vs. b-casomorphin (an opioid from casein) on another, so I suppose you be the judge. Also, ever wonder why you love cheese so much? It’s because cheese-making removes water, lactose, and whey proteins, concentrating casein and its break-down component of b-casomorphin, which probably creates a pretty acute addiction.

Verdict: I know, I know; you don’t want to give up the cheese. It’s not easy for me, either. As someone who’s constantly trying to bodybuild and put on weight, giving up dairy products seems foolish. However, I’ve long ago eschewed milk (for reasons more related to the realization that milk is really for the nourishment of growing infants, not adults; especially not milk from another species), and while I do casein-it-up from time to time with the cheese, I try to keep it to a minimum. Casein, as referenced above, causes all manner of skin ills- from acne to encouraging candida growth. If you can challenge yourself for a while to get off it, you will and hey: Casein-free vegan cheese substitutes are getting better and better these days, so maybe check ’em out next time you get a craving.

6-9. The Gums

6. Guar Gum: Guar gum is a polysaccharide, i.e. a long carbohydrate molecule, made of the endosperm of guar beans. It’s used in foods as a thickener, and is often used in frozen products like ice cream for its ability to repel ice crystals. It has a myriad of good effects in the body; lowering LDL cholesterol while leaving HDL cholesterol unchanged, and increasing sugar tolerance by decreasing the amount of sugar absorbed by the small intestine. One could imagine the positive effect this has on blood sugar, and thus it is helpful for diabetics. Over the long-term, it has been found to help in the control of type 2 diabetes because of these properties plus the lack of loss of glucose through urine caused by guar gum intake. Guar gum also decreases appetite, and in a study of obese folks taking a small percentage with their meals all subjects lost significant weight while also improving their blood sugar levels. It also increases beneficial bifidobacteria (microflora in the gut), which aid in the digestion of foods and overall well-being. Modified guar gums, along with normal guar gums have been seen to limit the effect of cancerous carcinoma cells. Guar gum given over a period of two years at mean doses of 15g a day in patients who underwent artery-unclogging surgeries apparently helped in keeping their arteries clear while keeping LDL levels in check. So…this stuff sounds pretty miraculous, huh? Only downside, it seems, is that in staggering amounts it causes flatulence; and in such amounts, not taking enough water with its ingestion causes some degree of intestinal blockage. This, however, can be seen with any dietary fiber (which is what guar gum happens to be).

The verdict: So, this one seems okay. There are actually supplements made containing just guar gum that I have seen in co-ops and health food stores, so its heart/blood sugar/cholesterol-helping effects are well-known to the holistic world. I suppose with any additive, its source and genetic modification status should be noted; but this one is one of the “good guys” in the crowded additive world.

7. Xantham Gum: Xantham gum, another polysaccharide, is derived from a plant bacteria. This bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris, can come from corn (which throws up some red flags as, like soy, much of US corn is genetically-modified). It is mostly used as a thickener in the food industry, but due to its free-flowing while thickening properties is used in many other applications such as oil drilling, as well. It is cheaper to produce than guar gum, which may explain its prevalence in food products (especially gluten-free products, which even with guar gum are already more expensive to produce). It has none of the beneficial blood sugar effects of guar, but over the long term it seems to help in lowering pre- and post-eating total cholesterol, as well as significantly lowering vLDL triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. As it is also a dietary fiber, like guar, it helps in thickening and moving along of the stool. Since xanthan gum is fermented, it may cause problems for people with allergies to mold. Also, the unpredictability of where it comes from (corn, cabbage, or other vegetables which harbor xanthomonas campestris) is uncomfortably mysterious, to me. Add to that the fact it has been implicated in 15 cases (2 of them deaths) of necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening condition, in infants. The product containing xantham gum in the implication, SimplyThick, is made up of mostly xanthan gum, but also contains water, citric acid, and potassium sorbate. As of this writing, it is not known why the product caused the condition in infants, or if it was solely the fault of xanthan gum, but I suppose it is best to avoid giving xanthan gum to infants.

