Walking down the grocery store outer aisle, you notice a big sale sign for bacon.
You approach for a closer look, like a hunter observing his prey, flipping the pack over and peering at the ingredients list.
Cue the confused look and gears turning in your head.
If you’re anything like me, this inevitable scenario has played itself out dozens of times in the past.
Did you know that the FDA has a list of over 3,000 food additives that are used? They are everywhere.
However, not all food additives are evil, and while we can’t dissect all 3,000 food additives, we can look at the most common additives that you’ll encounter on your Paleo journey.
Food additives can be classified into several categories, sometimes more than one. To simplify things, we’ve listed each additive under general categories like sweeteners and flavor enhancers.
We’ll be looking at studies behind the safety of each additive as well as any interesting facts about how they are made or used.
Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix normally, but can be persuaded to temporarily by vigorously shaking their container. When liquids are concerned, which they usually are when it comes to food, these are called emulsions.
Emulsifiers are able to increase the stability of the mixture so that they don’t separate into 2 separate liquid phases (or do so after a very long time).
Pectin resides in the cell wall of plants and fruits and is important for growth. In addition, it provides strength and stability in the fruit’s structure. The reason why most fruits get softer as they ripen is because the pectin is dismantled by enzymes.
Pectin makes up a small part of the fruit you eat on a daily basis, about 1% by weight (e.g. 1 gram of pectin for every 100 grams of fruit).
What we’re interested in here, however, is the use of pectin as an additive, since its discovery in 1825. Most of commercial pectin comes from orange peels and apple pomace, but those two have slightly different properties so they are not interchangeable.
Pectin is extracted as a powder and then added to foods and drinks like jam, juice, and other fillings. Once pectin is added, it thickens and stabilizes it – a desirable trait for food manufacturers.
Is Pectin Safe?
As far as nutrition goes, pectin isn’t absorbed, it just acts as dietary fiber. As such, there aren’t too many safety concerns unless you’re consuming an extremely high amount of it to cause gastrointestinal issues.
I did find one study that suggests a high consumption of pectin (even natural pectin) could contribute to nonalcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Pectin can break down in the colon to produce methanol. However, you would have to eat a large amount of fruits high in pectin (over 1 kg of apples per day) to produce a similar risk of drinking a small amount of 80-proof brandy.
Overall, pectin is a safe additive that comes from fruits.
Lecithin is another type of emulsifier, but by far the most common lecithin is soy lecithin. As you might have guessed, this is extracted from soybeans either chemically or mechanically.
Lecithin contains the important B-vitamin choline. You may know that egg yolks are a good source of choline, which is due to the fact that they contain lecithin (not the soy kind of course). Soy lecithin also contains choline, and while most people are not deficient in it, lecithin would be useful if they were.
It’s most commonly used in chocolate in small amounts in order to keep cocoa butter and cocoa from separating. It also has some other desirable properties in certain situations, like reducing viscosity and improving shelf life.
Looking inside soy lecithin, we find out that it is mainly composed of composed of:
- 33-35% Soybean oil
- 52-73% Various phosphatides (a type of lipid)
From a health standpoint, the USDA, keeping in mind is not always reliable, has classified lecithin as “generally recognized as safe”. In a rat study, rats fed lecithin experienced a reduction in LDL and VLDL cholesterol, and also an increase in HDL. Note that this was not soy lecithin, so it isn’t perfectly comparable.
Since soy is not Paleo, it’s something you’ll want to avoid if you’re on a strict Paleo diet. However, soy lecithin is usually used in small amounts, so if you aren’t on a Paleo diet, it’s not the worst food additive out there.
Not surprisingly, companies find that when they make their products taste better, they sell more. In order to keep costs down, they often choose to use flavor enhancers instead of using higher quality ingredients.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate, the infamous MSG, is nowhere near as popular as it used to be, but still used on occasion. It’s typically used in canned foods like soup, as well as many Asian dishes for flavor.
MSG is literally just a salt that consists of one sodium atom (monosodium), and one glutamic acid molecule, which is a common amino acid. MSG is in a ton of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes and potatoes.
Why is MSG no longer used?
It all started with a short article in the New England Journal of Medicine, where Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok proposed that the allergy symptoms he suffered after eating at Chinese restaurants might be cause by MSG. He dubbed this condition as Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS).
One more important study was published by John Olney. Essentially, he pumped mice full of a ridiculous amount of MSG (enough for a horse) and saw that they had neurological problems. These two articles were enough to stir up outrage in the public and demand that restaurants must stop using MSG.
