25 Food Additives You Always Wanted To Know About, But (Forgot) To Ask – (Part 1)

food Additives

Now, I know that it’s a lot to ask not to stray off the culinary straight and narrow path in this busy world. I think most of us, I included, would always like to eat pure, fresh fruits, nature’s bounty of vitamins in vegetables, all that jazz.

Sometimes we grab for something quick, though, and even in haste, we take a glimpse to make sure there’s nothing too wrong in the processed food we’re soon to put in ourselves. “No hydrogenated oils or trans fats, great. No sugar, aspartame, or terrible artificial sweeteners, great. No MSG, great.” Then we grab up that boy like it’s a keeper!

However, what of the lesser-known ingredients like carrageenan and sodium benzoate, etcetera? You may or may not have taken a cursory gander online or through other media to check on these things, but I went whole-hog just for you in investigating, and here’re the (sometimes shocking) (sometimes yawn-inducing) results!:


Since I mentioned it first above, I figured I’d go ahead and start with this guy. Carrageenan is a stabilizer/thickener/filler substance derived from red seaweed. You’ll find it in everything from milk replacement products to meat products to candies. Carrageenan is one of several “fat replacing” additives you’ll find in foods trying to cut fat and makeup calories in the form of carbohydrates. This idea is past its time and has proven inefficient and unsafe for heart health.

In any case, that isn’t the nail in the coffin for carrageenan consumption, but there are some things you ought to know that might make you turn the tide on it (Get it? Seaweed? Tide? Ha..ha…). Bad news-good news; The bad: Carrageenan injected directly into the bloodstream of mammals immediately causes toxic immunological effects, which can/has resulted in death.

Wait, wait, there’s good news! (I guess) This type of effect is not seen through ingestion since carrageenan is not absorbed into one’s system, and the doses we humans are exposed to generally do not have this effect. Not sure if that makes you feel any better, but I will go back into scare-tactic land and say that ingesting highly high doses over prolonged periods has shown adverse effects on mammalian lungs. Still, again, it’s way more carrageenan than you, and I’d be consuming.

Carrageenan is not allowed in infant formula in Europe up to a certain point in the child’s development, but this is mainly due to public scrutiny on food additives during the 80s, despite safety tests affirming the low toxicity. In the US, the FDA allows it in baby food; they claim that the carrageenan allows less fat separation in the formulas and thus more uniform nutrition.

Another considerable controversy surrounding ol’ Carrie (my new pet name) is molecular weights, viscosities, and potential degradation (stay with me, here). Carrageenan and carrageenan byproducts under the molecular weight of 100,000 daltons are potentially harmful, as, unlike food-grade (over 100,000) carrageenan, these types may be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract.

There is more controversy regarding studies on the negative effects of carrageenan and, in particular, one of its byproductsbyproducts called poligeenan. Poligeenan is a synthetic polymer that has to be manufactured from natural carrageenan and is not used in food. Some negative studies are thought to review toxicological animal tests on poligeenan (which weighs about 20,000) instead of food-grade carrageenan. Though scientists on both sides of the issue recommend a weight of 100,000 daltons or above as the safe way to go, the FDA has not issued a proclamation requiring that weight.

However, most carrageenan used in foods has molecular weights well over 100,000, which is somewhat relieving as tests in guinea pigs given carrageenan at molecular weights from 21,000 to 107,000 showed evidence of internal problems though there were different strains of carrageenans and different viscosities amongst them. There is no FDA mandate for optimal density on the point of viscosity (which is the thickness of a liquid, for you non-science-buffs out there).

However, in the guinea pig test, only one strain of carrageenan (called iota) at mid-level viscosities and drinking water and not food showed adverse results. In any case, the only further point that scientists from pro and anti-carrageenan sides seem to agree on is that carrageenan, even at high molecular weights, should be tested for possible degradation in food-processing and the like to assure that it does not break down into low molecular weight, readily-absorbed toxic carrageenan.


Read – 25 Food Additives Part – 2

The verdict: Since gums like xanthan and guar gum can be used in place of carrageenan, and due to the knowledge that fat is not the prime culprit in weight gain and heart disease, carrageenan or other gums may not need to replace anything at all. I’d say avoid it if possible, though, in intermittent low doses, it won’t kill you.

