8 Controversial Food Additives & Their Effects on Our Bodies

Okay, we know ultra processed foods aren’t good for us. But we can probably all agree: they taste darn good. Plus, aren’t sugary breakfast cereals even more fun to eat when they’re rainbow colored? Well, the magic of processed foods is thanks to all sorts of food additives. They make processed foods taste better, look prettier, last longer, and cost less! But, there are some especially controversial food additives, and they can take a serious toll on our bodies.

That’s because food additives just aren’t real food. While they alter the taste, texture, and shelf-life of packaged foods, they don’t provide any nutritional value. In our last post, we looked at Ultra Processed Foods and why we should limit them in our diet. And one of those reasons is because they contain SO many controversial food additives! Plus, many controversial food additives used in the U.S. are actually banned in other countries…

Limiting ultra processed foods is certainly the #1 priority. But, these controversial food additives can sneak into all kinds of unexpected places. So, what are food additives? And what are the controversial food additives we should avoid?

Image credit: My Health Maven

What Are Food Additives?

]Basically, food additives are substances that are added to foods to alter them in some way. Usually, they’re added to processed and ultra processed foods. And food additives have some benefits for food manufacturers—not so much for consumers. Preservatives can make foods last longer, artificial sweeteners add sweetness without calories, artificial flavors make processed foods tastier. BUT, most food additives are artificial, synthetic, or man-made. They don’t exist in nature.

Our bodies are designed to metabolize real, whole foods. We need them for fuel! But ultra processed foods are stripped of nutrients and pumped up with food additives instead. So, we’re not getting the fuel we need, and we’re filling our bodies with substances that it doesn’t know how to metabolize. And, in response, the body goes haywire. We don’t know how to metabolize these synthetic additives. Often, our body perceives them as ‘foreign invaders,’ like a virus or bacteria, and attacks with inflammation.

Worst of all, many controversial food additives are harmful chemicals. (Some of which are used in other non-food products, like plastics and rubber!) So, if you’re concerned about food additives, it’s important to READ nutrition labels carefully. And, you need to know what to look for. Now, the list below only covers some of the potentially harmful and controversial food additives. As always, my goal is NOT to tell you what to eat, or what not to eat. But, with more information, we gain more power to make smart food choices for ourselves!

(Whole30 folks: get acquainted with this list of approved/off-limits food additives!)

Whole30 additives

Added Sugars

What Are They:

Refined sugars and sweeteners (like table sugar, honey, maple syrup), as well as unrefined sugars (like coconut sugar) added to foods for flavor. But, these are NOT the same as naturally-occurring sugars, like those in fruits and veggies. And, ‘sugar’ can hide under many different names, like ‘brown rice syrup,’ ‘agave nectar,’ or ‘dextrose.’

Why They’re One of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • Most people in the U.S. (and some other developed nations) consume WAY too many added sugars. On average, Americans consume 2 to 3 times the recommended daily amount of added sugars!
  • Provide calories and immediate energy to the body, but ZERO nutrients.
  • Like refined grains, added sugars cause rapid blood sugar spikes. And, when consumed regularly in large quantities, can lead to serious health and metabolic issues.
  • Also, large quantities of sugar overload the body. When we can’t process all of that sugar, it can be stored as fat. Plus, an excess of sugar can lead to an inflammatory response in the body.
  • Finally, the more we consume added sugars (and sweeteners), the more our taste buds get used to extreme sweetness. Then, it’s harder to appreciate the natural sweetness in whole foods like fruits. And, we start to crave those super sweet foods more and more.

What to Watch Out For:

Besides the obvious candies and sodas, watch out for these unexpected sources of added sugars:

  • Breads and baked goods
  • Cereals, cereal bars, granola, instant oatmeal
  • Canned fruit and fruit cups
  • Pasta sauce, salad dressing, condiments, nut butters
  • Frozen dinners
  • Flavored or ‘fruit-on-the-bottom’ yogurts
  • ‘Fat-free’ products

ALWAYS read nutrition labels! But, look beyond just the grams of sugar listed. Sugars go by MANY different (and sneaky) names, so it’s important to look for them in the ingredients list. (Especially for my friends doing Whole30!) These are just a few sneaky sugar names below, but I’ve also linked some helpful additional resources!