It seems logical looking back that the research was nowhere near conclusive enough for the consequent outrage, but it was at the time.
Since then, multiple studies have been done on human studies, all of them reporting that there is no link between MSG and CRS (or any of the symptoms). If you’re having issues with MSG, it’s probably something else in the food (spices or ingredients) or a psychosomatic issue.
Natural flavor is in all kinds of packaged foods, especially in the United States. In the U.S., according to CFR Title 21 from the USFDA, the label “Natural Flavor” can apply to thousands of different additives. While there’s an extensive list, you basically need to know:
“Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants.”
If it comes from a plant, root, fruit, or animal, as opposed to the lab, it’s a natural flavor. Artificial flavoring covers additives manufactured, that are included for flavor, that do not fall under natural flavor.
MSG is considered a natural flavor, but because of regulations it must be explicitly identified on the ingredients label. Other than that and a few other exceptions, if you see natural flavor on the label, it could be one of many things. Some could be healthy, others could be bad. If you really want to know what is used, you’d have to call the company that makes each food, but it’d be tough to get an answer.
Note: If you are a vegetarian or vegan, be aware that “natural flavor” on the ingredients label may contain animal products.
Luckily, if you follow the Paleo diet you shouldn’t come across natural flavor too often, but it’s still best to avoid if you do and want to be sure of what you’re eating.
Citric acid can be classified as an acid additive, and preservative (as an antioxidant), but also is referred to as a flavor additive, which is why we’ll address it here.
Citric acid is such a crucial component in cellular respiration that a major cycle was named after it – the citric acid cycle. It is frequently synthesized and used as needed.
It can also be found in just about all citrus fruits in significant amounts, and is added to non-Paleo foods like soda, sauces, and candy.
The danger comes from assuming that just because citric acid is safe in cells for short durations and in certain fruits, that it’s automatically fine to add to other foods. Even oranges in the form of juice has a pH down to 2.9. Repeated consumption can lead to tooth enamel decay.
Bottom line: While citric acid isn’t often found in Paleo foods, it’s best to avoid it in large quantities in processed forms.
Food coloring dyes have long been used to make food more attractive. While the obvious examples are colored Smarties, dyes are used in all sorts of foods. Some are harmless, some are gross, and some you’ll want to avoid.
One of the most common food dyes is caramel coloring, which is found in soft drinks (like Coke), certain alcohols, and breads, among other foods like soy sauce. As you probably guessed, caramel coloring gives foods a caramel color, often making them more attractive. It can be hard to spot, as it’s often included on the food label as an “artificial color.”
The coloring is made by essentially burning any one of a variety of sugars in a controlled heating setting. Pure burnt sugar should be a huge red flag of any additive. There are 4 main classes of caramel color based on how it is manufactured.
There has been a lot of public outrage about caramel coloring, mostly because 2 of the grades also produce 4-Methylimidazole (4-Mel) as a byproduct. In a few rat and mice studies, it has been shown that there is an increased risk of cancer under high doses of 4-Mel. However, with a normal level of 4-Mel exposure, no studies have conclusively linked it to cancer. In short – this isn’t a big concern.
Overall, processed sugars definitely aren’t Paleo or healthy, especially when burnt, so avoid caramel coloring.
Carmine has many names:
- crimson lake
- natural red 4
- C.I. 75470
It’s an extremely common dark red dye that is added to things like yogurt, juice, and candy. It’s also kind of gross, as it’s made insects. They are boiled and treated with chemicals, but it’s still somewhat off-putting to most. Still, most vegetarians/vegans will want to avoid this additive.
In the U.S., it must be identified on the label as cochineal extract or carmine, so it’s fairly easy to spot.
The only major health concern about carmine is the possibility of allergic reactions, but you’re probably already aware of that if you are allergic.
Other than that, there are no major studies that have been done on carmine, and it is classified as a safe ingredient in both North America and Europe.
Titanium dioxide is best known for being amazing at reflecting light, giving it a brilliant white color. It’s added to foods like soy milk, vitamins, and a ton of other things, as well as toothpaste, makeup, and used widely in construction. In short, millions of tonnes of titanium dioxide is made every year – it’s everywhere.