2.Soy Lecithin

Here’s one we see in many things; if you eat a lot of chocolate and read many ingredients labels, you probably see it more often than most! Soy lecithin is lecithin derived from- SURPRISE!- soy.

Lecithins are used as emulsifiers (Big word for holder-together) in chocolate and other products, i.e., they keep the cocoa and cocoa butter in a chocolate bar from separating. Lecithin is naturally found in eggs, and if you do any baking, you know of the binding properties of eggs in cookies and pastries. Soy lecithin, in particular, is very cheap to produce, which is probably why we see it in so many products on the shelves.

As 94% of US soybeans are genetically engineered, that oft-seen ingredient on your candy bar label almost certainly has GMO properties. There is quite a bit of processing of that bean to extract soy lecithin: it starts with tempering, cleaning, and cracking the soybeans; then, followed by heating and pressing the hull-separated soybeans flakes. The flakes are distilled, where soybean oil is extracted.

The crude soy oil is degummed to make it less dense, and the thick sludge leftover contains lecithin. The sludge contains solvents and pesticides, so the lecithin must be filtered out by a method called hexane extraction. Hexane is a solvent, which is found in gasoline. It is non-toxic in small amounts over irregular periods. Still, the non-profit advocacy group Cornucopia Institute found that soy oil contained ten parts per million of hexane, which is an amount they found unacceptable.

Nervous system failure is known to occur in humans exposed to the mainly-used form of hexane, n-hexane, at a constant daily intake/exposure of over 400 parts per million. This can be from using cleaning products containing it in concert with the ingestion of certain oils. Sounds scary, but soy lecithin has been found to have a few upsides, too. For one, it’s been found to have a use in lowering stress. One of the fatty acids in soy lecithin decreases cortisol, the stress hormone secreted while being subjected to mental and physical stresses.

Another study found soy lecithin, when making up 3.4% of the diet, can lower total cholesterol while keeping plasma HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels high. Yet another study found that a diet containing soy lecithin and corn oil calmed horses but didn’t specify if they were dumbed-down or stressless, just that they had “improved tractability.”

The verdict:

Again, this is an additive that seems acceptable in the small doses in which it is contained in foods. Exercise caution in using soy products and industrial cleaners containing hexane or hexane byproducts to minimize any risk of a toxic overload.


The acronym stands for “polyglycerol polyricinoleate,” and the substance itself is most usually made from castor oil. Here’s one I only want to hit on right quickly, and only because it, like soy lecithin, is something you’ll mostly find in chocolate bars. Now, sweetened chocolate bars are not something you want to imbibe yourself with, anyway; but hear me out on this one!

Big-dollar candy firms like Hershey’s and Nestlé decided to save a bit of cash by replacing a portion of cocoa butter with this stuff. That cocoa butter can be sold off at high dollars for use in cosmetics. So, what of PGPR; is it unsafe? Well, not necessarily; in fact, the fatty acids found in castor oil (a rare polyunsaturate called ricinoleic acid) have been found to have beneficial effects. These include fostering the production of CLA, or “Conjugated linoleic acid,” a substance that has been found to assist in shedding off pounds as well as firming the belly.

Since antiquity, it has also been used for its anti-bacterial and pain-relieving abilities, primarily for topical use. In the body, it is a potent laxative. There is a lot of talks online about one of the components of the castor plant, ricin; this protein is deadly toxic at minuscule portions, but the castor oil extraction process seems to be efficient enough (as I suppose there aren’t a lot of dead Hershey’s lovers or bad kids in orphanages dying from too much castor oil).

Ricin has also been found to be just as potent at inhibiting, even destroying cancerous B-cells, so while none of this applies to anyone eating chocolate (as the ricin is filtered out), it shows that even such a poison has its beneficial uses.