The verdict: Eh, this one seems pretty iffy in the “gum world” when you consider all the benefits of guar. I avoid it, and would recommend you do the same; at least in products where it isn’t organic and the source isn’t divulged.

8. Gum arabic/acacia gum: Two names for the same product, gum arabic/acacia gum is a naturally sticky substance made from the sap from two different species of the acacia tree. Like other gums, it contains polysaccharides; but it also is made up of a form of protein, as well. Aside from being edible, it has multiple uses as a strong binding material. Therefore, it is often seen in glues, paints, and used as a thickener in inks. In food, you’ll often see it in soft drinks and candies; so, that might be a reason to avoid it in itself. Unlike guar gum but like xantham gum, it has no effect on glucose tolerance/blood sugar, but does help in lowering total blood cholesterol. Unlike the other gums, it is fully digested/metabolised; so its effects as a fiber are negligible, though it does increase absorption of short-chain fatty acids. It increases microflora in the gut in fermenting there, creating an environment where supplies of short chain fatty acids act as an energy supply for the wall cells of the colon and may produce mutagens (DNA-changing agents that may cause mutations/cancer), though nothing I could find linked gum arabic to any type of carcinogens or cancer, so the mutagens may be harmless. In fact, gum arabic is now being used for cancer therapy, by way of modification of magnetic nanoparticles.

The verdict: Still not the relative “hero” that guar gum seems to be, but as it is naturally-occurring from trees it doesn’t seem to be that bad. Its source is an issue, but less for the GMO properties and more for the fact it comes from the middle east. The turmoil there makes it hard to get ahold of at times, which is more of a concern for manufacturers of products containing it than you; however, when said manufacturers cannot get it, they may have to resort to using cheaper and less safe alternatives; something to keep in mind.

9. Locust bean gum/carob gum: Another in the series of “a gum by any other name,” this dual-named gum is a polysaccharide derived from the carob tree. Similar to the other gums, it has heart-assisting effects in lowering LDL cholesterol and upping HDL. It slows gastric emptying rate (amount of time it take for a food to go into you and come out of you, if you know what I mean) even in doses as low as 6g. Also, like some other gums, it increases beneficial microflora in the gut.

The verdict: Not much to say here, really, but it’s okay. Another natural gum like guar, with beneficial effects.

10 & 11: BHT & BHA

The abbreviations stand for “Butylated hydroxytoluene/” “Butylated hydroxyanisole,” respectively; they’re synthetic antioxidants/preservatives that are fat-soluble (like most antioxidants). Besides being sometimes found in foods, they’re is also used in cosmetics, rubber and other petroleum products and ick: embalming fluid. At levels up to 500 times the normal level consumed by an average American (which estimates say consumption is estimated at 0.1 mg per kg a day), BHT and BHA seem to be free of any deleterious effects; but at larger levels (That is, above 500 mg per kg a day), they have been reported to have some teratogenic (causing malformations of embryos) and carcinogenic effects on rodents. Though the effects are much less on monkeys, who are more genetically related to us, they still exist; however, upon removal of BHT/BHA the ill effects seem to reverse themselves. Long term low-level ingestion of BHT/BHA may be beneficial in stopping the degradation of vitamin E in the system by other nutrients, as well as lessening the toxicity and chance of cancer from certain mutagenic and carcinogenic chemicals. Though BHT as an antioxidant seems to have little effect on cholesterol, it subverts the chances of lesions associated with atherosclerosis. Direct injection (not oral ingestion) of BHT in mice caused lung injury, and cell death in areas of the heart. Other studies have found while BHT/BHA may inhibite some factors of cancer from forming, once the cancer has formed they actually promote it (in the stomach for BHA, liver for BHT). In high doses, impairment of blood clotting is seen, which seems to be the case even in natural antioxidants like vitamin E. One study said that BHT and its sister compound BHA are carcinogens, and thus vitamin E, as a natural (non-lab-created) antioxidant, is preferred over the use of those two. The same study noted the anti-carcinogenic potential of both substances, but said their carcinogenic properties made that potential non-constructive.