Sugar Hides Under Many Different Names on Food LabelsDr. Mercola

The 56 Most Common Names for Sugar (Some Are Tricky)Healthline

High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

What Is It:

A concentrated sugar substitute that’s cheap and SUPER sweet—more sweet than table sugar! While table sugar (sucrose) is 50/50 glucose and fructose, HFCS is much higher in fructose. And, it’s especially problematic because it’s used in SO many sweet and savory processed foods.

Why It’s One of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • Americans consume more calories from HFCS than any other food source! And, that makes HFCS the #1 contributor to our excessive sugar intake.
  • Just like other added sugars, HFCS has no nutritional value. And, it causes similar problems in excess: large blood sugar spikes, inflammation, and cravings.
  • Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver. And, in large amounts (like from HFCS), it turns to fat in our bodies.
  • Some research suggests HFCS may inhibit our brain’s ability to recognize when we’re full! Naturally, this can lead to overeating and weight gain.

What to Watch Out For:

  • HFCS also goes by a few other sneaky names. Look for “corn sweetener,” “corn syrup,” or “corn syrup solids” in the ingredients list.
  • And, see the above list of “What To Watch Out For” in the added sugars section!

Artificial Sweeteners

What Are They:

Synthetic chemicals designed to add sweetness without calories or sugar. Sometimes, you’ll find them in those tiny, colorful packets on the table at a diner. But, they’re also used in most ‘diet’ and ‘sugar-free products. And there are also loads of lesser-known artificial sweeteners out there. These are a few of the most common:

  • Splenda (a.k.a. sucralose)
  • Sweet’N Low (a.k.a. saccharin)
  • Equal, NutraSweet (a.k.a. aspartame)
  • Sunnett, Sweet One, ace K (a.k.a. acesulfame potassium)

These are chemically derived, so they’re different than natural sweeteners like stevia and erythritol. (But, even natural sweeteners can cause problems for some people! In general, sweeteners (like added sugar) are best consumed in moderation.)

Image credit: Avail Clinical Research

Why They’re Some of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • Because they’re ‘no calorie’ and ‘sugar-free’, many people consider artificial sweeteners a ‘healthier’ option. But, consuming them in excess can still lead to many of the same problems as eating too much sugar.
  • In fact, some research suggests that consuming artificial sweeteners can lead to greater weight gain than consuming sugar.
  • Artificial sweeteners are super sweet in comparison to sugar! (Splenda is 600 times sweeter than sugar!) And, that sweetness tricks our brains into expecting calories that never come. Because of this, even artificial sweeteners can lead to blood sugar spikes and insulin resistance.
  • And, research studies show that tasting something sweet revs up our appetite—whether we consume calories not. So artificial sweeteners can increase sweet cravings, just like sugar!
  • Plus, recent findings show that artificial sweetener consumption can disrupt our gut bacteria balance. This can not only weaken our immune system, but it can also lead to insulin resistance.
  • Artificial sweeteners often have a laxative effect, and can be more problematic for people with digestive issues like IBS.
  • Although these sweeteners are all FDA approved, some research studies suggest they can have serious health consequences. Again, do your own research!

(Check out my Sugar & Sweeteners 101 video to learn more!)

What to Watch Out For:

  • ‘Sugar-free’ or ‘no-sugar-added’ foods—snack foods, syrups, condiments, jams/jellies, flavored yogurts, ice creams/popsicles
  • No-calorie ‘diet’ drinks and ‘low-sugar drinks—sodas, iced teas, juices, flavored waters, sports drinks
  • Sugar-free chewing gum
  • Some breads and baked goods
  • Protein bars, powders, and shakes
  • Some medicines (like Pedialyte)

Trans Fats a.k.a. Hydrogenated Oils

What are they?

