How to Avoid Harmful Food Additives

Three Parts:Avoiding Specific Food AdditivesIdentifying Additives in FoodsCutting Out Processed Foods from Your Diet

Many people have become increasingly aware of the types and amounts of additives that are present in foods today. In addition, there is a push to have more foods that are "all-natural" or free from additives and preservatives. It's thought that some food additives are harmful and can cause health issues when eaten on a regular basis or in large quantities. However, the additives that are currently used in foods are considered safe for the average, healthy person. The FDA regulates all food additives (preservatives, flavorings, colorings, texurants, etc), how they're used, how much is added to foods and how safe they are for consumers.[1] These additives are responsible for keeping our food fresh, increasing the safety of foods, to maintain nutritional value and to help improve appearance.[2] If you're looking to minimize or avoid harmful food additives learn to read food labels carefully and be on the look for common culprit foods.

Part 1
Avoiding Specific Food Additives

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    Avoid foods with tartrazine or Yellow #5. Tartrazine is commonly known as Yellow #5 (which its commonly listed on the ingredient list). It's a coloring that's added to many different types of foods and has been associated with some adverse reactions (especially in children).[3]
    • Some studies have shown that Yellow #5 has been associated with behavior problems in children. It usually affects children with ADHD and a confirmed food allergy. Typically, they will show increase hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention.[4]
    • Yellow #5 is found in a wide variety of foods including: Mountain Dew soda, yellow colored vitamins or medications, macaroni and cheese made with powdered cheese, yellow colored candies and yellow colored cereals.[5]
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    Cut out items containing diacetyl. Unlike Yellow #5, diacetyl is a flavoring, not a color. It's used in a wide variety of processed foods and has been associated with a few adverse health effects.
    • Diacetyl is typically found in foods like: microwave buttered popcorn, "brown" flavorings like butterscotch or maple, some yogurts and cheeses.[6]
    • One side effect that has been linked with consumption of foods containing diacetyl is dementia and Alzheimer's disease.[7] Studies have shown that consumption of this chemical can lead to plaque build up in the brain.[8]
    • In addition to dementia, those people who breath in a lot of diacetyl (like sniffing the popcorn they just popped) or those who work in factories that make food containing diacetyl have developed a serious respiratory illness (frequently named "popcorn lung").[9]
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    Ditch foods containing nitrates or nitrites. Both nitrates and nitrites are a fairly common preservative found in many foods. Many studies have showed that both of these additives can cause a variety of health issues, especially when in eaten in large quantities.
    • Both nitrates and nitrites act as preservatives and help foods from going rancid. They're typically found in foods like: cheese, deli meats, bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs and other smoked or processed meats.[10]
    • If you have a diet high in processed meat, your intake of nitrates and nitrites will be significantly higher. Studies have shown that this increases your risk for cancer (especially esophageal cancer) and heart disease.[11]
    • The reasoning behind this may be that both nitrates and nitrites have a carcinogenic factor to them which means they may support the growth of cancer cells.
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    Avoid foods with propyl paraben. Propyl paraben is a preservative found in processed foods and helps to keep foods fresher. This particular preservative is widespread and found in a large quantity of processed foods.
    • Since propyl paraben is so widely spread, its difficult to list out every food that it's found in. However, the most common foods include: tortillas, breads, muffins, food dyes, and even cosmetics and shampoos.[12]
    • Consumption of parabens has been associated with breast cancer. Studies have been controversial, but parabens act similarly to estrogen in the body. Increased estrogen activity has been linked to breast cancer.[13]
    • Studies have also shown that consumption of parabens has been associated with decreased sperm count and testosterone levels in men.[14]
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    Cut out all foods containing olestra. You might recognize the name olestra as an additive. It was very popular when the low-fat and diet foods hit the market. It's a "fat replacer" and can cause some unpleasant side effects when consumed.
    • Olestera or Olean is typically found in low-fat diet foods. It's used to replace natural sources of fat in favor of a lower calorie and lower fat product. It's commonly found in foods like: potato chips, cheese puffs, tortilla chips, crackers, popcorn and other savory snack foods.[15]
    • One of the issues with olestra is that it interferes with vitamin and mineral absorption in the body. Specifically, it inhibits the absorption of Vitamins A, D, E and K.[16]
    • In addition, one of the most well-known side effects of consuming foods with olestra is the potential to have very loose stools, anal leakage and general GI distress.[17]
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    Don't purchase foods with "proprietary" blends of flavors or seasonings. Some foods may have some more complicated ingredients listed on their nutrition labels. Companies can call "proprietary blends" such as spice blends or flavor blends on the label without disclosing exactly what's included.[18]
    • A food label may say "proprietary blend" or may say "natural flavors" or "artificial flavors" and have no further explanation.[19]
    • Natural flavors that are added may not be any better than the artificial flavors. Some natural flavors still contain additives like the solvent propylene glycol or the preservative BHA.[20]
    • There hasn't been any documented side effects or links to adverse health conditions from proprietary blends, but they're so vague, it's hard to note any connections to health.