The verdict:

This is a weird one, as it is fat being replaced with fat (even though the replacement fat is polyunsaturated, to the original fat’s saturated-ness). I think this is more an issue of product authenticity than safety. What I mean is that you’re getting a product that isn’t really what you think you’re buying; if you’re looking for the genuine taste of actual chocolate, you’re not gettin’ it here, sweetheart! (Though I can’t recall ever liking Hershey’s chocolate, myself; weird aftertaste).

I find the whole “ingredient replacement” option distasteful at best and defying of nutrition at worst (That is, the natural molecular structure may and probably does work better “uploading” whatever nutrients to one’s body than a strange mash-up of perhaps non-coagulating ingredients).

Again, this substance is added to replace an ingredient that the “chocolate” makers can make big money on, and it even lowers the viscosity (thickness) of the final product. The natural antioxidant-containing phenols found in the chocolate’s cocoa butter are lost, with a refined version of castor oil put in their place. I say leave anything containing this junk on the shelf.


Here’s another one I see fairly often nowadays. Palmitates are the salts and esters of palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid. Palmitic acid is the predominant saturated fatty acid in the American diet, contributing approximately 7–8% of the total energy intake.

Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant and a source of vitamin A added to low-fat milk to replace the vitamin content lost through the removal of milk fat. Palmitate is attached to the alcohol form of vitamin A, retinol, to make vitamin A stable in milk.

To the point, prolonged consumption of palmitate causes endoplasmic reticulum stress. The endoplasmic reticulum is a cell that synthesizes proteins and fats for use in the body. This stress ultimately results in the death of cells; this causes improper synthesis, which is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Palmitate also induces insensitivity to glucose (sugar) in cells over the long term, contributing to destructors of cell respiration like lowered pyruvate dehydrogenase activity (basically transforming ketone bodies into cell energy). There is also evidence that high levels of free fatty acids like palmitate in concert with adrenaline (from stress reactions, et cetera) increase metabolic rate, which induces an increase in hunger and also a danger of hyperthyroidism.

Palmitate has also been found to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. An FDA study found that retinyl palmitate, the same one found in low-fat milk to imbue it with vitamin A, accelerated tumors and lesions in the sun when sunscreen containing it was applied to animals. Yipes.

The verdict:

There is virtually nothing good about this stuff, so I caution you to stay away from it. Palmitate used as an antioxidant and vitamin A source/protector of degradation of vitamin A and shelf-life of foods has been seen to be inferior to using tocopherols (a.k.a. vitamin E; see below!), and even iffy additives like carrageenan can do what it does at much less the risk.

This is another example of the danger of replacing natural fats with preservatives, so do yourself a favor and get the full-fat stuff.


Casein is the main protein found in cow’s milk. It’s used in cheese, paint and glue making, plastics, and protein supplements. While I’m not sure most people see it on food labels since it’s a natural part of the dairy, I know I’ve seen it around, most notably in body builder’s supplements.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any good news to report on the stuff. On the note of such positive information, it seems casein’s only redeeming factor is its potential to promote the growth of helpful probiotics, especially in cow milk-based infant formulas. It just about ends there with the good, though.

Casein inhibits iron absorption in humans and has been found to potentially create blindness in mammals with gastrointestinal disorders, and it contains opioids (i.e., opiates). The opiates do more than addict you to the stuff, as you’ve probably guessed (especially if you look in most dairy-filled American refrigerators); they cause constipation, pseudoallergic skin reactions in children, and wanton histamine release in adults, which also spurs on allergic skin reactions.

One study found the addictive quality of casein insignificant. Still, it said the study tested rats’ preferential places in a cage containing pure morphine on one side vs. b-casomorphin (an opioid from casein) on another, so I suppose you are the judge. Also, ever wonder why you love cheese so much? It’s because cheese-making removes water, lactose, and whey proteins, concentrating casein and its break-down component of b-casomorphin, which probably creates a pretty acute addiction.


I know, I know; you don’t want to give up the cheese. It’s not easy for me, either as someone who’s constantly trying to bodybuild and put on weight, giving up dairy products seems foolish. However, I’ve long ago eschewed milk (for reasons more related to the realization that milk is really for the nourishment of growing infants, not adults; primarily not milk from another species), and while I do casein-it-up from time to time with the cheese, I try to keep it to a minimum.

