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Understanding Food Additives: What You Need to Know

Updated: Feb 20

In today's more health-conscious world, consumers are increasingly examining the ingredients in their food. With various additives and sweeteners available, it's essential to understand why they are added to foods and what are their negative implications on health.

Food additives and what's important to know about them for your health.

In this article, I delve into the usage and drawbacks of commonly used food additives in ultra-processed foods and drinks, including sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, thickeners, preservatives, artificial colouring, food intensifiers and natural flavourings.

If you are regularly consuming packaged foods like morning cereal, breads, canned soups, protein bars, energy bars, chocolates, candies, cookies, ice-cream, chips, processed meat products (hams, sausages etc), mayonnaise, creamy sauces, salad dressings, instant noodles, bouillon cubes, energy drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks, plant milks (like almond, soy, oat), then I do advice you for your health to read the packaged products labels to see whether and how many of the below food additives you consume. If it happens now and again, your body can probably handle it, depending of course what else your body needs to deal with. But if you consume products containing these additives on a regular basis and are experiencing a multitude of health issues, it's a good time to see how you can start cleaning up your diet, reduce the inflammation caused by specific foods and consume more whole foods.

Sugar Alcohols

Maltitol, Xylitol, Lactitol, Sorbitol, Erythritol

Why are sugar alcohols added to foods and drinks:

  1. Low Glycemic Index: Sugar alcohols have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels, making them often a choice for people with diabetes or those monitoring their carbohydrate intake.

  2. Dental Health: Xylitol, in particular, has been shown to inhibit the growth of cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth, reducing the risk of tooth decay. Therefore, if you do choose to chew chewing gum, opt for the gums that contain xylitol.

  3. Fewer Calories: Sugar alcohols provide fewer calories per gram compared to regular sugar, making them a popular choice for those interested in watching their calorie intake.


  1. Gastrointestinal Distress: Consumption of sugar alcohols in large amounts can lead to digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and diarrhoea, especially in individuals with sensitive stomachs.

  2. Potential Laxative Effect: Several of the sugar alcohols have a laxative effect when consumed in excessive quantities, leading to discomfort and diarrhoea.

  3. Incomplete Absorption: While sugar alcohols are generally well-tolerated, some individuals may experience incomplete absorption, which can lead to further gastrointestinal discomfort.

  4. Can Lead to More Snacking: if you are someone who wants to limit your intake of sweet tasting foods, want to reduce your snacking and cravings throughout the day, then consuming foods on a regular basis with sugar alcohols is not helping with that as pancreas still needs to produce insulin, yet the cells might be deprived of glycose. And therefore the brain giving a signal that you need to seek out more food to satisfy your hunger hormones.

Artificial Sweeteners

Sucralose, Saccharin, Acesulfame, Aspartame, Neotame and Stevia Glycosides

Why are artificial sweeteners added to foods and drinks:

  1. Zero Calories: Artificial sweeteners provide sweetness without adding extra calories, making them attractive for weight management and blood sugar control.

  2. Diabetes Management: These sweeteners affect very little blood sugar levels, making them attractive for individuals with diabetes.


  1. Bitter Aftertaste: Some people may find artificial sweeteners to have a bitter aftertaste, which can affect the overall taste of food and beverages.

  2. Controversy Surrounding Safety: Despite regulatory approval, there is ongoing debate regarding the long-term safety of artificial sweeteners, with several studies suggesting potential health risks, like how they affect negatively affect our gut microbiome.

  3. Potential for Overconsumption: Since artificial sweeteners are intensely sweet, there is a risk of overconsumption, which may desensitise taste buds and lead to cravings for more sweet foods.

Emulsifiers, Thickeners, and Stabilisers

Soy lecithin, Carrageenans, Mono- and Diglycerides, Guar gum, Gellan gum, Xanthan gum, Polysorbate, Carboxymethyl cellulose

Why are emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilisers added to foods:

  1. Improved Texture: Emulsifiers like soy lecithin and thickeners like carrageenan and gellan gum enhance the texture and mouthfeel of food products.

  2. Extended Shelf Life: These additives help stabilise food products, preventing separation and spoilage, thus extending their shelf life in the grocery stores.

