By Jessica Brown, registered dietitian at CHOC
When buying packaged products, it’s important to limit our consumption of common food additives. Direct food additives are natural or synthetic substances added to foods during processing to help enhance flavor, texture, appearance or nutrition, or to extend shelf-life.
Well-known additives include high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener; sodium nitrates, a preservative; and monosodium glutamate or MSG, a flavor enhancer. However, there are nearly 4,000 direct food additives registered on the Food and Drug Administration database.
Food additives to look out for include:
Humectants and Anticaking Agents
- What they do: Stabilize foods through moisture control to maintain texture, reduce microbial activity, and prevent clumping.
- Commonly added to: grated cheese, marshmallows, baked goods, baking powder, flour and cake mixes.
- Examples include: Sugar and salt are commonly used humectants. However, most anticaking agents are made from synthetic substances such as silicon dioxide and aluminosilicates.
- What they do: Prevent separation, provide a smooth texture, and extend shelf-life.
- Commonly added to: mayonnaise, salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate, and ice-cream.
- Examples include: Egg lecithin, monoglycerides and diglycerides (naturally present in seed oils), guar gum, and carrageenan. Synthetic forms include carboxymethyl cellulose and polysorbate 80.
Stabilizers, Thickeners, and Gelling Agents
- What they do: Provide a consistent texture and mouth-feel.
- Commonly added to: jams, yogurts, soups, sauces and dressings.
- Examples include: Cornstarch, pectin, and lecithin. Although synthetic versions exist such as carboxymethyl cellulose and methyl cellulose.
- What they do: Enhance the natural colors in a food, compensate for color variation in foods, or add color to an otherwise colorless food.
- Commonly added to: candies, breakfast cereal, beverages, and snack foods.
- Examples include: Synthetic colors such as Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1. Plant, animal or mineral colorants are also added to foods such as grape skin extract, annatto, beta-carotene, or cochineal extract.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a policy regarding the emerging child health concerns related to the direct and indirect food additives.
5 tips to reduce your family’s intake of food additives
Read ingredient labels
- Compare products while at the grocery store. Many manufactures are making comparable products with less food additives.
- Identify hidden sources of food additives such as silicon dioxide in spices or polysorbate 80 in dairy products.
Decrease intake of processed foods
- Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and animal products with minimal processing.
- Make dishes from scratch when feasible to control which ingredients are incorporated into your food.
Farmers markets or CSA (community supported agriculture) deliveries are a wonderful way to reduce food additives not only by choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, but in local canned and bottled products too.
Make simple swaps
- Make air-popped popcorn in place of microwaved popcorn
- Swap blocked cheese for shredded cheese
- Choose butter instead of margarine
- Use maple syrup or honey in place of pancake syrup
- Incorporate fresh herbs and spices instead of marinades and sauces
- Choose plain chips and crackers more often than flavored options
- Swap plain yogurt for flavored varieties and add your own toppings
Get creative in the kitchen
- Make your own salad dressing, dips, or taco seasoning
- Use fresh citrus or herbs to flavor sparkling water
- Use natural ingredients to decorate your cookies this holiday season. Use beet juice or powder for red icing, and wheatgrass juice or matcha powder for green icing
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers additional information on food additives.