Synthetic, man-made fats, known as ‘partially hydrogenated oils’, ‘hydrogenated oils,’ and shortening. When vegetable oils are hydrogenated (blasted with hydrogen), they transform from liquid to solid form. This creates the desired moist, crispy, or flaky texture in some processed foods, and extends their shelf life. (You’ll also find loads of trans fats in fried foods!)

Why They’re One of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • Nowadays, we know that trans fats are harmful to our health. It’s really best to eat as little trans fats as possible (ideally none).
  • Most notably, trans fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. And, they raise our bad cholesterol levels.
  • Plus, research also associates trans fats with an increased risk of diabetes, as well as some cancers.
  • Because these fats are synthetic and man-made, the body doesn’t know how to process them. So, the body responds with inflammation, and consuming trans fats contributes to chronic inflammation.

What to Watch Out For:

Many different oils can be hydrogenated—vegetable oil, soybean, cottonseed, canola, even coconut oil. So, if you see the words ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ in the ingredients list with ANY type of oil, that’s a trans fat! Because of the known health risks, trans fats have been removed from many food products. (And, the FDA even banned trans fats!) But, here are some common sources where you might still find them:

  • Margarine and shortening
  • Pre-packaged snacks (especially baked goods/pastries), chips, crackers
  • Doughnuts, pies, cakes, ice cream, frosting
  • Boxed cake mixes, pancake/waffle mix, instant oatmeal packets
  • Fast food, fried foods, some restaurant foods (especially ground beef)
  • Some flavored coffees and other beverages

Beware: the FDA allows food manufacturers to claim “0 trans fat” on the label if the food contains less than 0.5g trans fat per serving. Be sure to read the ingredients list and look for any “partially hydrogenated” oils, or shortening!

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

What Is It:

A powerful flavor enhancer that intensifies meaty, savory, umami flavors in foods. Like sugar, MSG actually occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes, cheese, and soy sauce. But, in its isolated form as a food additive, it can function differently in the body. Many processed foods and even some restaurant foods use MSG as a seasoning. And, while MSG has a lower sodium content than standard table salt, it comes with other potential risks.

Why It’s One of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • As with other additives, the FDA seems MSG safe for consumption. But, many experts and researchers disagree.
  • Most notable, many people (25-30% in the U.S.) don’t tolerate MSG well and experience serious side effects. Some are more mild, like headaches, fatigue, or numbness and tingling. But others are more serious, like rapid heartbeat, eye damage, asthma, or depression.
  • Although MSG occurs naturally in some foods, it’s actually an And that means it overexcites our cells, to the point they may be damaged or even die.
  • The majority of MSG consists of free glutamic acid. And, this is actually an amino acid that the body produces on its own. It functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain to initiate all sorts of functions in the body. So, consuming MSG (especially in larger, non-natural quantities) may disrupt our natural balance.

What to Watch Out For:

MSG hides in all kinds of ultra processed foods! But, you may not see ‘MSG’ or ‘monosodium glutamate’ spelled out in the ingredients list. Like sugar, there are TONS of sneaky names for MSG—glutamic acid, hydrolyzed protein, yeast extract. Check out this whole list of sneaky MSG names, and here are some common food sources:

  • Canned soups and broths
  • Frozen dinners, instant noodles
  • Salad dressings, seasonings, spice blends
  • Packaged snacks, like chips
  • Some pre-cooked or pre-seasoned meats
  • Some Chinese food/restaurants, fast food

Image credit: Dr. Jockers

Artificial Colors & Artificial Flavors

What Are They:

Synthetic chemicals designed to add color or improve the flavor of processed foods. Around 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes are used in U.S. foods each year! And, TONS of processed foods list artificial flavors in their ingredients lists.