  3. Enhanced Palatability: Emulsifiers and thickeners contribute to the smoothness and creaminess of foods, enhancing their palatability and sensory appeal.


  1. Digestive Discomfort: Some individuals may experience gastrointestinal discomfort, such as bloating or cramping, as a result of consuming foods containing emulsifiers or thickeners.

  2. Potential Health Risks: While deemed safe for consumption by regulatory bodies, certain emulsifiers and thickeners have raised concerns about their potential long-term health effects, including inflammation and gut microbiota disruption.

  3. Allergen Concerns: Emulsifiers derived from soy, such as soy lecithin, may trigger allergic reactions in individuals with soy allergies, highlighting the importance of ingredient awareness and labelling.

Flavour enhancers

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Why are flavour enhancers like monosodium glutamate added to foods?

  1. Intensify and Enhance the Flavour of savoury processed foods

  2. Minimise Sodium Intake, by improving the flavour of the food and reducing the need for salt


  1. May Contribute to Weight Gain: It has been associated with potential weight gain and metabolic syndrome.

  2. Sensitivity: Some people could experience symptoms like headaches, sweating, flushing and numbness after eating larger amounts.

  3. Oxidative Damage to Cells: When consumed in larger amounts

  4. Could Increase Blood Pressure: Consuming higher amounts can increase both systolic and diastolic blood pressure

  5. May Increase a Risk of Asthma Attacks

Artificial Food Colouring

Blue 1 (Brilliant Blue), Blue 2 (Indigo Carmine), Red 3 (Erythrosine), Red 40 (Allura Red), Yellow 5 (Tartrazine), Yellow 6 (Sunset Yellow)

Why are artificial colours added to foods and drinks?

  1. Brighten and Improve the Appearance of for example candies, baked goods, sports drinks, salad dressings


  1. May Promote Hyperactivity (especially in sensitive children)

  2. Can Cause Allergic Reactions, like hives and swelling

  3. Can Cause Asthma Symptoms

  4. Potential Cancer-Causing Effects of certain food dyes

Sodium Nitrite

Why is sodium nitrite added to foods?

  1. Used As a Preservative to Prevent the Growth of Bacteria. Frequently added to processed meat products like hams, sausages, bacon, hot dogs etc.

  2. Adds a Reddish Pink Colour to Processed Meat products which might make them more appealing to the eye.


  1. When sodium nitrite gets exposed to high heat and in the presence of amino acids, nitrites can turn into nitrosamine, which studies have shown can been be carcinogenic, increasing risks for stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, breast and bladder cancer.

Natural Flavourings

  1. Enhance Taste Profile: Natural flavourings are derived from plant or animal sources, providing an authentic taste that can enhance the overall flavour profile of food products, therefore also making fake food taste real. Whether it's the fruity sweetness of strawberries or the savoury richness of roasted garlic, natural flavourings can elevate the taste experience for consumers.

  2. Clean Label Appeal: In today's clean label movement, consumers are increasingly seeking foods with recognisable, minimally processed ingredients. Natural flavourings offer a way for manufacturers to meet this demand, providing an alternative to synthetic additives and preservatives. But do see the cons side of it below.


  1. Lack of Specificity: Unlike artificial flavourings, which are precisely formulated chemical compounds, natural flavourings can be derived from a wide range of sources. As a result, food labels often list "natural flavourings" without specifying the exact ingredients used, leaving consumers in the dark about potential allergens or sources of concern. Natural flavours can contain up to 100 ingredients, which are synthesised in the lab.

While food additives enhance the flavour, texture, and shelf life of processed foods, it's essential to think why and how much we consume them in our diet and whether the conveniences and pleasures from specific foods outweigh the potential health risks. By understanding the usage and drawbacks of common additives like sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, artificial food dyes, emulsifiers, thickeners, and natural flavourings, we can make informed decisions to support our overall health and well-being. By choosing as much as possible whole foods in our day-to-day diet, we are making sure our bodies get the necessary nutrients in order for us to thrive.

If you want to reduce your intake of processed foods, want to consume more whole foods and need strategies how to go about it, don't hesitate to reach out to me for nutrition coaching at


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