Part 2
Identifying Additives in Foods

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    List out additives you want to avoid. Everyone will have different reasons for avoiding certain food additives. It's important to know exactly what additives you want to avoid so you can be aware of what foods they're present in.
    • If you want to avoid certain additives from your diet, consider writing up a list of the ones you want to avoid. You can either write out a list on some note paper, or keep a mental list in your head of items you don't want to consume.
    • Also make a list of foods that typically contain these additives. If you're avoiding for example, Yellow Number 5, note that this additive is typically found in sugary cereals and colored candies.
    • If you have a food allergy, sensitivity or have had significant adverse reactions to food additives make sure you keep a list with you at all times. This will be helpful when you're shopping, but also if you're eating out and need to inform others of the additives you need to avoid.
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    Read food packaging advertising. When avoiding any additives, ingredients or foods, its important to learn how to spot these items on food packaging. There are a variety of places on packaging that you'll be able to find ingredient information. First, review the "front of pack" labeling on food items.
    • "Front of pack" labeling refers to all the advertising, "call-outs" and messaging that is found on the front of food packages.[21] Some examples of "front of pack" labeling include: "all-natural", "good source of fiber" or "low-fat."
    • Although the "front of pack" labels can help guide you towards a better product, it doesn't give you specific information on the types of ingredients contained in the food. You will need to do further research to find out exactly what you're eating.
    • The messages on the packaging don't always have a specific or legal definition by the FDA. For example, there's no legal definition of "all natural" however if a product says "low-sodium" it means there can be no more than 140 mg of sodium per serving.[22]
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    Review the ingredient list. The ingredient list is a key part of the nutrition fact panel. If you're looking to avoid additives or any types of foods or ingredients, you'll need to thoroughly review the ingredient list on the foods you purchase.
    • The ingredient list is generally underneath or next to the nutrition fact panel. It will list out every ingredient contained in the product.[23]
    • The ingredients mentioned are listed in order from highest quantity to the smallest quantity.[24] For example, if whole wheat flour is the first ingredient, this is the ingredient that is found in the biggest amounts.
    • The ingredient list is key when avoiding additives. All additives, regardless of their purpose, are legally required to be disclosed in the ingredient list.[25]
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    Check for additives in the foods at home. Avoiding certain additives or food ingredients can be a difficult process. In addition to watching what you buy, you'll need to check the foods you already have in your house as well.
    • It may take some time, but spend a few hours looking at all the packaged items in your house. Review cereals, crackers, pastas, cookies, ice cream, bread, English muffins, canned soups or frozen meals.
    • Look at the "front of pack" labeling and then the ingredient list as well. Make sure to set aside foods that contain any additives you want to avoid.
    • You can choose to throw away these foods (especially if they're already opened), give them to friends or family members or donate unopened items to a food bank.
    • Also, make a note of these items. They may have been something you've bought regularly. Make sure you don't purchase these again and work on finding alternative options.

Part 3
Cutting Out Processed Foods from Your Diet

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    Make more foods from scratch. If you want to avoid harmful food additives you may need to cook more foods at home and from scratch. This is not always the easiest way, but allows you to have full control over the ingredients in your foods.
    • When you cook at home, you get to choose the ingredients in your foods. You'll decide how much to use, whether or not it's organic, and how much added fat or sugar you include.[26]
    • If you cook most foods from home you can avoid all of the harmful additives that you want to avoid. And you'll have the confidence of knowing exactly what you're putting in your body.
    • Making foods from home will also help you control the overall nutrition, cost of your foods and help with portion control.[27]
    • In addition, limit how much you eat out at restaurants. This is a common place where you may end up consuming harmful additives without knowing.
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    Go for 100% organic items. Another way to help avoid and cut down on harmful food additives in your diet is by choosing 100% organic foods. This labeling can help you discern what foods have few additives.
    • If a food is labeled as 100% organic, it must comply with USDA standards and regulations. These include soil conditions, use of pesticides, animal raising standards and the use of additives.[28]
    • For processed foods specifically, the organic labeling law does not allow those foods to contain artificial preservatives, colors and flavors. In addition, 100% organic processed foods must contain all organic ingredients as well.[29]
    • If you want to continue enjoying some processed foods, consider purchasing an organic version. Still review the food label and ingredient list, but it should be much easier to find additive-free organic foods.
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    Avoid processed meats. One grouping of foods that are overly processed and contain many additives (including some of the harmful nitrates and nitrites) are processed meats. If you're looking avoid harmful additives, skip these types of protein.
    • Processed meats can include items like deli meat, bacon, sausage, canned meat, smoked meat and hot dogs.
    • These foods, in addition to having some harmful additives, are also higher in calories, fat and sodium. Eating these on a regular basis or in larger quantities has been linked to colorectal cancer and heart disease.[30]
    • Instead of these processed items, choose less processed more lean sources of protein. You can make your own deli meat by roasting chicken or turkey breasts in the oven and slicing them up for sandwiches. Bake fish, chicken, turkey, lean beef or pork for meals instead of serving hot dogs or sausage. You can also try making your own breakfast sausage from scratch with lean ground pork.
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    Choose minimally processed grains. Another source of harmful additives are certain types of grains (especially breads). Instead of filling up on these types of foods, try making other healthier choices from the grain group.
    • Items like breads, tortillas and wraps, muffins and waffles are known to be high in some harmful additives. Always review the ingredient list of these foods before purchasing.
    • However, there are some versions of these items that are either 100% organic or preservative-free. Many times, they are found in the freezer section of the grocery store.
    • In addition, you can try making many of these foods from scratch at home. Consider baking your own bread, making waffles and muffins from scratch or even making your own homemade tortillas.


  • Always read the nutrition label and ingredient list on foods that are processed and contain more than one ingredient.
  • Slowly work on clearly out your pantry and refrigerator of processed foods that contain harmful additives you want to avoid.

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Categories: Nutrition and Lifestyle Eating