Everything You Need to Know about Food Additives: Benefits and Health Risks

Food additives have been around for decades. Our fore-parents used salt to preserve meats, herbs, and spices to improve food flavor and sugar and vinegar to preserve fruits and vegetables.

Today, things are no different; more people are going for flavorful, safe, colorful, nutritious, convenient, and affordable foods.

However, unlike in the old days, food additives are heavily commercialized today. 

Despite the food safety regulations in most nations, one still needs to be cautious about the additives they are consuming since related health issues are still reported frequently.

In this article, I will take you through several types of food additives and their ingredients. Also, I will give you tips on the risk-free and dangerous additives.

What are Food Additives?

Food additives refer to substances added to food products during manufacturing, processing, preparation, or packaging.

Often, food additives have low or no nutritional value, and their primary purposes are to improve flavor, shelf-life, appearance, and other features of food

Natural and Synthetic Food Additives 

Any processed food you buy today will either have synthetic or natural additives.

Similarly, the additives you buy for your food preparations will either be natural or synthetic.

That said, one can extract a natural additive from plants, minerals, animals, or other natural sources.

Some examples of natural food additive sources include:

● Soybean and corn – help maintain food consistency

● Beets – beet powder is used in food coloring

On the other hand, a synthetic food additive is manufactured from a chemical substance.

Some examples of synthetic food preservatives include:

● Aspartame – derived from aspartic acid and is used as a sweetener

● Erythrosine – disodium salt used as a coloring agent

● Tartrazine – comprises trisodium and other chemicals and is used as a coloring agent

Food Additives Current Usage and Classifications

Nowadays, more and more people are turning toward the ready-to-eat foods sold in the market instead of cooking at home. What could be the reason behind this? Convenience? Probably, so.

But you will need to remember that most of those ready-made foods are loaded with additives to enhance their flavor, and quality and keep them from being spoiled by yeast and bacteria.

That said, there are over three thousand different food additives in the market today; natural and synthetic. 

Let's now classify these additives further.


Food preservation is essential in the food industry. Imagine the millions of people suffering from hunger since food was not properly stored when there was excess food supply.

Besides food preservatives helping to improve the shelf life of foods, most of these preservatives, especially synthetic additives, affect human health negatively if taken for long.

For instance, some studies have shown that sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate can damage DNA, thus leading to cancer and congenital disability risks. However, one can solve this issue by observing the recommended daily intakes of these additives.

In addition, some artificial additives provide some traces of health benefits provided you consume them within the non-toxic limits. 

Most preservatives are used in baked goods, fruit sauces & jellies, cured meat, beverages, snack foods, dressings, cereals, fruits, and vegetables.

Some of the preservatives used in the food industry include sorbic acid, benzoic acid, potassium sorbate, potassium & sodium & calcium benzoates, sodium sulfite, sodium ethyl p-hydroxybenzoate, and Sulfur dioxide.

On the other hand, natural preservatives are better options than artificial additives, especially due to the health benefits of natural preservatives. 

Some of the natural preservatives that one can explore to prolong the life of their products include essential oils from cloves, limonene from citrus fruits, and cinnamon. 

Other natural food preservatives that have shown favorable results include curcumin and thyme essential oil. 

Besides food preservation, curcumin and thyme essential oils have vital health benefits such as protecting body cells from damage and killing harmful microorganisms in the body. 

In addition, you can use natural additives on your fresh produce, fish, and juices.

Antioxidants and acidity regulators

Antioxidants help protect food from reacting to oxygen exposure which can lead to flavor variations and loss of food color.

Natural antioxidants commonly used in food include Vitamin E, curcumin, ferulic acid, caffeic acid, carnosol, and polyphenolic catechins. An important thing to note here is that natural antioxidants produce better results than artificial ones.

On the other hand, acidity regulators and PH control agents help control acidity and alkalinity in food and prevent food spoilage. 

One more thing to note here is that some antioxidants such as phosphoric acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid function as acidity regulators. 

Antioxidants and acidity regulators are often used in beverages, frozen desserts, baking powder, low-acid canned foods, and chocolate.

Coloring agents

Everyone loves colorful food, which explains the massive existence of food coloring agents. 

That said, coloring agents refer to food dyes capable of changing the colour of food.