The big confusion over titanium dioxide is whether or not it is harmful. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) currently states that it’s “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
There are no comprehensive titanium dioxide studies done on human, so we have to resort to rat and mice studies. They have shown that inhaling very fine particles of titanium dioxide (one of many forms), can lead to cancer, but coarser particles do not. This is a concern since some products have begun to use nano-sized titanium dioxide, which is largely unstudied and likely to be somewhat dangerous. Mice studies have shown that nano-sized titanium can cause inhibition of lung development and persistent inflammation.
Should you avoid exposure to titanium dioxide? Probably, since you don’t know for sure what type is used in each food, and the long-term effects of exposure on humans are still not known for sure. That being said, you are unlikely to be able to avoid it 100% in your daily life because of how much it is used.
The Dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6
There are 9 main food dyes currently in the United States, but these three are the most common, and have a major problem.
Red 40, known as allura red AC, has been used since 1976. During that year, the commonly used Red 2 was banned from use, as it was determined to be a carcinogen.
Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are unsurprisingly yellow food dyes. Yellow 5 was at one point linked to hyperactivity in children after a limited study was conducted, but further research has invalidated that claim.
Several dyes have been banned over the years, mainly because they are approved without in-depth research into their safety. Most are derived from petroleum or coal.
Of the current group of dyes, these 3 all contain known carcinogenic substances:
- Red 40: p-Cresidine
- Yellow 5: Benzidine, 4-amino-biphenyl
- Yellow 6: Benzidine, 4-amino-biphenyl
These are all dyes you want to avoid. If you’re on a Paleo diet, that shouldn’t be too difficult, but keep your eyes peeled for them on the ingredients list.
In the Paleolithic age, meat had to be eaten quickly or it would rot. With the advent of fridges and freezers, meat can last longer. With preservatives, it can last long enough to be shipped across countries and stored for long periods of times. There’s a lot of confusion about preservatives, let’s clear them up.
Sodium nitrite is the preservative added to bacon and other kinds of meat. It preserves both color and quality of the meet.
Aren’t Nitrites Cancerous?
There’s a lot of confusion about this, so let’s keep it as simple as possible.
Nitrites, and nitrates (which convert into nitrites from saliva enzymes), both have the potential to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are known to be a major cause of gastric cancer.
Nitrosamines are formed when nitrites react with secondary amines. The nitrosamines can then go on to create compounds in the presence of heat or acid that cause cancer or cell death.
But in addition to nitrites consumed from meats, we eat a much larger amount from common vegetables. That celery juice extract in your bacon? – Don’t be fooled, it’s just another nitrite. The body even makes nitrites itself in order to obtain nitric oxide. So the quantity consumed in bacon and other meats is no issue.
The reason vegetables don’t kill us is because they contain high amounts of antioxidants. Studies have proven that vitamin C does a great job of inhibiting nitrosamine formation. This is why bacon and other meats that have added nitrites also have vitamin C and E added.
Finally, some recent evidence even suggests that sodium nitrite could have protective effects on the brain.
To sum it up: Don’t fear nitrites in your food, just try not burn your bacon and have a little extra vitamin C if you’re worried.
Not to be confused with nitrates, sulfites are another preservative that is widely used in wine and dried fruits. Sulfites can be found in fruits and vegetables, and are also made by the body. There are several different sulfites that are used, none have any impact on cancer or disease risk that is known.
The one common issue from sulfites are allergic reactions. Sneezes and swollen throats are common symptoms that you may be reacting to sulfites in your food. These reactions are especially common in asthma suffers.
These sensitivities can develop at any time, so if you ever start to experience these symptoms after eating, take a look at the ingredients. Most foods that contain sulfites explicitly say so on the label.
If you have a negative reaction to eating foods with sulfites in them, avoid sulfites. Otherwise, sulfites aren’t known to cause any trouble, so you don’t need to avoid them.
One of the hardest parts about converting to a Paleo diet is transitioning without that sweet sweet sugar. Sugar’s in everything, and it’s natural to try to replace it with other sweeteners when cooking or baking Paleo treats. But are they really better?
Aspartame might be the most famous low-calorie artificial sweetener. If you’re confused about whether or not aspartame is safe, who could blame you? There’s been a ton of articles and reports written from both sides of aspartame, as well as widespread internet hoaxes.
While there have been some individual cases of allergic or unusual reactions, for the most part, most people react fine to aspartame, although many do not particularly like the taste (I’m one of them).
Overall, even after a ridiculous amount of studies on the safety of aspartame, there has not been one credible study that conclusively shows that aspartame intake is linked to health problems.
