The Facts About Food Additives

the history behind a troubling practice - and how it affects your health
food additives
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / faithie

On a trip to England, I had the opportunity to spend some time in a few different grocery stores. Wandering up and down the aisles of supermarkets in other countries is always such a fascinating experience, and it can almost feel like being in a dream. Everything is so familiar, yet just slightly different - the sights and sounds, the rows upon rows of neatly arranged boxes and cans filled with local favourites and international staples. There were brand names I’d long been acquainted with selling products I had never heard of, and ones I used regularly, but sporting different images on their box faces. But even more astonishing was that some of those pantry staples I’d used for years actually contained different ingredients than the same ones back home! How could a product here in North America exist elsewhere in the world with the same name and same overall taste, but be made with different ingredients? And an even bigger question than how is why would this be?

The precautionary principle

It turns out that the labelling and consumer safety laws in England and many European countries have led companies to change their formulations in order to be sold there. At home, I opt almost exclusively for organic brands when purchasing packaged foods, such as cereal or mac n’ cheese, as it’s the only way to steer clear of the more troublesome ingredients. Yet in England, some conventional packaged brands I’d bypass at home didn’t contain a single food additive that I usually avoid.

This isn’t some novel experiment or accident. In fact, ingredients from sugar and salt to BHT and food colouring vary greatly from country to country, even under the same brand name or label. For instance, studies found that Kellogg’s cereals had as much as 25 percent more sugar in their cereals sold in Mexico than they did in Spain, and in India, Kellogg's Corn Flakes had 46 percent more salt than it did in Brazil. So how did it come to be that the exact same foods made by the same companies could vary so much from country to country, especially when it comes to food additives?

In the U.S. and Canada, the burden of proving whether a food additive is harmful rests on the shoulders of scientific and consumer communities. A chemical can be released to the public without third-party testing, but for it to be taken out of commercial use, the onus is on the citizenry to show a preponderance of evidence that the chemical in question may cause harm—oftentimes harm specifically linked to cancer in humans or animals. In contrast, much of Europe has adopted another strategy, often referred to as the precautionary principle, which legislates that the companies themselves must first show the chemicals they use are benign before marketing them to people. If there is not enough evidence of a chemical’s safety, then the company must find a safer alternative. Since 2007, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation has used this strategy to ensure that Europeans are kept safe from the most toxic chemicals in their consumer products and foods.

A Brief History of Food Regulation

As food processing became more prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Congress put a series of laws into effect to protect consumers from mislabeled and adulterated foods and dangerous processing practices largely by controlling the movement of these items across state lines. The implementation of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906 (which would eventually lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration) defined the concepts of misbranding and adulteration for the first time. And while much of the law had to do with labelling drugs—and their use in foods—such as cocaine, and later caffeine, in Coca-Cola, it set the stage for the much more comprehensive Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938, which is the basis for decisions still made today in regard to the safety and requirements of foods and food additives.

Soon after the enactment of these laws, the lawsuits began, including the first-ever Supreme Court case on food additives in 1914, which resulted in the government being given the onerous responsibility of demonstrating harm before banning a chemical food additive. With the burden of proving a chemical safe before including it into consumer products no longer resting on either the companies or the government, the U.S. and Canada are in stark contrast to those countries who rely on the precautionary principle. This is particularly evident when it comes to food additives.

What is a Food Additive?

When considering all the things that can end up intentionally or unintentionally in foods, it’s clear that defining “food additives” is no small job. The FD&C Act takes an entire section to do it, but in short, a food additive is “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristic of any food (including any substance intended for use in producing, manufacturing, packing, processing, preparing, treating, packaging, transporting, or holding food; and including any source of radiation intended for any such use); if such substance is not GRAS [generally recognized as safe] or sanctioned prior to 1958 or otherwise excluded from the definition of food additives.”1

Understanding the history of food additives means understanding the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 to the FD&C Act which requires the FDA to authorize food additives before they enter the market. It also states that the food and colour additives and food contact substances are subject to the Delaney Clause, which expresses that “no additives shall be deemed to be safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal….” All this would seem to have led to a system not unlike Europe, where the most cancerous chemicals at least would be kept out of the food chain. But it didn’t.

Problematically, the amendment allowed two major outs for companies. First, a company can circumvent testing by using an additive that already exists on a pre-approved list of exceptions. In 1996, this pre-approved list came to include all pesticides and their residues which, though originally covered under the amendment, were entirely removed from the amendment’s purview. Secondly, it was determined that companies could “self-affirm" a substance as GRAS and therefore determine, using their own tests and their own staff, that an ingredient was safe and that it therefore didn't need testing. This status was meant to keep from having to test long-used, everyday items like vinegar, yet it is now used for hundreds of ingredients, many of which are now linked to health problems and banned in countries with more stringent, third-party testing requirements. The idea that there were ingredients that were "too safe to test" and that companies could be trusted to be thorough and truthful is as old as the 1958 Amendment itself, which established more than 200 food additives as GRAS. 