The verdict: I’d go ahead and say these guys are a no-go. One study I read said the amount of these synthetic antioxidants used in modern food and cosmetic applications is “probably harmless,” which is way too iffy to be very scientific to me. Other studies dismiss the role of BHT in suppressing cancers, so like I said: Way too iffy. Still, if you must chance it do it infrequently and make sure these two are at the bottom of any ingredients list.

12 & 13 Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrate is a form of nitrogen which naturally occurs in plants and is also created synthetically to be used as an anti-botulism agent in, for example, cured meat products. Nitrate itself is relatively non-toxic, but roughly 5% ingested is converted to the more toxic nitrite when exposed to saliva. Due to the increased usage of nitrogen fertilizers, vegetable sources of nitrate and nitrite in drinking water is higher than in the past. Nitrite and compounds called n-nitrosos derived from nitrite can bind to proteins in foods and inhibit the ability of oxygen to be delivered to tissues. This ability has been cited as the cause of methaemoglobinaemia, or “blue baby syndrome.” Older children and adults are less susceptible to this form of tissue asphyxiation. N-nitroso can also be formed during storage and ripening of certain foods. Nitrates from vegetables seem to be offset in their negative properties by the vitamins and minerals in the foods in which they are contained, but there are studies showing that even small amounts (under the recommended daily intake) in vegetables, when mixed in a meal with fish (proteins) don’t have the ability to offset the damaging effects of n-nitroso and nitrites binding the fish proteins. Nitrate can interefere with iodine absorption and therefore thyroid function; this throws off endocrine and hormone functions in the body. There has also been a link to possible causation of diabetes in children and levels of nitrate in drinking water. However, there are other studies that suggest nitrate is actually good for you. Nitric oxide formed in the stomach from dietary nitrate may have antimicrobial effects and may help defend against infections. Also, there is evidence that nitrate assists in reduction of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, and risk of gastric cancer. A growing number of scientists are speaking out against the dogmatic view of nitrates being “bad.” Examining methemoglobinemia, cancer, reproductive, and other health risks through epidemiological studies with mixed results (all slight, whether negative or positive) has yielded little correlation, they say. These scientists have also pointed to the fact nitrate-rich vegetables have greater than 50 times the amount of nitrate than is found in drinking water. They do recognize that naturally-produced nitrite in saliva is at its highest after nitrate consumption, but contend that due to the pH of gastric juices, nitrite content in the stomach is low; much lower than that in the saliva. Lack of sufficient evidence of nitrate’s supposedly-dangerous role may have a societal cost; lower economically-developed communities are struggling to pay for nitrate water filtration systems which may not even be necessary and are based on a preventative measure against blue baby syndrome taken in the 1950s with no absolute proof. On the plus side of nitrate, it’s been seen that nitrite that is swallowed from saliva and brought to the acidic stomach environment becomes nitrous oxide and other nitrogen compounds which have been found to have antimicrobial activity against such baddies as Salmonella. Nitrate and its products also assist in opening up of the blood vessels (vasodilation) and possibly help in circulation of gastric waste products. Yet another camp o’ scientists believes both sides’ (Nitrate good/nitrate bad!) ideas are too simple, and recommends that guidelines on nitrates in water, foods, et cetera, be based on research identifying factors like effects on subgroups of individuals with increased and continued inborn nitrate levels and those with medical conditions which increase nitrate compounds. As for the run-down of amounts-per-food, vegetables have the highest amount of nitrates, up to 189 mg/serving; meat and bean products have the most amount of nitrites, up to 1.84 mg/serving, and dairy products have the most n-nitrosos, at up to 5.31 micrograms per serving. Nitrate/nitrite/and n-nitroso consumption causes all manner of ills in animals; as mentioned above, nitrates have impaired thyroid function, as well as decreased feed consumption, and interfered with vitamin A and E metabolism. Nitrites caused anemia and methemoglobinemia in a wide range of species, i.e. cattle, sheep, swine, dogs, guinea pigs, rats, chickens and turkeys. In rats, chronic nitrite exposure causes pathologic changes in a variety of tissues, alterations in motor activity and brain electrical activity, and alters gastric mucosal absorption. N-nitroso, which is found in cow’s milk and some goat’s milk, has caused liver disorder in many animals.