Reasons why you'd want to dye your food:

● To compensate for food color loss resulting from food processing or storage

● To correct color variations in food

● To improve the color of food

● To give color to colorless foods

Sodium nitrate is one of the common coloring agents and is often used on meat.

However, despite the vast usage of food coloring agents, there have been many controversies about using synthetic color additives.

But there has been a notable trend where more and more people prefer natural coloring agents on food.

Additionally, some naturally occurring food additives such as riboflavin and curcumin provide health benefits such as protecting one from cancer, protecting body cells from damage, and destroying harmful intruders such as bad bacteria.

Other food colors used in the food industry include tartrazine, sunset yellow FCF, quinoline yellow, Allura red Ac, indigo tine, patent blue V, indigo carmine, brilliant blue FCF, and erythrosine.

Foods that contain color additives include margarine, snack foods, candies, soft drinks, cheese, jam/jellies, pie fillings, gelatins, and pudding.

Emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers, and gelling agents

Here are some of the benefits of these additives:

● Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers help ingredients mix smoothly, preventing separation. Some of the products containing emulsifiers include margarine, chocolate, salad dressing, frozen desserts, and peanut butter.

So, how will you know that the food product you bought contains emulsifiers? It's easy to know; check the label. Such foods contain ingredients such as egg yolks, soy lecithin, polysorbates, mono-diglycerides, and sorbitan monostearate.

● Thickeners, stabilizers, and gelling agents

These three additives ensure that food has a great texture in your mouth. 

Additionally, you will find these agents in dairy products, cakes, frozen desserts, jams & jellies, dressings, puddings & gelatin mixes, and sauces.

Products with these three additives will read either of these ingredients on their labels: guar gum, gelatin, pectin, whey, xanthan gum, and carrageenan. 

Flavoring agent

Flavoring agents enhance the taste and aroma of food. Presently, synthetic and natural flavors are used in food.

Commonly known tastes include sweet, bitter, sour, hot, umami, and tangy. Also, there are limitless aromas that you can identify by the nose.

Another thing to note is that flavoring agents modify or magnify the flavor in foods, and they are not sweet on their own; spices don't taste great on their own.

Flavoring and spices are often used in puddings, pie fillings, cake mixes, gelatin dessert mixes, candies, salad dressings, soft drinks, BBQ sauce, ice cream, and many processed foods.

Most of the flavoring agents commonly used in the food industry today include monosodium glutamate (MSG), autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed soy protein, inosinate, and disodium guanylate.


Antibiotics on food! How?

Yes, besides antibiotics helping you fight that flu, some can be used as additives in food.

Antibiotics are used in food to enhance the shelf life of perishable products such as milk.

Here are several types of antibiotics frequently used in the food industry: subtilin, nisin, natamycin, tylosin phytoncides, mustard oil, thyme, eugenol, and cinnamaldehyde.


As the name suggests, a sweetener adds sweetness to food. Some of these sweeteners have none or some calories. 

However, many people seek better sugar substitutes due to the diabetes risks associated with ordinary sugars (natural and artificial sweeteners). 

Other reasons why more people are shying away from common sugars include oral hygiene and weight loss goals.

Some of the foods that use sweeteners include baked goods, beverages, confections, chewing gum, and many processed foods.

Here are the food sweeteners used today: sucrose(sugar), fructose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, neotame, and acesulfame potassium.

Humectant and anticaking agents

Humectants help keep food moist. Some of the humectants used today include glycerin, sorbitol, propylene glycol, xylitol, urea, lactic acid, and quilla.

Lithium chloride is another great humectant, but it is toxic.

Additionally, humectants are often used in soft candies, shredded coconut, marshmallows, and confections.

On the other hand, anticaking agents help prevent food from forming lumps. Some of the products using an anticaking food ingredient include baking powder, salt, and confectioner's sugar.

Additionally, calcium silicate, silicon dioxide, and iron ammonium citrate are some of the anticaking agents commonly used nowadays.

Nutrient supplements

Nutrient additions in food help replace lost nutrients during processing or naturally missing nutrients.

Foods with added nutrients include flour, milk, margarine, cereals, bread, rice, macaroni, milk, salt, energy bars, fruit beverages, and instant breakfast drinks.

Some of the nutrients added to food include vitamin D, amino acids, riboflavin, thiamine hydrochloride, niacin, folate or folic acid, niacinamide, and ascorbic acid.