Indeed, it's been argued that a dinner plate manufactured in North America must undergo more safety testing than the dinner served on it.

There's an app for that! Food label reading just got easier as the consumer research and testing organization Environmental Working Group, known for their work on the “Dirty Dozen” most contaminated fruits and vegetables and revealing the hidden ingredients in cosmetics, has recently taken on food additives. Get their Healthy Living app to help make navigating the grocery store a little easier!

food additives
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Leaf

Food safety's systemic problems

In terms of food safety regulation, things haven’t evolved significantly in the U.S. since the 1958 Delaney Amendment, despite calls from the EPA itself to update their system of determining food additive safety. In 2010, the EPA partnered with Pew Charitable Trusts to assess the U.S. food additives program. They concluded that the food regulatory system was “plagued with systemic problems” resulting in inadequate safety information of about 3,000 of the more than 10,000 additives allowed in foods.

Pew Charitable Trusts reported that the “FDA has interpreted the law as imposing no obligation on firms to tell the agency of any GRAS decisions. As a result, companies have determined that an estimated 1,000 chemicals are generally recognized as safe and have used them without notifying the agency. The firms usually use their own employees, consultants, or experts whom they select and pay to make the safety decision with no disclosure or apparent efforts to minimize the inherent conflicts of interest."2 Even if the FDA wanted to act, the food additive legislation does not provide the authority to review or assess chemicals of concern once they are on the market, nor does the FDA have the funds it needs to adequately enforce the limited powers it has within the law.

Pew Charitable Trusts recommends a number of ways that things could be turned around so that the FDA played a more precautionary role in assuring the safety of food additives. These include approving the first use of a new chemical before it's put into use, reviewing changes before allowing new uses of previously approved additives, using a more rigorous scientific process in determining safety, limiting the GRAS exemption, and reviewing the safety of older chemicals currently on the market. Unfortunately, although the U.S. had an opportunity in 2016 to close the GRAS loophole, it failed to do so, further weakening the requirements for a new substance to be considered GRAS.

Partners in crime: The problems in the American food chain are not in the U.S. alone. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the FDA have signed an official arrangement recognizing each other’s food safety systems as “comparable,” helping ease trade between the two countries. In most cases, what is allowed in the U.S. is allowed in Canada and vice versa.

Additives in food: 8 to watch for

Until the U.S. and Canada update their policies around food additives, here are some of the additives with the greatest cause for concern according to both independent researchers and the policies of other countries. Many of the food additives listed are considered GRAS under current FDA definitions, and they are all currently considered safe enough to be allowed in food by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Artificial food colouring

Artificial food colouring is often derived from petroleum and mixed with hydrocarbons like toluene, xylene, and benzene. All of these things are as bad as they sound: studies link their use with cancer in mice and hyperactivity in children. Some colours, such as Yellows 5 and 6, have been linked to endocrine disruption which may contribute to breast cancer and lower sperm counts.

Artificial food colouring is one clear example of how government responsibility for proving safety affects what is on the shelf. The use of certain food colourings as food additives was banned in the UK in 2007 after a double-blind study found some were linked to hyperactivity in children. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canada looked at that same information but did nothing. When considering why North America chose not to act, most researchers say it goes back to who is responsible for proving safety: the companies or citizens.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, including aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and saccharin have had a long and tumultuous history. The FDA set out to ban aspartame because it “might induce brain tumours” only to have their decision overturned with the help of Donald Rumsfeld, who, perhaps not coincidentally, was also the board chairman of the company that developed NutraSweet. Animal studies continue to show that aspartame is linked to cancer and there is also research that suggests a “strong association” between an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and the consumption of diet soda.


Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is sometimes called the “yoga mat chemical” as it is often used as a blowing agent in the creation of soft, pliable plastics like those used in exercise mats and other foamed plastics and faux leather products. ADA is also found in some bleached flours used for producing baked goods like pizzas and is one of the additives banned in Australia and the EU. ADA in its raw form has been linked to respiratory issues, allergies, and asthma, and its by-products have been linked to cancer in lab animals.


