In our modern world of processed foods, food additives have become part of our culture. You may have heard that some researchers feel that all the man-made additives in our processed foods are responsible for the current type 2 diabetic epidemic and other poor health conditions. What you may not have heard though is that there are some food additives that can be in the “good” range. In this Part I of a 2-part article, I’d like to tell you about the non-harmful food additives that are okay to eat.
Can You Have Food Additives and Good Health?
I have to admit there are certain processed foods – like yogurt, or peanut butter, packaged breads, etc – that I like to eat. I’m also well aware that there are certain food additives in them. Yet, many of these are made from vitamins, proteins and natural starches that are not harmful to your health. I’m sure you likely also have certain processed foods that you enjoy eating. If you read their labels and make sure that they don’t contain the really bad food additives (which I’ll tell you about in Part II), then I’d say to go ahead and enjoy them in moderation.
You may be surprised to learn that the list of non-harmful, or “good”, food additives is a fairly long list. Yet, they are FDA approved foodstuffs, vitamins and minerals in their own right that, when added to foods, either enhance their shelf life, or stabilize the food in some other way.
Here are 20 of the most common, non-harmful, “good”, food additives that you may find in some of your favorite foods that you don’t have to worry about.
1. Alginate/Propylene Glycol Alginate. A food thickener made from kelp (seaweed). You may find it in beer and yogurt and some candies.
2. Alpha tocopherol. A big chemical sounding name, this additive is actually just the antioxidant Vitamin E, which is frequently added to cooking oils to keep them fresh.
3. Ascorbic acid. This is really the clinical, chemical name for one of the best antioxidants around, Vitamin C. Often added to fruit drinks, packaged meat products, or cereal to keep them fresher longer.
4. Beta carotene. Many of you will likely recognize this common food additive as the antioxidant which your body converts to Vitamin A. Often contained in coffee creamers, some candies, and margarines.
5. Calcium/Sodium propionate. Calcium and sodium are two natural minerals that have long been used to keep food fresh and prevent mold growth before the days of refrigeration. Found in packaged breads, pies, and cakes.
6. Carrageenan. Another additive made from seaweed, that helps thicken and stabilize certain liquid-based foods like milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, jelly, etc.
7. Citric acid/Sodium Citrate. Although it sounds like a lab-creation, this acid is derived from the combination of citrus fruit juices and sodium. It’s used to give a tart, fruity flavor to various foods like ice cream, candies, jelly, etc. Because it’s citrus-derived, it also has an added antioxidant quality that helps stabilize foods and keep them fresher.
8. EDTA (ethylenediamine tetra acetic acid). So safe it’s even in baby food. This additive acts like a chelator to bind metal impurities in fish, margarine, salad dressings, etc., that can cause rancidity. You’ll find it in many canned foods like beans, soups, etc.
9. Ferrous gluconate. Another name for natural iron, this food additive is also used as a natural dark coloring in foods like black olives.
10. Lactic acid. Derived from certain digestive-friendly bacteria (like lactobacillus), this additive is found in many sour, fermented foods (which are very healthy for you), like kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, Kefir, pickles, etc. It also protects packaged meats and fish to extend shelf life and control bacteria.
11. Lecithin. Derived naturally from soybeans, lecithin is used as an emulsifier in baked goods, ice cream, etc. It keeps oil from separating and holds foods together better.
12. Maltodextrin. Made from natural starches like corn, rice or potatoes. It is used as a thickening agent in many products like canned fruits and puddings.
13. Mono/diglycerides. These sound ominous but they’re really just natural plant fats derived from soybean, cottonseed, sunflower or palm oil. They act as emulsifiers in baked goods, peanut butter, and some candies (like caramels) to make them less sticky.
14. Oligofructose. It is a naturally occurring starch in bananas, wheat, onions, garlic, and chicory that is used as a food additive to provide sweetness and some fiber.
15. Phosphoric acid/phosphates. These are derived from the mineral phosphorus and are used as food stabilizers and chelating agents. May be found in baked goods, soft drinks, cereal, and cheese.
16. Phytosterols/phytostanols. These substances are naturally found in nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. They help stabilize foods but also lower cholesterol in foods like margarine and breads.
17. Sodium carboxymethylcellulose (CMC). An ominous-sounding chemical that really is just salt and natural plant cellulose found in foods like broccoli stalks, celery, and other fibrous vegetables. Helps stabilize and thicken foods.
18. Sorbic acid, potassium sorbate. Sorbic acid is a natural organic, antimicrobial compound which contains potassium salts. These are used in foods to prevent mold forming in baked goods, cheese, wine, jelly. They have been research proven to be of very low toxicity/carcinogenic risk to humans, even in high dosages of 10% of the diet.
19. Thiamine mononitrate. This is another chemical name for Vitamin B1 that is used as a food “enrichment” additive in breads, cereals, and flours.
20. Vanillin/ethyl vanillin. Though there is an artificially made vanillin, natural vanillin is extracted from the beans of the vanilla plant which is really in the orchid family. Pure vanilla extract is expensive as it is hard to process. Vanillin is used to enhance the flavor of chocolate and many baked goods. If you are buying vanilla for baking, be sure it comes from the United States as vanilla that comes from Mexico could have dangerous coumarin in it.
Now, keep in mind that just because these particular food additives are not harmful to your health, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you consume (in large quantities) many of the foods they are in. For example, a lot of baked goods contain these non-harmful additives, but they can also contain a lot of sugar that cause blood sugar problems and contribute to weight/fat gain. They can also contain a lot of sodium which can contribute to blood pressure problems. Also, I wouldn’t recommend drinking many sodas that contain some of these safe additives, not because of the additives but for other health reasons. Rather, many of them also contain bad food additives (like certain artificial sweeteners, see part II) and their phosphorus levels can contribute to bone breakdown if you’re drinking them frequently.
Be sure to come back for Part II where I’ll tell you about bad food additives as well as the worst food additives that I recommend you stay away from. In the meantime, you can feel free to enjoy some favorite processed foods – like packaged yogurt, pickles, olives, that contain non-harmful food additives. For other processed foods that you may want to eat, you’ll also want to make sure first that they don’t also contain bad food additives.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
What Is Oligofructose Sweetener? http://www.livestrong.com/article/448454-what-is-oligofructose-sweetener
Toxicology of Sorbic Acid, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2253811
Vanillin Good or Bad? http://welltellme.com/discuss/index.php?topic=23309.0
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Food Additives, www.schwartzlabs.com/food-additives.html