The verdict: Whew! That’s a lot to consider. I suppose it’s most auspicious to take a common sense approach to this one; what I mean is that since these compounds are found in virtually everything, especially fruits and veggies, to simply eat the “good” things. That includes those aforementioned fruits and veggies, and limits any manner of highly-processed meats and dairy. The fiber, minerals, and nutrients derived from the vegetables along with the body’s natural abilities (as long as the subject is healthy) to purge toxins should be more than enough to slow the deleterious effects of nitrogen compounds. One could also be wary of the practices of the farms from which one gets one’s vegetables. Of course, a bit of research would have to be done, but finding farmers who use less nitrogen fertilizers may be well worth it. Avoiding nitrates completely and eating in a healthy manner is impossible.


14. Corn syrup solids

These are just solidified versions of corn syrup; they’re mostly used to prevent sugar crystallization and help an item retain moisture. As they’re technically just sugars and often used together with sugars, they are empty calories that raise blood insulin levels, amongst other bad things, and should be avoided.

The verdict: Didn’t you see? I said avoid ’em! Oh yeah, this “verdict” thing is my idea to make me look like an authority. Sorry.

15. Mono & diglycerides

Minus the science on what these things are (basically the same as triglycerides, but with bonds to one or two fatty acids instead of the three in triglycerides), they are used as emulsifiers by the food industry, as they are both readily-soluble in both fat and water. Their sources can vary; they can be synthetically made or derived from plant or animal fatty acids. There surely isn’t a surfeit of information about these guys in peer-reviewed studies, at least not in relation to anything but chemical properties of glycerides; certainly not much in the way of their use as food additives. In searching “normal” internet channels, I’ve seen them called many things, from trans fats dressed in sheep’s clothing to ingredients which are allowed by the FDA to not be scrutinized in the way that their sources be identified. I suppose the latter is true, as I have never seen “mono- and diglycerides from ______” on any food label. They’re very suspicious in that way, so at the very least I’d recommend that vegans avoid them.

The verdict: Draw another line in the “iffy” book. I’d say avoid them, but I really couldn’t find sufficient evidence for doing so. Still, being in the dark about what you’re eating and from where it came seems foolish to me.

16. Tocopherols

Tocopherols are organic compounds that are mostly added to food to supplement whatever product with vitamin E. They are often added to oils like soybean oil to decrease incidence of spoiling as they prevent oxidation and rancidity. In solving the problem of oxidation, the antioxidants found in tocopherols and vitamin E thereby prevent atherosclerosis. Still, heating these oils for use in frying applications generally destroys all the activity of the tocopherols, especially if the oil contains some amount of ascorbic acid as a preservative. Detrimental effects of tocopherols/antioxidants only occur at very high levels of consumption, and seem to be closely related to those seen in synthetic antioxidants like the aforementioned BHA/BHT; though most studies find them safe, and certainly moreso than those synthetics.

The verdict: These guys seem to be fine, as they provide vitamin E and curb at least some of the ill effects of certain not-so-great vegetable oils.

17. Citrates

Citrates are bases of citric acid, which is the acid found in most orange-like fruits (Lemon, lime, grapefruit, et cetera). They are used in food as an emulsifier, as they can hold oil and water together and prevent crystallization of sugars. Citrate as a non-additive is found as potassium citrate in many natural foods, including fruits, vegetables, and fish, and is touted for its ability to lower blood pressure and maintaining electrolyte balance.