Carrageenan is considered natural because it is derived from red algae but belongs to a family of molecules that humans can’t digest. It is used to thicken many creamy foods such as infant formulas, ice-creams, yogurt drinks, dairy alternatives, sour cream, and many other “health” foods. A review of 45 animal studies published in 2001 associated its use with the development of cancerous lesions in the colon and ulcerative colitis-like disease in animals. In 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to remove carrageenan from the list of ingredients allowed for organic products, but the USDA ignored their recommendations and it can still be found in products labelled organic in both U.S. and Canada.

food additives
© Unsplash / Diana Polekhina


Fructose isn’t a healthier alternative to sugar! In fact, just like sucrose, which is a combination of fructose and glucose, it triggers the body into thinking it’s hungry, into making fat, and depletes energy and blocks our bodies’ natural ability to burn fat. Liver cells break down fructose into triglycerides, a process that also creates uric acid as waste, both of which are linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, and fatty liver disease. Studies also suggest a diet high in fructose in pregnancy may harm the placenta, restrict fetal growth, and be associated with other pregnancy disorders such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.

The more fructose we eat, the more our bodies crave it, says researcher Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar. It crosses the placenta so sugar addiction can start before kids are even born. Dr. Ludwig notes that the earlier you expose a child to sweets, the more they will crave it later. This includes exposure to infant formula, natural juices, and sweetened milks. To avoid fructose, ensure infant formula is sweetened with added lactose (and not sucrose or fructose), replace juices with whole fruit, and use whole, unsweetened milks. And, of course, avoid the most common sources of fructose: high fructose corn syrup, sodas, candy, junk food, packaged breads, canned fruits, and sweetened yogurts.

While the U.S. and Canada don't require foods to distinguish how much of their total sugars are added as opposed to how much is naturally occurring, it is recommended consumers consider the total overall sugars on the label in relation to the American Heart Association goal of no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men; 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women; and from 3–6 teaspoons (12–25 grams) per day, depending on age and activity level, for children.

Monosodium glutamate

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), a flavour enhancer that works by over-exciting brain cell receptors (known as an excitotoxin), can be found hiding under many different names including yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, soy sauce, and even natural flavourings. MSG contains processed free glutamic acid, which, unlike naturally occurring glutamates found in foods such as parmesan cheese and walnuts, aren’t handled the same in the body and can cause health problems according to some researchers. Its use has been linked to short-term effects such as headaches, difficulty concentrating, skin reactions, mood swings, and depression. Some studies suggest it could play a part in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. According to Patrick Holford, founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London, you should never feed your child MSG.

Nitrates and nitrites

Nitrates and Nitrites are typically used as food preservatives in such foods as deli meats, bacon, pepperoni, hot dogs, some cheeses, and some well waters (usually near agricultural areas). When we digest foods that contain nitrates our bodies form compounds called nitrosamines, which are known to be carcinogenic. Research suggests that mothers who eat nitrate-containing foods during pregnancy are more likely to have offspring that will develop brain tumors. The more nitrate-containing processed meats, the greater the risk to the child.

Trans fats

Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are made by heating a vegetable oil to a high temperature, injecting it with a chemical solvent, and finishing it with bleach and a deodorizer, to create a shelf-stable neutral-tasting oil. Trans fats can be found in margarine, vegetable shortening, deep fried foods, and are a staple in many prepackaged goods. Trans fats masquerade as and displace healthy fats and essential fatty acids in our bodies, but they can’t do the job as well, resulting in a disruption of healthy fat balance and harming the structure of the brain and nerve cells. Nevertheless, trans fats are considered GRAS. Canada and the U.S. finally banned trans fats in 2018 and the WHO has begun a campaign to ban all trans fats worldwide by 2023.

Demand change

Although this all sounds pretty dire, there is good news when it comes to food additives. While government oversight is still unfortunately hobbled in both the U.S. and Canada, citizens are demanding better options, and in many cases the companies themselves are choosing to eliminate the more controversial food additives. In 2016, North American consumers became outraged when learning that their Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner included food dye, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients not found in the British version. In response, the company changed their American formulation to be in line with what was available in England. Similarly, after an American food blogger created a grassroots campaign to get ADA out of bread products, Subway restaurants stopped using the additive, followed by Starbucks, KFC, and Pizza Hut. It took longer than it should have, but with the persistence and power of consumer intervention, change is clearly possible.

The takeaway for Canadian and U.S. food consumers is that while we wait for our governments to catch up to our more cautious and food-smart European neighbours, we can get companies to act now by demanding better alternatives. So, while it may be a while before you can leave your reading glasses behind when shopping the food aisle, where there is the will, there is hope.

You may also enjoy: Going Green: Organic Food on a BudgetPopular Green Cleaning Myths, and Balancing Utility and Sustainability with Green Cookware

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