Over the years, there has been much speculation about the effects of artificial food additives on human health. As their name suggests, artificial food additives are synthetic substances used to change the flavors and colors of foods or to extend their shelf life. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that all food additives on the market are safe for use. Still, you may wonder whether you’re better off limiting your intake of these ingredients. In this article, we have compiled the vital information that you need to know about food additives, such as their safety and potential health risks, as well as helpful tips to reduce your intake if that’s important to you.
What are artificial food additives?
Artificial food additives are synthetic ingredients that are not naturally derived; It is added to food to improve its appearance, texture, taste, and freshness1. The FDA uses the following two categories of food additives:
1. Direct: Aspartame is an artificial sweetener and a well-known example of this category. These additives have a specific purpose, such as color, texture, leavening, or binding.
a. Natural: A natural food source derives natural additives. For example, red beets produce red food coloring, while soybeans and corn make lecithin, a type of emulsifier.
b. Artificial: Artificial additives are not obtained from nature. For example, most vanilla extracts are made from lab-produced vanillin.
2. Indirect: These additives are substances that enter food in trace amounts due to packaging, storage, or other processing applications. Therefore, manufacturers must ensure that all packaging materials are safe for use.
Artificial food additives are found in many popular foods, such as yogurt, bread, sodas, baked goods, and chips. Many foods on grocery store shelves contain some form of natural or artificial food additives. Some foods may contain food coloring, while others may contain sweeteners or emulsifiers2.
Why are they added to foods?
Emulsifiers and stabilizers are added to many food products to increase their shelf life and quality. These additives help bind ingredients such as oil and water to create a more even texture and appearance3. But the most important reason for the use of artificial food additives is because they are less costly than natural food additives.
Potential effects of eating artificial ingredients
Studies have not proved that food additives harm gut health. Some animal studies suggest that the consumption of artificial sweeteners impairs intestinal flora and could theoretically lead to digestive problems4. However, it is not known whether these effects apply to humans with different digestive systems than animals. Long-term human studies are needed to fully understand the impact of artificial food additives on human health.
Artificial sweeteners often have widespread use among those who prefer low-sugar diets. However, some think that it does more harm than good. Artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, add sweetness to foods and beverages even though they contain zero calories. Aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, and sucralose are among the most used artificial sweeteners. However, it is thought that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain by changing the gut microbiome5. One study found that participants who consumed average amounts of artificial sweeteners had no change in their intestinal flora. Additionally, some researchers suggest that artificial sweeteners do not stimulate the release of hunger-regulating hormones as sugar does, leading to increased hunger and food intake6.
Should you limit artificial ingredients?
It's nearly impossible for most of us to avoid artificial ingredients altogether because most food products contain them. However, you don't need to avoid them entirely for a healthy life. Most artificial food additives are not harmful to health. Those that have proven dangerous are prohibited or restricted by the FDA. If you have artificial ingredients that you think are causing unwanted side effects, discuss this with a healthcare professional. They may recommend reducing or eliminating certain ingredients.
Dr. Ahmet Tevfik Albayrak
2. Chazelas E, Deschasaux M, Srour B, Kesse-Guyot E, Julia C, Alles B, Druesne-Pecollo N, Galan P, Hercberg S, Latino-Martel P, Esseddik Y, Szabo F, Slamich P, Gigandet S, Touvier M. Food additives: distribution and co-occurrence in 126,000 food products of the French market. Sci Rep. 2020 Mar 4;10(1):3980. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-60948-w. PMID: 32132606; PMCID: PMC7055242.
3. Cox S, Sandall A, Smith L, Rossi M, Whelan K. Food additive emulsifiers: a review of their role in foods, legislation and classifications, presence in food supply, dietary exposure, and safety assessment. Nutr Rev. 2021 May 12;79(6):726-741. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa038. PMID: 32626902.
4. Laudisi F, Stolfi C, Monteleone G. Impact of Food Additives on Gut Homeostasis. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2334. Published 2019 Oct 1. doi:10.3390/nu11102334
5. Pang MD, Goossens GH, Blaak EE. The Impact of Artificial Sweeteners on Body Weight Control and Glucose Homeostasis. Front Nutr. 2021;7:598340. Published 2021 Jan 7. doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.598340
6. Sylvetsky AC, Rother KI. Non-nutritive Sweeteners in Weight Management and Chronic Disease: A Review. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2018;26(4):635-640. doi:10.1002/oby.22139