Manufacturers use food additives for several reasons: to enhance flavor, improve texture and appearance, add nutrients or keep products fresh. While some additives, such as vitamins and minerals, contribute to ongoing good health, other additives, mostly man-made substances, cause concern about potential health risks. Understanding the role of additives and which pose possible health problems can help you make healthy food choices.
Controversies concerning artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and acesulfame-K, which are used in products such as soft drinks and diet foods, continue to hover over the food industry, but studies are zeroing in on evidence. An article published in the "American Journal of Industrial Medicine" in April 2014 noted that, based on the evidence of aspartame's potential cancer-causing effects, a re-evaluation by regulatory agencies regarding aspartame's safety must be considered an urgent matter of public health. While acesulfame-K and saccharin are linked to cancer in animals, the verdict is still out. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that consumers avoid these ingredients until they are better tested or banned.
While some foods are colored with natural substances, such as beta carotene and carmine, most artificially colored foods, such as candy, soda pop and gelatin, are colored with synthetic dyes. Foods containing these dyes should be avoided, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For example, yellow 5 dye -- the second most widely used coloring -- can cause allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, particularly in aspirin-sensitive people, and triggers hyperactivity in some children, says CSPI. Red 3, a dye used to color maraschino cherries, is linked to the development of thyroid tumors in rats.
Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
Hydrogenated vegetable oil, or man-made trans fat, is produced by combining liquid vegetable oil with hydrogen to form a semi-solid or solid fat. Man-made trans fats are found in foods such as margarines, cookies, frozen pies, frozen pizzas, crackers, baked goods and microwave popcorn. Eating trans fat increases "bad" low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, which contributes to the risk of coronary heart disease -- the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Avoid products containing hydrogenated vegetable oils whenever possible.
Butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, are synthetic antioxidants used as food preservatives. They significantly extend the shelf life of foods that contain fats such as vegetable oils, animal fats, flavorings, spices, nuts, processed meats and snack foods, which are susceptible to oxidation's deteriorating effects. Although these substances are believed to be safe, controversy about their use continues, according to Frostburg University. An article published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program in 2011 noted that BHA is potentially a carcinogen.