Why They’re Some of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • For some people, certain artificial colors produce severe allergic reactions.
  • Most notably, artificial colors like Red #40 and Yellow #5 can trigger hyperactivity and other behavioral effects in children.
  • Studies also link several common food dyes to the development of cancer and brain tumors. In fact, products with food dyes must come with a warning label in many European countries! And, many brands that use artificial colors in the U.S. use natural colorings in their European products.
  • Although artificial flavors aren’t as well-studied, some findings suggest negative health effects. This can include allergic reactions, fatigue, headaches, nausea, chest pain, or nervous system problems.
  • In particular, certain flavorings may impact our brain health. For example, the butter flavoring (diacetyl) in microwave popcorn may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s.
  • And, the term ‘artificial flavors’ on an ingredients list can mean any number of things. It may mean just one additive, or a blend of hundreds of synthetic chemicals!

What to Watch Out For:

  • Brightly-colored foods, like candies, marshmallows, popsicles, chips, sugar cookies, breakfast cereals (even some ‘whole-grain’ cereals!)
  • Gummies, ‘fruit’ snacks, flavored apple sauce and yogurts
  • Beverages like sodas, juices, flavored waters
  • Baked goods
  • Salsas, hot sauces, condiments, salad dressings, pickles
  • Farm-raised salmon
  • Frozen dinners
  • Ice cream and frozen treats
  • Protein bars, shakes, and powders
  • Microwave popcorn


What Are They:

Additives (often synthetic chemicals) that increase the shelf-life of foods. Some are less problematic than other. But, some preservatives are potentially toxic chemicals. And, you can find many of them in non-food products, like plastic yoga mats, shoe rubber, and paint remover!

Why They’re Some of the Most Controversial Food Additives:

  • Like artificial flavors and colors, some preservatives cause allergic reactions.
  • And, some (like sodium benzoate) also cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children.
  • Some preservatives can also contribute to digestive problems, and aren’t tolerated well by everyone.
  • Most controversially, some preservatives may be harmful carcinogens.

What to Watch Out For:

Just about ANY ultra processed food, and even somewhat processed foods! A few of the worst offenders are:

  • Frozen dinners, frozen & commercial pizza, instant noodles
  • Cereals, breads
  • Crackers, chips
  • Deli meat, bacon, smoked fish
  • Candies, chewing gum
  • Soft drinks, fruit juices
  • Salad dressings, condiments, pickles
  • Some canned goods

There are MANY different preservatives out there—these are just a few common names to look for:

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) & BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
  • Sodium benzoate & potassium benzoate
  • TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone)
  • Sulfites
  • Nitrates & nitrites
  • Propyll gallate
  • Bromates (like potassium bromate) and brominated oils/juice
  • Azodicarbonamide

Image credit: Dr. Mercola

How to Handle Controversial Food Additives in Your Diet

When it comes to food additives, some things may concern you and some things may not. At the end of the day, you have to do what’s right for you! Because there’s no single, ‘right’ way to eat and live healthily. But, there’s plenty of research out there about these controversial food additives, if you’re interested in learning more. Remember, this is just a starting point!

Of course, we don’t want controversial food additives to make up a large part of our diet. After all, you are what you eat! But, most of us probably will still eat some ultra processed foods that contain them. Ideally, we should limit the food additives we consume and instead fuel our bodies with wholesome, nutritious foods.

So, the major takeaway here is that these controversial food additives just aren’t real foods. And, when we consume them frequently, we might be doing damage to our bodies. Plus, we miss out on the nutrients we need from real, whole foods. Ultimately, we all have to make choices based on our own bodies, health conditions, budget, and time. But, by arming ourselves with information, we can make healthier choices with confidence!

Learn more about how processed foods affect our health, and the worst of the worst: ultra processed foods!

Why Are Processed Foods Bad? & What Are Ultra Processed Foods?

Sugar & Sweeteners 101! Artificial, Natural, Sugar Alcohols & RANT