The one major concern with aspartame is that one of its components is methanol. Once ingested, it is broken down and converted into formic acid, which can be dangerous. However, the amount of methanol from aspartame is extremely small. You would need need to drink over 20 cans of diet coke to reach a toxic level of methanol.
Does aspartame contribute to weight loss? That’s a topic for a whole different article. For now, know that aspartame is a safe artificial sweetener.
Sucralose is another popular sweetener that is about 600 times as sweet as sucrose, so very little is needed.
Even though it has an almost identical chemical structure as table sugar, it cannot be metabolized by the body. Almost all of it (90%+) ends up in the toilet.
A robust study gave subjects high doses of sucralose, many times the typical daily intake of a normal person, and found no side effects. Additional studies over the years have all concluded the same thing: sucralose is one of the safest artificial sweeteners. There is no increased risk in cancer or disease from normal (or even high) intake. In addition, sucralose has also been shown to not contribute to cavity formation.
Erythritol is unofficially the king (or queen) of a class of molecules called sugar alcohols. Despite the name, no, you will not get drunk from consuming them.
Erythritol is found in somewhat small doses in certain fruits, but most erythritol is manufactured in a plant. Unlike many other sweeteners, erythritol tastes very similar to sugar. It’s not quite as sweet (60-70%), but doesn’t affect your blood sugar, and isn’t metabolized. Instead, it’s absorbed and excreted via urine. Additionally, it has essentially 0 calories per gram.
Does Erythritol Cause Cavities?
One of the major problems with sugar is the havoc it wreaks on teeth. The same isn’t true for erythritol.
Some studies have shown that erythritol can reduce plaque buildup on teeth when given in the form of chewable tablets. However, it doesn’t appear to reduce overall cavity risk though, according to clinical trials. While more research is needed, it still appears better than other sugar alcohols when it comes to cavities.
Erythritol and Digestion Issues
Sugar alcohols are known for causing digestion issues. While erythritol is largely tolerated, high single doses (50 grams or more) is likely to cause nausea, bloating, and watery faeces. The safe amount (laxative threshold) is currently estimated to be about 0.80 g/kg body weight for females, and 0.66 g/kg body weight for males for a single dose. Daily consumption could be a bit higher without issue.
Overall, erythritol is a low-calorie artificial sweetener with no major side effects if consumed in a reasonable quantity. However, it does cost a lot more than standard granulated sugar does.
Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol, about the same level of sweetness as erythritol (about 60% of sugar). However, it also has about 2.6 calories per gram.
Sorbitol is typically poorly absorbed, which can easily lead to diarrhea. While everyone has different sensitivities, sorbitol intolerance can occur at as little as 10 grams, which includes diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating.
A study comparing sorbitol and erythritol suggested that the laxative threshold is only 0.24 g/kg body weight for females and 0.17 g/kg body weight for males in a single dose. For a 160 lb(72.5 kg) man, this would be about 12 grams, similar to the other study.
Sorbitol is fine in very small amounts for most people (like a stick of gum), but should be avoided in even small quantities in general.
Stevia, as opposed to most sweeteners used in food products, could be considered natural, due to being extracted from the stevia rebaudiana plant.
It has no calories, and is used in very small quantities because it is 200-300 times as sweet as sugar.
There’s been a giant controversy over stevia in the United States. It was banned in the early 1990’s, citing a lack of research and some concerns over the product. It has since been approved in other forms, like Truvia. Similar products use compounds derived from the stevia leaf.
Overall, while there isn’t a ton of in-depth studies on stevia and stevia-derived products, the current research suggests that it is safe, with no major side effects. Although most people find that it has a bad aftertaste that makes it unsuitable as a sugar substitute.
Xylitol is another popular sugar alcohol, usually used in chewing gum and medicinal products (lozenges, sprays, etc.), but also occasionally substituted for sugar in baking. With a similar sweetness as other sugar alcohols (60% of sucrose), xylitol has about 2.4 calories per gram.
Like other sugar alcohols, it has a beneficial effect on the health of your teeth. Xylitol has been shown as more effective than sorbitol when it comes to remineralization and plaque reduction.
Also like other sugar alcohols, xylitol can cause intestinal issues. While no comprehensive studies have been completed, one study showed a limit of about 65 grams in children where about 30% of subjects had severe intestinal issues.
If you have a dog, be very careful about having xylitol around the house. It is dangerous to dogs in even small doses and can be lethal.
Overall, xylitol is a safe sugar alcohol, but there is a possibility for intestinal issues.