Casein, as referenced above, causes all manner of skin ills- from acne to encouraging candida growth. If you can challenge yourself for a while to get off it, you will, and hey: Casein-free vegan cheese substitutes are getting better and better these days, so maybe check them out next time you get a craving.

6-9. The Gums

6. Guar Gum

Guar gum is a polysaccharide, i.e., along carbohydrate molecule made of the endosperm of guar beans. It’s used in foods as a thickener and is often used in frozen products like ice cream to repel ice crystals. It has various sound effects in the body, lowering LDL cholesterol while leaving HDL cholesterol unchanged and increasing sugar tolerance by decreasing the amount of sugar absorbed by the small intestine. One could imagine the positive effect this has on blood sugar, and thus it is helpful for people with diabetes.

Over the long term, it has been found to help control type 2 diabetes because of these properties and the lack of glucose loss through urine caused by guar gum intake. Guar gum also decreases appetite, and in a study of obese folks taking a small percentage with their meals, all subjects lost significant weight while also improving their blood sugar levels.

It also increases beneficial bifidobacteria (microflora in the gut), which aid in the digestion of foods and overall well-being. Modified guar gums, along with normal guar gums, have been seen to limit the effect of cancerous carcinoma cells. Guar gum given over two years at mean doses of 15g a day in patients who underwent artery-unclogging surgeries helped keep their arteries clear while keeping LDL levels in check. So…this stuff sounds pretty miraculous, huh?

The only downside, it seems, is that in staggering amounts, it causes flatulence; and in such quantities, not taking enough water with its ingestion causes some degree of intestinal blockage. This, however, can be seen with any dietary fiber (which is what guar gum happens to be).

The verdict:

So, this one seems okay. There are supplements made containing just guar gum that I have seen in co-ops and health food stores, so its heart/blood sugar/cholesterol-helping effects are well-known to the holistic world. I suppose that its source and genetic modification status should be noted with any additive, but this one is one of the “good guys” in the crowded additive world.

7. Xantham Gum

Xantham gum, another polysaccharide, is derived from a plant bacteria. This bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris, can come from corn (which throws up red flags like soy, much of US corn is genetically modified). It is mainly used as a thickener in the food industry, but due to its free-flowing while thickening properties are used in many other applications such as oil drilling.

It is cheaper to produce than guar gum, which may explain its prevalence in food products (especially gluten-free products, even with guar gum, are already more expensive to make). It has none of the beneficial blood sugar effects of guar. Still, over the long term, it seems to help lower pre- and post-eating total cholesterol and significantly lower VLDL triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.

It is also dietary fiber, like guar, which helps in thickening and moving along the stool. Since xanthan gum is fermented, it may cause problems for people with allergies to mold. Also, the unpredictability of where it comes from (corn, cabbage, or other vegetables which harbor Xanthomonas campestris) is uncomfortably mysterious to me.

Add to that the fact it has been implicated in 15 cases (2 of their deaths) of necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening condition, in infants. The product containing xantham gum in the implication, SimplyThick, is mostly xanthan gum and includes water, citric acid, and potassium sorbate.

As of this writing, it is unknown why the product caused the condition in infants or if it was solely the fault of xanthan gum, but I suppose it is best to avoid giving xanthan gum to infants.

The verdict:

Eh, this one seems pretty iffy in the “gum world” when you consider all the benefits of guar. I avoid it and recommend you do the same, at least in products where it isn’t organic, and the source isn’t divulged.

8. Gum arabic/acacia gum

Two names for the same product, gum arabic/acacia gum is a naturally sticky substance made from the sap from two different species of the acacia tree. Like other gums, it contains polysaccharides; but it is made up of a form of protein.

Aside from being edible, it has multiple uses as a solid binding material. Therefore, it is often seen in glues, paints and used as a thickener in inks. In food, you’ll often see it in soft drinks and candies; so, that might be a reason to avoid it in itself. Unlike guar gum but like xantham gum, it does not affect glucose tolerance/blood sugar but does help in lowering total blood cholesterol.

