A guide to seven common food additives

May 31, 2016 in Leslie's Featured Content

A guide to seven common food additives

Unless you grow your own food and prepare all your meals from scratch, it’s pretty much impossible to eat foods that don’t have chemical additives.  You’ll find caramel colour in bread, xanthan gum in salad dressings, carrageenan in almond milk, maltodextrin in ice cream, and butylated hydroxytoluene in breakfast cereals, to name only a few.

Reading a list of food additives can be like trying to decipher a foreign language.  Long-winded names of chemical compounds can cause concern and confusion for many people.  While most food additives are deemed safe, the safety of others is controversial because questions about their safety have been difficult for scientists to answer.

Here’s a quick guide to seven common foods additives: what they’re used for, and whether they’re safe or controversial.

Ascorbic acid (ascorbate)

Found in fruit drinks, canned fruit, cured meats, preserved fish and breakfast cereals, ascorbic acid – or vitamin C – is added to foods to boost vitamin content, preserve colour, prevent spoilage and/or maintain acidity. 

Ascorbic acid is identical to vitamin C found naturally in fruits and vegetables.  Sodium ascorbate, also safe, is a combination of ascorbic acid and sodium and is more soluble that ascorbic acid.

Benzoic acid (sodium benzoate)

Occurring naturally in many fruits and vegetables, benzoic acid is used to prevent the growth of mould, yeast and some bacteria in foods such as soft drinks, jams, fruit juice, pickles, ketchup and tomato paste.  While safe for most people, benzoic acid may cause hives, asthma and eczema in sensitive individuals.

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

Permitted in chewing gum, dried breakfast cereals, parboiled rice, olive oil, citrus oils, margarine, shortening and potato chips, BHT acts as an antioxidant to prevent fats and oils in foods from going rancid.

While some studies have deemed BHT safe, others have found it to cause cancer in rodents. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers the additive to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”.   The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, DC, recommends avoiding it.

Carmel colour

Allowed as a colouring agent in colas (diet and sugar-sweetened), whole wheat bread, rye bread, ketchup, malt vinegar, soy sauce, jams and jellies, sherbet, wine vinegar, beer and some spirits, this artificial colouring is made by heating sugar together with ammonia compounds, acids or alkali.

When made with ammonia, caramel colouring contains two contaminants, called 2- and 4-methylimidazole, that have been linked to cancer in mice.  The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 2- and 4-methylimidazole to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans” and California’s Environmental Protection Agency has listed ammonia caramel colouring as a carcinogen.

You can’t tell if the “caramel colour” stated on an ingredient list was processed with ammonia or not.  If you’re a regular cola drinker, consider avoiding it or cutting back. Baked goods, soy sauce, ketchup and other foods are considered less of a problem because the amounts consumed are small.  If you’re concerned about caramel, look for products free of caramel colour. The CPSI recommends avoiding it.


Extracted from red seaweed using acids or alkali, carrageenan thickens and textures foods such as salad dressings, low fat chocolate milk, evaporated milk, non-dairy beverages (e.g. almond, soy and coconut beverages), beer, calorie-reduced margarine and infant formulas.

When acid is used to separate carrageenan from seaweed, it causes the carrageen to degrade. Degraded carrageenan (not the type added to foods) in very high doses has been linked to gut inflammation and colon cancer in animals.  Yet, some experts contend that food-grade carrageen contains some degraded carrageenan, which could harm the gut.

The US FDA and the WHO have concluded that food-grade (undegraded) carrageenan does not pose a cancer risk in people.  In light of the controversy, the CSPI believes the additive needs more testing and advises caution.

Cellulose (methyl cellulose)

Typically made from wood pulp, cellulose can be added to flavoured skim milk, salad dressing, cottage cheese processed cheese, shredded cheese and ice cream to thicken, emulsify and stabilize and/or prevent clumping and crystallization.  Because it’s an insoluble fibre, it passes though your digestive tract. But it may not be benign.

Animal research conducted at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University suggests that methyl celluose and another emulsifier called polysorbate-80 disrupt the enviroment of our healthy gut bacteria, promoting inflammation and obesity. According to the researchers, the findings suggest that the widespread use of emulsfying agents in processed foods may be contributing to the increased incidence of obesity and inflammatory diseases.

Xanthan gum

Used to thicken and emulsify foods such as salad dressings, cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, ice cream, whipped topping and infant formula, xanthan gum is made by fermenting corn sugar with a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris. It’s popular for gluten-free baking because of its binding properties. Xanthan gum is perfectly safe to consume.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.