The verdict: Couldn’t find a rap sheet on citrates, and as they do come from a natural source they seem fine and dandy.

18. Phosphates

Phosphates are natural, inorganic compounds containing phosphorous and other minerals. As a food additive, phosphates act as leavening agents; that is, they help in the rising of breads and thus in such products’ desirable texture. They also help cold cut meats retain moisture longer, and sodium phosphate seems to be a good agent for clearing salmonella from produce. However, a high amount of phosphates in the diet may be a bad thing. Phosphate has been found, in large amounts, to speed up the aging process in rats. Maybe a thought to those constantly consuming phosphate-containing sodas (as if the sugar wasn’t age-enhancing enough with the superfluous reactive oxygen species it creates). Phosphates have also been implicated in cases of lung cancer, again in rats, but scientists say overuse may result in lung tumors especially for those more genetically predisposed to the disease. These results were actually found in rats consuming the “normal” amount of phosphate per body weight as most people. Still, phosphorus is an essential nutrient in our regimen.

The verdict: Just two things: 1) Don’t go overboard with the stuff and 2) one should probably stay away from most of the products in which phosphates are used. Hate to sound so strict all the time, but soft drinks, refined breads and cold cuts don’t exactly make up a balanced or healthy diet. Phosphorus may be essential, but it can also be found in more healthy places like carrots and tomatoes.

19. Esters

No, not grandma Esther. Okay, dumb joke. AHEM; Anyway, esters are compounds formed from a reaction between fatty acids and alcohols. In foods, they are used to mimic natural flavorings and to replace fats for their binding properties. Though esters are technically fats themselves, they are well-known for their ability to lower total blood cholesterol and especially LDL cholesterol (lowering cholesterol 10-14% at 2-2.5g a day). Toxicological studies found no danger in consumption of phytosterol esters on reproduction, even at 6.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight a day though it is advisable to supplement yourself with extra carotenoid-containing foods (Like spinach, carrots, and sweet potatoes), as esters tend to lower these beneficial chemicals.

The verdict: Again, another food additive with nary a rap sheet as far as I can tell. Like anything though, I suppose they’re best in moderation.

20. Acesulfame K

Acesulfame K is an artificial sweetener along the lines of aspartame or sucralose. This alone makes me want to avoid it, but I reviewed the evidence to come to a conclusion. Acesulfame-K causes some degree of clastogenicity; that is, it damages cell chromosomes. Those cells not killed by this damage may become cancerous. It is also seen to increase insulin in blood like the sweeteners (sugar) it’s meant to replace. Acesulfame K also is more DNA-damaging than its “original” counterpart, aspartame.

The verdict: Stay far, far away. I only included this one in the list since it’s a much lesser-known artificial sweetener than aspartame or sucralose (both terrible). However, it’s about the same old story. You’d be better off simply using sugar; not that I recommend such an action, of course.

21. Citric acid

Citric acid, as explained above with citrates, is the acid found in orange/lemon-like fruits. It imparts sour flavor in foods, and like citrates helps in emulsion.

The verdict: Keeping with the laconic nature of the description, I’ll simply say “it’s fine.”

22. Ascorbic acid

Ascorbic acid is vitamin C. It is added to foods for its antioxidant properties.

The verdict: Can’t argue with vitamin C!

23. Natural flavors

I’m sure you’ve seen this gem on an ingredients label and wondered why something could claim to be natural without being very specific; I feel the same way. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations mandates natural flavorings as such: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Well, that certainly clears things up. Gary Reineccius, flavor chemist and Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, contends that these “natural” flavorings are often less-safe than their artificial counterparts. The artificial flavors, he says, all have to be made within the confines of certain regulations; every ingredient must be approved. The natural ones apparently receive much less scrutiny, and the good professor has also added that since they are naturally-derived, they are much more costly to produce and of no better quality than artifical flavorings. I’m not sure I buy that from a person whose life is spent making artificial flavorings, but the fact of the matter is that “natural flavors” are basically intellectual copyrights of sorts; companies can hide behind “natural flavors” to hide proprietary blends, leaving consumers in the dark about what is actually flavoring the products they consume. Even in organic food, these mystery flavors can be listed (that is, if the product is not 100% organic). Many organic convenience foods, you may notice, say “made with organic ingredients” or “70%” or some odd-percentage organic. As flavorings in foods, even organic, are allowed to constitute up to 5% of total ingredients, any food under 100% organic can contain these mystery flavorings (though I found a list of allowed flavorings/extra ingredients for organic foods here).

