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According to the Food and Drug Administration, there are more than 3,000 additives used in foods to — among other things — enhance flavor, texture or shelf life. They range from simple ingredients such as sugar or salt to chemical compounds with unpronounceable names.
You certainly don’t need to avoid them all, but even among additives that the FDA has deemed safe, there is some evidence that not all are completely benign. We’ve taken a look at the latest research on some food additives that have recently sparked some controversy or concern.
Nitrates and nitrites
These food additives are used mainly as preservatives in processed meats — such as bacon, hot dogs and deli meats.
What’s the concern? When these foods are cooked at high heat, or when they mix with stomach acid during digestion, the added nitrites can generate nitrosamines. Nitrosamines may be carcinogenic, and some research shows that eating as little as half an ounce of deli meat or half a hot dog daily increases the risk of premature death. Even if the package says no nitrates or nitrites added, processed meats probably still contain them. That’s because, per U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, that claim is permitted if the meat is cured with natural sources of nitrates/nitrites, such as celery, instead of synthetic ones, such as sodium nitrate or nitrite. “No matter the source, though, the compounds are chemically identical and have the same health effects,” Vallaeys says.
A type of sugar, trehalose enhances flavor by adding a mild sweetness to foods. It’s also used to extend a product’s shelf life and improve texture. We consume small amounts naturally in foods such as mushrooms, yeast and shellfish, but it’s found in far higher concentrations in processed foods. Since trehalose was approved by the FDA in 2000, it has been used in a variety of products, such as baked goods, cereals, fish in pouches and frozen shrimp.
What’s the concern? A study published in the journal Nature found a connection between the sweetener and Clostridioides difficile (C. diff) infections. C. diff causes inflammation of the colon and diarrhea, and is potentially deadly. When you eat high amounts of trehalose, “the enzymes that break it down in our bodies get overwhelmed,” says study author Robert Britton, professor in the Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. Consuming trehalose doesn’t transmit the bacteria, he says, but it encourages its growth. And anyone who’s taking an antibiotic — which typically wipes out the good bacteria that keep C. diff in check along with ridding your body of infection — can be at risk.
Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan is used as a stabilizer to keep items like salad dressing from separating, and to give products like frozen desserts, yogurts and plant milks a creamy taste and texture.
What’s the concern? The structure of carrageenan is foreign to human cells, and exposure to it causes inflammation, says Joanne Tobacman, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has studied carrageenan extensively. The inflammation often affects the gastrointestinal tract, and some people with inflammatory digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, report symptom relief when they avoid carrageenan. But Tobacman says carrageenan may have an effect on inflammation elsewhere in the body, too.
Consumer Reports and the National Organic Standards Board called for removal of carrageenan in organic products due to its questionable safety. But the USDA decided to continue to allow carrageenan in organic products, and carrageenan can still be found in many nonorganic foods — so check ingredients lists.
These sugar substitutes, such as acesulfame potassium (Ace K) aspartame, and sucralose, are much sweeter than sugar and have few or no calories.
Because they’re used in “diet” foods, you may think that if you don’t eat such products, you aren’t consuming any artificial sweeteners. But some, especially sucralose, are showing up in a variety of regular products. “Manufacturers may use sugar and an artificial sweetener to maintain a certain level of sweetness, while keeping the total grams of added sugars low,” says Amy Keating, a dietitian at CR.
What’s the concern? Some research suggests that artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and they may cause harmful changes in the gut microbiome. And although many people turn to artificial sweeteners in an effort to help them lose weight, several studies have found that consuming artificially sweetened foods instead of sugar-sweetened ones may not actually lead to weight loss.
What about stevia? It’s known as a “natural” low-calorie sweetener — products that contain it often claim “no artificial sweeteners” on the package. Still, Vallaeys says, although the starting material may be a plant, stevia extracts are highly processed. And the evidence that stevia aids in weight loss or lowering blood sugar levels is limited.
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that has about half the calories of sugar but also about half the sweetness. It’s used as a sweetener in sugar-free versions of foods like candy, cookies and gum, as well as an emulsifier and anti-caking agent in some products. But it also occurs naturally in some dried fruits — particularly prunes.
What’s the concern? “Sorbitol brings water into the colon and acts as a laxative,” says Dana Hunnes, senior clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at high doses it can have unwanted side effects, such as bloating, gas and diarrhea.”
Phosphates are a form of phosphorus, a mineral that supports bone health. But phosphorus-containing additives, such as phosphoric acid and disodium phosphate, are found in a variety of processed foods — including soda, baked goods, dairy products and fast food. And phosphorus from additives is more readily absorbed than when it occurs naturally in food.
What’s the concern? High phosphorus intake is hazardous for people with kidney disease or those at risk for it. “If kidney function is impaired, getting too much phosphorus puts extra strain on the kidneys to try to excrete it,” Hunnes says. But even those with healthy kidneys should be cautious about eating too many foods with phosphate additives. Too much phosphorus can bind to calcium, pulling it from bones and leaving them brittle. And researchers have found a link between high phosphate levels and increased cardiovascular risk.
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