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What You Should Know About Food Additives

Food additives are pretty self-explanatory: they are any substances that are added to foods. It can be worrying to hear about associations between certain additives and illnesses, but do you know the facts behind these notions? Keep reading to find out more.

If you're familiar with the term "food additives," you are probably aware of the cloud of negativity and fear that hovers around it. Like the phrase suggests, food additives are ingredients that have been added to a food product, usually to help preserve the item or enhance its flavor or appearance. According to the FDA, there are two types of food additives: those that are direct and serve a specific purpose in the food, or those that are indirect and may get into food during storing, packaging or processing. Certain food additives may be beneficial, like ascorbic acid, for example, which is another name for vitamin C and is used to prevent certain foods from spoiling. However, there are also additives that may contribute negative effects when consumed regularly, typically in a large amount. Before you start cutting out foods from your diet that contain any, or all, additives, it's essential to understand the purpose of additives, where to find them and what science tells us regarding their safety. Here we will examine several common ones. 

  • MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

What it's used forEnhancing flavor

Where it's foundChinese food, canned soup and vegetables, many fast food products, diet drinks, packaged meat, etc.
What research says: In spite of the common notion that consuming MSG can cause a host of unpleasant symptoms to crop uplike headaches, sweating, flushing, chest pain, nausea, etc.the Mayo Clinic insists there is no scientific evidence supporting a direct correlation between MSG consumption and the aforementioned side effects, collectively referred to as "MSG symptom complex." However, researchers agree that it is possible to have a sensitivity to MSG, although rare.
Should you avoid itWith no scientific evidence illustrating negative health effects, it's probably okay for you to consume foods with MSG in moderation. However, since many sources of MSG are unhealthy foods, you should still limit them in your diet.

  • Sodium Nitrate
What it's used forPreserving meats, preventing spoilage and bacteria growth
Where it's foundPackaged meats, including bacon, hot dogs and more
What research says
Sodium nitrate may damage blood vessels and arteries, possibly contributing to heart disease, says the Mayo Clinic. 
The American Cancer Society conducted a study several years ago that suggests that high consumption of processed meats may be linked to an increase in the development of lower colon and rectal cancers, though it's not clear if nitrates are the cause.
Should you avoid itSince eating excessive amounts of packaged meats containing nitrates has been shown to contribute to heart disease, it's a good idea to choose fresh, lean meats over packaged ones the majority of the time, to be safe and maintain good nutrition.
  • BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
What they're used forPreserving foods, preventing oils from oxidizing in foods and rotting
Where they're foundMany processed foods, like cereal, gum, chips, cookies, shortening, drink mixes, etc.
What research saysBHA is considered to be “generally safe” by the FDA, but several animal studies show that BHA may be related to cancer in rats and other animals. On the other hand, a study that examined the effect of BHT on rats did not produce results that proved a relationship with cancer, but there may be insufficient data.
Should you avoid themBased on animal studies and data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—which asserts BHA is likely a human carcinogen—you should avoid BHA. The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests using caution when consuming products with BHT and strictly limiting your intake of foods with this ingredient.

  • Partially Hydrogenated Oil
What it's used for: Extending the shelf life of foods, deep frying and preventing spoilage
Where it's foundFried foods, baked goods, shortening, etc.
What research says: Partially hydrogenated oil is a form of trans fat. According to the Mayo Clinic, a significant intake of trans fats can raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol (HDL), which works to elevate your risk of heart disease
Should you avoid itThe National Institute of Medicine says to consume as little trans fat as possible, to maintain healthy nutrition, and this includes partially hydrogenated oil.
  • Aspartame
What it's used forSweetening 
Where it's foundArtificial sweetener packets, diet drinks, yogurt and many other foods and beverages
What research saysStudies examining the effects of FDA-approved sweeteners, like aspartame, on humans have not produced results that show a direct link to cancer. However, aspartame contains the amino acid phenylalanine, which some people—specifically those with phenylketonuria (PKU)—cannot properly break down in their bodies; in this case, aspartame can be harmful to those with PKU, potentially causing serious health problems. 
Should you avoid itThe American Cancer Society asserts that there is no connection between aspartame and cancer, and the FDA states that aspartame is safe to consume as a food sweetener without any health risks. However, if you are concerned about phenylalanine, you should avoid aspartame. If you still want to avoid aspartame for general nutrition purposes, it's a good idea to become familiar with identifying it on ingredient labels and consider making swaps for natural sweeteners.

While it may be alarming to hear about food additives in the news, being portrayed in a negative and disastrous light, it's important to be fully informed about the facts and any scientific evidence that may support any claims. If you take proper precautions to regularly eat a healthy diet, limit or restrict processed foods and others that are typically perceived as “bad foods,” you shouldn't be overwhelmed with worry over your intake of additives, as you're likely not consuming a high enough amount that could cause issues. However, as the research states, it is smart to cut out ingredients like BHA, BHT, trans fats and be careful about nitrates.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day, and come back next time for more health news at eVitamins!

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