The verdict: Have I used the word “iffy” enough in this piece? I’d say to go ahead and avoid these, as they’re just a big mystery. In my view, if something is natural, divulging what it is shouldn’t be a problem.

24. Potassium sorbate

Potassium sorbate is a potassium salt produced by introducing the inorganic compound, potassium hydroxide, with sorbic acid (found in some berries). In foods, it’s added for its use as a preservative as it inhibits molds and yeasts. It has also been shown to inhibit growth for e.coli, salmonella, botulism, and staph. It is used in some nasal sprays for those same properties, but at least one study has found that, even in small amounts, it has caused nasal lesions. Though, genotoxicity tests with mice and hamsters revealed no signs of toxicity for potassium sorbate.

The verdict: Eh; not really thrilled about this one, but there isn’t a mountain of evidence claiming it “bad.” Go with the “moderation” thing; oh, and you probably shouldn’t use it as a natural helper in sniffing coke, if that one study is any indication.

25. Sodium benzoate

Sodium benzoate is a salt of benzoic acid. It’s used, like potassium sorbate, as a preservative which inhibits fungus and bacteria. However, some caution has been suggested with its use. In soft drinks, for example, it can form benzene (Yeah, that stuff that removes paint); though the levels are so low that it is supposedly safe for consumption. Sodium benzoate has also been implicated as a food additive which may cause hyperactivity in children, though not all trials came to that conclusion and the effects may be dependent on a mixture of sodium benzoate and certain food dyes. Studies subjecting rats to high ingested levels of sodium benzoate have resulted in increased levels of ammonia in the liver, with decreases in liver cell energy and respiration mechanisms. Also; sodium benzoate, in large quantities in processed foods, may contribute to oxidative stress in the cells lining the walls of the gastrointestinal tract.

The verdict: Have to say “NO” on this one, and the capslock on no was NO accident. It’s mostly a preservative in foods that are terrible for you, anyhow, and it can form benzene in foods? Come on. Like all these preservatives, it hides behind the “a little won’t kill you” doctrine, but when it’s in so much stuff…


The biggest conclusion I come to, and I hope you’ll agree, is that ingesting any of these preservatives (whether “good” or “bad”) should be unnecessary. I attested at the beginning of this to some degree of laziness and wish for convenience in my quest for food, but honestly: Most produce is very-much ready-to-eat and heating a natural grass-fed meat or what have you in an oven doesn’t take that long. I don’t even blame the food industry or the FDA for their respective use and pathetic oversight of these preservatives; for one, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. Secondly, these food factories are just trying their best to preserve already “dead” foods for as long as possible for as cheaply as possible to make a product. Having outrage when we can’t have the time to think ahead, prepare meals for ease-of-eating later and et cetera, is foolish. Now, there is something to be said for protesting and wanting decent oversight of GMO foods and the like, but eating quick over-the-counter convenience foods is our fault and ours alone. I urge you to make a new, healthful habit out of careful blueprinting of your meals, and I think you’ll find (like I have) that it’s much easier done than previously thought. Not only that, but I have found that foods I previously thought of as bland i.e. cabbage can find new flavor in various recipes with interesting spices like curry or even simply with salt. If it’s true that “it’s the journey, not the destination,” then our food endeavors should be filled with much more passion in the cooking aspect than opening a plastic package and inhaling who knows what, and I hope this article might be the catalyst that gets you in the kitchen! Bon appetit! ▲