Unlike the other gums, it is fully digested/metabolized; so its effects as a fiber are negligible, though it does increase absorption of short-chain fatty acids. It increases microflora in the gut in fermenting there, creating an environment where supplies of short-chain fatty acids act as an energy supply for the wall cells of the colon and may produce mutagens (DNA-changing agents that may cause mutations/cancer). However, nothing I could find linked gum arabic to any carcinogens or cancer, so the mutagens may be harmless.

Gum arabic is now being used for cancer therapy by modifying magnetic nanoparticles.

The verdict:

Still not the relative “hero” that guar gum seems to be, but it doesn’t seem to be that bad as naturally occurring from trees. Its source is an issue, but less for the GMO properties and more because it comes from the middle east.

The turmoil there makes it hard to get ahold of at times, which is more of a concern for manufacturers of products containing it than you; however, when said manufacturers cannot get it, they may have to resort to using cheaper and less safe alternatives; something to keep in mind.

9. Locust bean gum/carob gum

Another in the series of “a gum by any other name,” this dual-named gum is a polysaccharide derived from the carob tree. Similar to the other gums, it has heart-assisting effects in lowering LDL cholesterol and upping HDL. It slows gastric emptying rate (amount of time it takes for a portion of food to go into you and come out of you if you know what I mean) even in doses as low as 6g. Also, like some other gums, it increases beneficial microflora in the gut.

The verdict: Not much to say here, really, but it’s okay. Another natural gum like guar, with beneficial effects.

10 & 11: BHT & BHA

The abbreviations stand for “Butylated hydroxytoluene/” “Butylated hydroxyanisole,” respectively; they’re synthetic antioxidants/preservatives that are fat-soluble (like most antioxidants). Besides being sometimes found in foods, cosmetics, rubber, and other petroleum products are also used in foods and ick: embalming fluid.

At levels up to 500 times the normal level consumed by an average American (which estimates say consumption is estimated at 0.1 mg per kg a day), BHT and BHA seem to be free of any harmful effects. Still, at more significant levels (That is, above 500 mg per kg a day), they have been reported to have some teratogenic (causing malformations of embryos) and carcinogenic effects on rodents. Though the effects are much less on monkeys, who are more genetically related to us, they still exist; however, upon removing BHT/BHA, the ill effects seem to reverse themselves.

Long-term low-level ingestion of BHT/BHA may be beneficial in stopping the degradation of vitamin E in the system by other nutrients and lessening the toxicity and chance of cancer from certain mutagenic and carcinogenic chemicals. Though BHT as an antioxidant seems to have little effect on cholesterol, it subverts the cases of lesions associated with atherosclerosis. Direct injection (not oral ingestion) of BHT in mice caused lung injury and cell death in areas of the heart.

Other studies have found while BHT/BHA may inhibit some factors of cancer from forming, once cancer has developed, they promote it (in the stomach for BHA, liver for BHT). In high doses, impairment of blood clotting is seen, which seems to be the case even in natural antioxidants like vitamin E. One study said that BHT and its sister compound BHA are carcinogens, and thus vitamin E, as a natural (non-lab-created) antioxidant, is preferred over the use of those two. The same study noted the anti-carcinogenic potential of both substances but said their carcinogenic properties made that potential non-constructive.

The verdict: I’d go ahead and say these guys are a no-go. One study I read said the amount of these synthetic antioxidants used in modern food and cosmetic applications is “probably harmless,” which is way too iffy to be very scientific to me. Other studies dismiss the role of BHT in suppressing cancers, so like I said: Way too iffy. Still, if you must change it, do it infrequently and make sure these two are at the bottom of any ingredients list.

12 & 13 Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrate is a form of nitrogen that naturally occurs in plants and is also created synthetically to be used as an anti-botulism agent in, for example, cured meat products. Nitrate is relatively non-toxic, but roughly 5% ingested is converted to the more toxic nitrite when exposed to saliva.

Due to the increased usage of nitrogen fertilizers, vegetable sources of nitrate and nitrite in drinking water is higher than in the past. Nitrite and compounds called N-nitroso derived from nitrite can bind to proteins in foods and inhibit the ability of oxygen to be delivered to tissues. This ability has been cited as the cause of methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome.” Older children and adults are less susceptible to this form of tissue asphyxiation.

