This blog post on food additive facts is part of our Food Facts blog series meant to expose some of these funny nuances and illustrate why they matter for your food creations. At Whisk, we glean insights from the half a billion recipe interactions that take place on our platform every month. Accurately classifying and grouping ingredients yielded from these recipes are incredibly important in creating better food experiences. In addition to using AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) to help improve our understanding of these nuances, we employ human intellect to train computers on more complicated information that is inherent in food experiences and recipes. Hopefully you learn a thing or two along the way. 

What have you heard about food additives? It’s likely you’ve heard about them in the news or seen them on the back of food packages. Generally, food additives serve the purpose of maintaining freshness, increasing shelf life by slowing the growth of microorganisms, adding texture such as thickening or anticoagulating agents, maintaining structure with emulsifiers and stabilizers, or enhancing flavor and sweetness. While some of the food additives found in food from our grocery stores are harmless, there is significant research that points to the danger of consuming these chemicals and compounds in excess.

Notable food additives are:

  • Sodium Caseinate: Used in meat products, coffee whitener, processed cereals, baked goods, and processed cheeses to enhance nutrition, flavor, and specific consistencies. Those with milk allergies should avoid this additive.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Used to enhance the flavor of savory dishes. Often found in frozen dinners, salty snacks, canned soups, and fast-food restaurants.
  • Sodium Nitrite: Frequently found in processed meats as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria. It also adds a salty flavor and reddish-pink color. When exposed to high heat and in the presence of amino acids, it can be converted to nitrosamine, which is linked to negative effects and cancer.
  • Artificial Coloring: Used to improve the appearance of foods like candies, condiments, and other processed food, artificial food dyes like Blue 1, Red 3, and Yellow 5 have raised health concerns and been associated with allergic reactions in some. One study suggests food additives cause hyperactivity in children and another animal study found Red 3 (erythrosine) to increase the risk of thyroid cancers. Overall, more research is needed.
  • Sodium Benzoate: A preservative added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods like salad dressings, pickles, fruit juices, and condiments. When combined with vitamin C, sodium benzoate can be converted into benzene, a carcinogenic compound.
  • Lecithin: A group of chemicals belonging to phospholipids, which are important parts of the brain, blood, nerves, cell membranes, and other tissues. In the body, lecithins turn into choline, a compound necessary for transporting lipids. Used as an additive to stabilize water/oil emulsions in mayonnaise, chocolate, spreads, sauces, and ice creams, among others. 
  • Guar Gum: A long-chain carbohydrate used to thicken and bind foods like ice cream, salad dressings, sauces, and soups. Research has shown some positive health benefits, such as reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, like bloating and constipation. 
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup: A sweetener made from corn that is frequently found in soda, juice, candy, breakfast foods, and snack foods. Research has shown it causes a significant increase in belly fat and blood sugar levels and inflammation, which plays a role in chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
  • Carrageenan: Derived from red seaweed and acts as a thickener, emulsifier, and preservative in food products. Although more research is needed, some evidence points to carrageenan negatively impacting digestive health and causing increased fasting blood sugar.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive of all the food additives you’ll come across in America, it should help you feel more confident in making educated food choices by understanding what’s in your food. Whisk’s Health Score can also help with that! See the nutrition breakdown of every recipe you import or create and feel good about the food you put on the table. See for yourself.