The final class of food additives we’re looking at are the stabilizers and thickeners. While stabilizing and thickening are two completely different properties, most substances of one type also have properties of the other.
Guar Gum/Locust Bean Gum/Tara Gum/Xanthan Gum
I’ve grouped these gums together because they all have very similar health connotations and uses in food.
They are additives that can act as stabilizers (preventing reactions), thickeners (increasing viscosity), or even as emulsifiers (to keep ingredients from separating).
The most common place to encounter these gums are in, well…gum, but also coconut milk and other types of Paleo-friendly milk.
How Are Gums Made?
Guar gum, locust bean gum, and tara gum are all made from the endosperm of legumes. If you follow a strict Paleo diet, this rules out the consumption of these three gums.
Xanthan gum is made from a variety of simple sugars, often coming from corn, soy, or wheat. If you are severely allergic to any of these foods, avoid xanthan gum. Some, but definitely not all, companies will share where their xanthan gum is derived from.
What Are the Effects of Gums?
These gums all have a few common effects. First, they slow down digestion, as they are essentially blobs of fiber. They have also been shown to increase in stool amount and water content, along with a slight reduction in serum cholesterol. They can act as laxatives if eaten in large quantities.
These gums have also been shown to reduce appetite, likely as a result of slowing digestion.
One final really cool note about gum arabic is that a study showed that it can actually act as a prebiotic, which is good for gut health.
Are Gum Additives Safe?
Overall, gum additives are pretty safe. To begin with, they are conclusively not carcinogenic.
Other than increased stool content, they have been shown to have no real side effects. One note is that all of these gums, except tara gum, have been tested on humans. Tara gum hasn’t been rigorously studied on humans so far, but rat/mice tests have produced safe results.
There is one major concern. Xanthan gum may induce necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in infants. While gums seem safe for adults, do not feed them to babies.
Overall, gum additives are safe and have few effects. But don’t overdo them or you may have a few short-term intestinal issues.
You’ll find carrageenan quite often in coconut and almond milk. After reading the next little bit, you might want to start making your own.
The Dangers of Carrageenan in Animals
Degraded carrageenan, also called poligeenan, is pretty conclusively linked to colon cancer and ulcerations. However, degraded carrageenan is not used in food, only undegraded carrageenan is.
High doses of undegraded carrageenan (much more than in food) produced no significant results in the colon of monkeys.
The results for carrageenan (assumed undegraded from now on) of many animal studies are conflicting. Some rat studies show epithelial cell loss while others do not. One possible mechanism is that carrageenan appears to accelerate carcinogens, so it would not cause tumors alone, but only when given with other chemicals. Overall, the results don’t look great, but they don’t necessarily extrapolate to humans.
Is Carrageenan Safe for Humans?
There have been some human studies as well with carrageenan. Colon cells were isolated and exposed to carrageenan, and significant inflammation was observed. A further concern is that undegraded carrageenan can be contaminated with degraded carrageenan (under 5%).
Is this conclusive? No. It is possible that carrageenan is safe for humans. Until there are rigorous human studies conducted, it’s likely we’ll never know due to the conflicting animal studies. It is currently not classified as a carcinogen.
Is it worth the risk for now? Probably not. If you see carrageenan in food, you should avoid it.
Inulin (not insulin!) is not a thickener or stabilizer, but a bulking agent. While similar, a bulking agent increases the volume of a food, rather than just increasing the viscosity. Inulin does this, acts as dietary fiber, and also adds a bit of sweetness.
It is a polysaccharide, which is basically a chain of simple sugars (think glucose, fructose, etc.) that plants make. In regards to food, inulin is usually derived from the chicory plant. Because of that, it is considered a FODMAP, which causes intestinal stress in some people.
However, there is some evidence that inulin can act as probiotic that promotes the growth of good intestinal bacteria. It also can increase calcium absorption. These aren’t huge effects, but beneficial nonetheless.
Overall, inulin is essentially just dietary fiber from a plant, which is fairly Paleo-friendly.
A Summary: Are Food Additives Paleo? Are Food Additives Safe?
Food additives are a part of modern life. While many are derived from plant sources, just about all food additives are highly processed. If you follow a very strict Paleo diet, you’ll want to avoid pretty much all food additives.
If you generally follow Paleo principles, but are willing to bend your definition of Paleo a bit, many additives are completely safe, and some are even beneficial to your health.
This is not a black-and-white issue. Each additive needs to be considered on its own merit, and only you can judge if you want to avoid it or not.
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