Food Additive Benefits

So far, we have seen the different food additives used today. Additionally, we have seen the roles each additive plays in food. 

So, hereunder is a quick recap on the benefits of food additives:

1. Improves the physical appearance of food

2. Improved taste and food texture

3. Longer shelf life for foods

4. Added essential nutrients in food

5. Safer food

6. Better food availability even when some foods are out of season

7. Lower food prices since it's cheaper to keep a product available using additives

8. Protects food from contamination which can lead to foodborne illnesses

Disadvantages of Food Additives

Despite the many benefits of food additives, there are still some related drawbacks, as seen here below:

1. Loss of nutritional value

Most packaged foods lose nutrients during processing. While some processed foods will get replacements for the lost nutrients, others will be sold with nutrient deficiencies.

So, over-reliance on processed foods can result in malnutrition.

2. Health problems

As we had seen earlier, consuming some food additives beyond the recommended limits can be toxic to your health.

Some of the health risks associated with these additives include food allergy, asthma and breathing difficulties, fever, tight chest, vomiting, hives, headache, diarrhea, and worsening eczema.

Other additives such as aspartame can lead to depression, especially in people with mood disorders. 

Hereunder are more health risks associated with the consumption of food additives:

● Benzoates can lead to elegies such as adverse reactions to skin and asthma. Also, this additive has been known to lead to brain damage.

● Bromates destroy food nutrients and can lead to diarrhea and nausea

● Caffeine, often used as a flavoring and colorant can lead to nervousness, occasional heart defects, and heart palpitations 

● Butylates can cause high blood cholesterol and impaired kidney & liver functions

● Saccharin can cause a toxic and allergic reaction affecting the skin, heart, and gastrointestinal tract. Moreover, saccharin can lead to tumors and bladder cancer.

● Sodium chloride can lead to poor heart health and kidney failure

● Red dye 40 can lead to congenital disabilities and cancer

● Mono and di-glycerides can lead to congenital disabilities and cancer

● Caramel, often used as a flavoring and a colorant, can lead to vitamin B6 deficiencies, genetic defects, and cancer

Tips to Help You Reduce Food Additive Intake

Now that we have seen several drawbacks relating to food additives, here are some tips to help you reduce your intake of these additives:

Check food label

Compare the product offerings from different manufacturers and pick the food item with the least additives.

The European Food Safety Authority, for example, has provided the following E numbers on food labels

Table 1 below has classified the various food additives in the market into groups. 

Additionally, diagram 2 and table 2 below have given interpretations of the various E numbers.

Table 1: Classes of food additives

Source: Google Scholar

Diagram 2: Tpes of food additives and theirs E Numbers

Food Additives

Source: Google Scholar

For example, citric acid (a natural antioxidant) has an E number E330, and you cant find it among the dangerous food additives listed in table 2 above.

On the other hand, sulfur additives(E220 – 228) are dangerous, per European food safety standards in table 2 above. These sulfurs are often used as preservatives in fermented beverages such as beer, wine, and fruit products.

Reduce processed foods intake

It's time to make your dishes at home. This way, you can monitor the ingredients you are consuming. So, dust off your cooking pots, ovens, tabletop cookers, and grills and start feeding your body with healthy foods!

Additionally, choose animal products, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts & seeds, and legumes with minimal processing.

Make simple swaps

● Use butter instead of margarine

● Choose shredded cheese instead of blocked cheese

● Air-popped popcorn is better than microwaved popcorn

● Use honey or maple syrup instead of pancake syrup

● Fresh herbs and spices are better than sauces and marinades

● Plain chips and crackers are better than the flavored ones

● Add toppings to your plain yogurt instead of going for the flavored yogurts

Final Word

As we have seen above, food additives are essential in the food industry; they help preserve and improve the appearance and structure of the food.

However, you will need to take foods with additives in moderation and avoid the toxic ones. 

Also, prepare meals at home whenever possible since overreliance on processed foods will not be kind to your health in the short-term and long-run.


1. Food Additives: Overview of Related Safety Concerns

2. Classification of Food Additives by Chemical Composition

3. Other Food Additives- Beneficial or Dangerous

4. What are food additives and how are they regulated in the EU?

5. Food additives - Medline Plus

6. Food Additives and Why They Are Used

7. How Safe are Color Additives?

8. Food additives - Better Health

9. Food additives and fortification – CCEA

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