N-nitroso can also be formed during the storage and ripening of certain foods. Nitrates from vegetables seem to be offset in their harmful properties by the vitamins and minerals in the foods in which they are contained. Still, studies are showing that even small amounts (under the recommended daily intake) in vegetables, when mixed in a meal with fish (proteins), can’t offset the damaging effects of N-nitroso and nitrites binding the fish proteins.

Nitrate can interfere with iodine absorption and, therefore, thyroid function; this throws off endocrine and hormone functions in the body. There has also been a link to the possible causation of diabetes in children and levels of nitrate in drinking water. However, other studies suggest nitrate is good for you. Nitric oxide formed in the stomach from dietary nitrate may have antimicrobial effects and help defend against infections.

Also, there is evidence that nitrate assists in the reduction of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases and the risk of gastric cancer. A growing number of scientists are speaking out against the dogmatic view of nitrates being “bad.” Examining methemoglobinemia, cancer, reproductive, and other health risks through epidemiological studies with mixed results (all slight, whether negative or positive) has yielded little correlation, they say.

These scientists have also pointed out that nitrate-rich vegetables have greater than 50 times the amount of nitrate than is found in drinking water. They do recognize that naturally-produced nitrite in the saliva is at its highest after nitrate consumption but contend that due to the pH of gastric juices, nitrite content in the stomach is low, much lower than that in the saliva.

Lack of sufficient evidence of nitrate’s supposedly dangerous role may have a societal cost; lower economically-developed communities are struggling to pay for nitrate water filtration systems which may not even be necessary and are based on a preventative measure against blue baby syndrome the 1950s with no absolute proof.

On the plus side of nitrate, it’s been seen that nitrite that is swallowed from saliva and brought to the acidic stomach environment becomes nitrous oxide and other nitrogen compounds, which have been found to have antimicrobial activity against such baddies as Salmonella.

Nitrate and its products also assist in opening up the blood vessels (vasodilation) and possibly help in the circulation of gastric waste products. Yet another camp o’ scientists believes both sides’ (Nitrate good/nitrate harmful!) ideas are too simple, and recommends that guidelines on nitrates in water, foods, et cetera, be based on research identifying factors like effects on subgroups of individuals with increased and continued inborn nitrate levels and those with medical conditions which increase nitrate compounds.

As for the run-down of amounts-per-food, vegetables have the highest amount of nitrates, up to 189 mg/serving; meat and bean products have the most amount of nitrites, up to 1.84 mg/serving, and dairy products have the most N-nitroso, at up to 5.31 micrograms per serving.

Nitrate/nitrite/and N-nitroso consumption causes all manner of ills in animals; as mentioned above, nitrates have impaired thyroid function, as well as decreased feed consumption, and interfered with vitamin A and E metabolism. Nitrites caused anemia and methemoglobinemia in many species, i.e., cattle, sheep, swine, dogs, guinea pigs, rats, chickens, and turkeys.

In rats, chronic nitrite exposure causes pathologic changes in various tissues, alterations in motor activity and brain electrical activity, and alters gastric mucosal absorption. N-nitroso, which is found in cow’s milk and some goat’s milk, has caused liver disorder in many animals.

The verdict: Whew! That’s a lot to consider. I suppose it’s most auspicious to take a common-sense approach to this one; I mean that since these compounds are found in virtually everything, especially fruits and veggies, to eat the “good” things. That includes those fruits above and veggies and limits any manner of highly processed meats and dairy.

The fiber, minerals, and nutrients derived from the vegetables, along with the body’s natural abilities (as long as the subject is healthy) to purge toxins, should be more than enough to slow the harmful effects of nitrogen compounds. One could also be wary of the practices of the farms from which one gets one’s vegetables.

Of course, a bit of research would have to be done, but finding farmers who use fewer nitrogen fertilizers may be well worth it. Avoiding nitrates altogether and eating healthily is impossible.

That’s all the keystrokes we have for today, folks! Be on the lookout for Part2, for the conclusion to the thrilling, vittle-filling cliffhanger!


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