Studies show that processed foods make up at least half of the diets of Americans. This means foods that have been altered in some way from their natural state.
This alteration can include the introduction of additives—which can describe anything from emulsifiers that prevent fats from clotting together to preservatives that make foods last longer, and colors that simply make food more aesthetically pleasing.
An additive can also include sweeteners, designed to replace sugars and provide sweetness to foods and drinks while reducing the risks of obesity and tooth decay.
Below are some common foods and the additives they contain.
One of the most well-known additives is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is used to enhance flavor in a range of processed foods.
People sensitive to MSG can experience nausea, breathing problems, and other reactions after eating it. MSG also adds extra sodium to food, which can lead to elevated blood pressure.
Many canned or powdered soups contain MSG to enhance their flavor.
Condiments including Salad Dressing and Mayonnaise
MSG can also be found in condiments like mayonnaise, salad dressings. But this isn’t the only additive found in these products. Award-winning dietician and science communicator, Duane Mellor, explained to Newsweek the difference additives make between homemade dressings and those found on supermarket shelves.
Mellor said: “Gums and emulsifiers are added in salad dressing and mayonnaise to improve shelf life. That’s why shop-bought [salad dressing and mayonnaise] last longer than homemade.”
Another product that gets its shelf life extended by emulsifiers is bread. These additives provide another benefit for baked goods by ensuring that doughs are more “whippable” and are thus better conditioned.
Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is also added to flour, also assisting in shelf life, but mainly ensuring that bread dough rises.
Bacon and Ham
Nitrates are a common additive to cured meats like bacon and ham. They are also associated with an elevated risk of cancer. Mellor explains that these additives are used in meats to both reduce spoilage and reduce the risk of diseases including botulism. This is because nitrates limit the growth of bacteria in foods.
However, on average, only 5 percent of nitrates come from processed meats, with 80 percent originating in vegetables.
Kate Allen, executive director of science and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund explained to BBC Future in 2019 why nitrates in processed meant are considered riskier in terms of health: “It’s not so much nitrates/nitrites per se [that are carcinogenic], but the way they are cooked and their local environment that is an important factor.
“For example, nitrates in processed meats are in close proximity to proteins—specifically amino acids. When cooked at high temperatures this allows them to more easily form nitrosamines, the cancer-causing compound.”
Listing all the additives in common candy would probably require an article in of itself. That being said, some include:
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): an antioxidant that prevents fats and oils from becoming rancid in products like peanut butter cups.
- Glycerol monostearate: used as an emulsifier used in licorice and other candy.
- Invertase: an enzyme used to break down sucrose into glucose and fructose. This prevents sugar from crystallizing in candy which would cause grittiness.
- Sodium aluminum phosphate: an additive that slowly releases carbon dioxide during candy processing. This adds volume and texture to hard candies and products with baked fillings like cookies and peanut butter cups.
Some candy may also contain the sweetener sorbitol, an additive 60 percent as sweet as sugar with at least half the calories.
Sorbitol is also an ingredient in some sugar-free chewing gums. Sorbitol, found naturally in fruit like apples and berries, is also used in some products as a moistening agent thanks to its ability to retain liquids.
Currently, sorbitol has no significant risks associated with it, but there is some evidence that overconsumption may lead to digestive problems.
Sugar Free and Low-Calorie Drinks
Sorbitol is just one of the sugar substitutes approved by the FDA. Others include Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), Sucralose, and Aspartame. One of the most common applications for these sweeteners is in sugar-free fizzy drinks.
First approved for use in 1981 in chewing gum, cold breakfast cereals, and dry bases for certain foods, aspartame was approved for use in soft drinks in 1983. It was approved as a general-purpose sweetener in 1996.
The FDA says: “Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety.”
A common source of a wide range of additives and sweeteners are breakfast cereals. They are often added to make these products more appealing to children.
As well as these additions, breakfast cereals also usually contain preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and agents to keep them crisp by preventing oxygenation.
One of the most common ingredients in breakfast cereals are lecithins, a term describing yellow-brownish fatty substances in animal and plant tissues. Lecithins can make food smoother and can be used as an emulsifier.
While instant noodles are low in calories, many brands are also low in fiber and protein. But one thing instant noodles tend not to be low in is sodium and much of this is delivered by MSG.
The Pros and Cons of Additives and Sweeteners
The idea of an “additive” being mixed into food may initially summon negative connotations, but there is usually a good reason to include these substances. The most commonly used additives are designed to stop food from spoiling, but in large amounts, these additives could be harmful to a person’s health.
Mellor explained: “It is a balance of having food which is less likely to be spoiled or contains bugs which can make us ill, with the effects of a less healthy diet.”
Many foods that contain sweeteners in place of sugars may initially prevent weight gain, or even help with dental health. And there is good evidence that replacing sugars with artificial sweeteners is better for teeth and oral health.
Rachel Adams, senior lecturer in biochemistry at the Department of Biomedical Science, Cardiff Metropolitan University, in the U.K., told Newsweek: “One thing we are sure about is that replacement of sugar with artificial sweeteners can improve oral health. Certainly, the use of the sweetener xylitol has been proven to reduce tooth decay.”
But Adams also warned that some people consuming these sweeteners may be tempted to overindulge in sugars elsewhere in their diets.
“If we consume too many calories, we may well end up gaining weight so replacing some of the calorific sugar with sweeteners could potentially help us lose weight and reduce obesity levels,” she said. “Once someone has replaced their high-calorie sugar-sweetened drink with a low calorie artificially sweetened drink, they may be happier to consume calories in other foods.”
Adams also explained what the consumption of overly sweet foods could have on our palates: “Overuse of artificial sweeteners in children, whose eating habits and preferences are developing and may last a lifetime, could lead to them developing a taste for overly sweet food.”