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Food Additives – Do You Even Know What’s in Your Food?

Ok, so we are well into 2019. Some of you maybe have just finished the Whole 30. If that’s you, (well done!) Others may be struggling to keep their heathy-eating resolutions going. If you’re looking for a little motivation to keep eating clean, read on.

Seeing as this is my first nutrition-focused blog post, I realized that the most important thing was to discuss the current state of food in America. It’s scary.  It’s estimated that 75% of the Western diet consists of processed food, which are filled with additives that aren’t actually food. The same data from 2007 suggests that the average person in the US consumes 8-10 pounds of food additives each year! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve eaten my fair share of convenient, processed foods in my life. I think I drank a diet coke every single day of my 21st year of life (a fact I’d like to forget). When I was young, my mom made my brother and I read the entire list of food ingredients before eating any sort of packaged food. If we couldn’t pronounce one single ingredient, we couldn’t eat it. Man, I loathed her for that, but now I admire her more than words can say. I’m sorry mom, you were WAY ahead of your time.

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So why are processed foods so notorious? Consider this – in 2008 the food additive business was estimated to be a $23 billion market. That billion with a B. $23 billion for JUST the additives, this figure doesn’t include the food itself. Here’s the scariest thing – not all food additives are even required to appear on the food’s label in the US. Yikes.


The FDA maintains a list of more than 3000 known additives known as the Every Food Additive Added in the US (EFAUS), which you can access on their website. However, what most people don’t know is how easy it is to get a pre-market approval for a food additive from the FDA. Here’s how the process works: a manufacturer petitions the FDA for approval and provides their own evidence that the additive it’s safe. Wait, they provide their own research and the FDA does nothing to investigate? Can you say conflict of interest?!?  Oh, and there are plenty of additives that the FDA has termed “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS for short. These include salt, sugar, MSG and aspartame (yes, the FDA still says these are “generally safe”). GRAS ingredients are exempt from the pre-market approval process.  That means, if a company claims their ingredient is GRAS, then they do NOT require pre-market approval. No research or evidence required. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like the businesses making up this multi-billion dollar industry really care about whether or not their products are actually safe. What’s more, there is absolutely no consideration of the long-term effects of using these additives. Sure, they may be safe to consume for a month, but what happens with repeated exposure? Compare this to smoking – you see development of lung cancer years after you start smoking.


I’m sure a lot of us know about the big additives, but if you don’t, I implore you to read about them (or, if you want to reiterate to yourself why you should avoid them):

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – This nasty sweetener accounts for about 40% of all added sweeteners in the US. Here’s the thing about HFCS, it doesn’t spike your insulin like normal table sugar (sucrose) does. Instead, it leads to production of triglycerides within 60 minutes of ingestion. Trigylcerides are linked with development of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes. No thanks. What’s more – a Princeton study in 2010 showed that HFCS actually leads to weight gain. Here’s what they did: one group of rats was allowed to free-feed on sucrose water, while another group of rats had free access to water made with HFCS. Even when consuming the same amount of calories, the group of rats that drank the HFCS water gained significantly more weight than those drinking the regular old sugar water. Oh, and another thing – HFCS may have heavy-metal contamination. A study in 2009 looked at a bunch of products (including Hunt’s Ketchup, Yoplait Yogurt and Nutri-Grain Bars) that listed HFCS as the first or second ingredient and found a detectable level of mercury in 31% of these products. Heavy metals such as mercury are known to be neurotoxic, meaning: they inhibit your ability to learn, interact with others and respond to environmental stimuli.
  • Sugar – Ok, most of us know to look for hidden sugar in processed foods. But, really LOOK at the labels, particularly in yogurt, sauces and soups. You’ll be surprised how much added sugar there can be.
  • Artificial colors – I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat anything that has to be dyed to look like food. Tomatoes should not require dye to be red, in my opinion. Not to get too political, but the US just doesn’t seem to have our well-being in mind. The National Institute of Health doesn’t seem to be too worried about artificial colorings, but the British Food Standards Agency warns people against artificial colorings for children with ADHD or hyperactivity. Here’s some examples of the deleterious effects of artificial coloring on health: FD&C Yellow No. 5 has been linked to allergy-like reactions and hyperactivity in children, while FD&C Red No. 3 has been correlated with development of thyroid cancer in rats.
  • Aspartame – If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s you know all about this one. It’s an artificial sweetener in diet foods that actually breaks down to form products like methanol and formaldehyde. There have been at least three independent studies that have suggested aspartame causes cancer in rodents.  What’s more, a 14-year study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 showed that women who drank one 12-oz diet soda per day diet had a 33% increased risk of developing type II diabetes compared to those that drank regular soda. What??? Isn’t aspartame supposed to be the “diet” option? I guess not. That said, there is NO reason to drink diet soda. Ever.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – This was my mom’s #1 enemy, so I can actually say that I’ve avoided it like the plague for my entire life (thanks again, mom). This is a flavor enhancer that has been shown to destroy nerve cells in mice brains (by the way, the FDA knew this back in the 1960’s and still let it be added to our food for years). MSG must now be labeled, so look for it! Also, be careful if ingredients include: autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and soy protein isolate because these contain naturally-occurring MSG. Some people are very sensitive to MSG and can develop skin burning, breathing changes and headache after consuming it. Personally, I know I’ve gotten some MSG in my system if I develop restless leg syndrome and skin burning after eating sushi or Asian food. This reaction is due to the glutamate having an immediate, toxic effect on your nerves. Scary, right?
  • Benzoate salts – You find these in juice, soda and acidic foods. When a food contains ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and sodium benzoate, they can react to form benzene, which has been shown to cause leukemia. Benzoate salts can also cause allergic reactions.
  • BHA/BHT – Look out for these in cereal, potato chips and vegetable oils because they have been linked with development of cancer in rats.
  • Nitrites/Nitrates – You find these in cured meats to stabilize color. Nitrates were approved by the FDA prior to 1958, so any new nitrate on the market does not require pre-market approval. There has been a growing body of research suggesting that consumption of cured meats may be linked to increased risk of cancer. Beware that celery juice and celery powder are used as a natural alternative, but they do contain high amounts of nitrites. We don’t really know the effect of nitrites, so it’s generally wise to avoid high consumption of cured meats even when they are cured with celery juice/powder.
  • Sulfites – Dried fruits and wine often contain added sulfites, which may only affect those with allergies and asthma. Personally, I find that my seasonal allergies are exacerbated when I drink red wine, much to my dismay.
  • Flavorings – I think it’s safe to say that artificial flavors are less than desirable. There is hardly any research on their effects. But because they are used in small amounts, the regulatory agencies have determined that they must be safe due to low levels of intake. Skip them.
  • Antibiotics – They’re considered an additive when they are given to pigs, chickens and cows for non-therapeutic purposes (e.g. to promote growth). Here’s a frightening statistic – over 70% of the total antibiotics in the US are given to livestock, not humans. Again, this topic would benefit from a VERY long post. But, here’s the bottom line: repeated antibiotic use in animals is linked to development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains. When we consume these animals, their antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be incorporated into our own microbiome, where it continues to live. Oh, and just so you know – the FDA only provides voluntary guidelines for antibiotic use in animals. Awesome.
  • Pesticides – Man, this warrants its own blog post. But, it’s imperative that you avoid pesticide residue on the “dirty dozen” list by only buying organic. This 2018 list includes: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers. Repeated exposure to these pesticide residues has deleterious effects on your nervous end endocrine systems.
  • Benzene – No matter what, avoid this, as it has been shown to be a known carcinogen. Look for and avoid sodium benzoate in carbonated drinks, jams/condiments and vitamins.

I encourage you to check out the following websites to educate yourself even more:

  • Environmental Working Group (
  • Institute for Responsible Technology (
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest (

This is not meant to scare anyone, but rather, to arm you with the knowledge you need to make smarter food choices. This is our health we are talking about here! Stop eating the crap that this billion-dollar industry claims is probably safe, because they certainly don’t have your health in mind. And keep it simple – the best way to avoid these hidden additives is to eat real, whole foods (you know, like vegetables and things that occur naturally and weren’t produced in a factory). Keep up the clean eating – your health depends on it!

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Aimee

    This is SO interesting! I try to buy healthy options but I know there are a lot of bad things in packaged food. If you have the time, could you list out what you eat (packaged items)? Like what are some safe cereals, pasta, sauces, etc.? Also, have you heard of givemethegoodstuff? It’s a blog I think you’d like!

    1. Amy

      Hi Aimee! Thanks so much for reading!
      In terms of packaged foods, I try to buy from Whole Foods or Natural Grocers because of their quality standards (they will not sell foods that contain hydrogenated oils or artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavors). I really try to read every label and avoid anything that contains: soy, canola, or anything that I don’t recognize.
      In terms of products I love – I rarely eat cereals and pasta since I am totally grain-free, but I love Know Foods (a great grain-free brand) for pasta and bread; I also really like Julian Bakery’s “granola.” In the way of sauces, I LOVE anything by Primal Kitchen.
      And I didn’t know about givemethegoodstuff! I will be sure to check it out!
      Thanks again for reading and commenting!!!

      1. Aimee Sheridan

        Thanks! What is the bad thing with canola oil? I am throwing out my log cabin maple syrup and cereals. thanks again Amy!!

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