The Truth About Food Additives

food additivesIt’s no secret, many of the ingredients and additives found in our food supply can be extremely controversial, even downright scary.

In fact, sometimes it almost seems as if making sense of a food label requires a degree in food science or environmental chemistry…

For example, some commonly used food additives include: Sulfated butyl oleate, Diethylenetriamine, Methacrylic acid-divinyl benzene copolymer, Succinic acid, and 2,2-dimethylhydrazide to name a few…

(Do you know which one of the previously listed ingredients is commonly used in nutritional supplements? Here’s a clue.)

Also, a few commonly used color additives include: FD&C Blue #1, Beta-Apo-8′-carotenal, Carmine, Guaiazulene (Azulene), and many many more…

Have you seen any of these ingredients before? Do you know what their functions are? Do you automatically assume all food additives with big words that are impossible to spell all bad for you? Do you believe everything you read and assume food additives that are labeled safe, are actually safe?

Here are a few more commonly used food additives that may sound weird, but have been deemed safe to eat:

Ammoniated Beef: Many fast food chains have been known to use the method of ‘gassing the meat with ammonia’ to kill pathogens. Although many fast food chains have stopped using this method to kill the germs in meat, the practice is still believed to be used by quite a few other big chains.

Bacteriophages: A food preservative that is sprayed on various meat and poultry products to kill the bacteria responsible for the deadly listeriosis infection.

Castoreum: A secretion from the anal glands of beavers, used mostly in perfumes, but sometimes also used to enhance raspberry flavor in candies, gum, baked goods, alcohol, and fillings.

L-cystine: An amino acid that is typically synthetically produced for commercial use and often derived from bird feathers or human hair.

Rennet: An enzyme taken from veal calves at the time of slaughter and is typically added to milk to make cheese. A non-animal version is microbial enzyme. It’s also used as a thickening agent for making custards. You can often find it listed as “vegetable rennet” on cheese labels.

Shellac: The secretions from the lac beetle found in India and Thailand are used to give confections such as Skittles and candy sprinkles a shiny coating. It can also be used to coat pills used for medicine. This is the same shellac that’s used to finish wood.

Transglutaminase: An enzyme used to “stick” pieces of meat together to form one whole cut. These new cuts of meat are often listed on food labels as “reformed and shaped chicken breast” or “formed turkey thigh roast.”

My Opinion: Just because the FDA deems an ingredient “safe to use” does not necessarily mean it’s “healthy or “good for you”. Also, just because you may not know what the ingredient is, or it’s function, does not necessarily mean it’s “bad for you”.

I have a few simple rules: (1) if you can’t spell it, the probability is fairly high that it’s not 100% healthy or good for you (although it may be labeled as ‘safe to eat’) – and/or (2) if it’s man made or didn’t come from the ground it’s also probably not the healthiest choice out there.

Also, considering all of the crap you see posted on Twitter, Facebook, and news blogs these days about health and nutrition it can be easy to get caught up in “nutrition research sensationalism”, but I’m here to tell you – JUST RELAX. Don’t get caught up in the hype.

Not all foods hyped up to be healthy are healthy – and not all foods hyped up to be toxic are toxic. When you do your research, you’ll find that many food additives are unusual and weird…even gross…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to kill you or make you unhealthy. Especially when consumed in small quantities.

For example, in previous posts we have discussed how the “color added” ingredient in some pink, purple, and red foods (ie: strawberry yogurt, ice cream, fruit juice sprinkles on your doughnut, skittles, etc.) is carmine, which is the dried and crushed bodies of the female cochineal insect.

Gross right? Allow me to explain…

Cochineal and its close cousin carmine (also known as carminic acid) are derived from the crushed dead bodies of a particular South and Central American beetle (the female Dactylopius Coccus). From the crushed insect carcasses, a red substance called carminic (aka kermesic) acid is extracted and is used to impart a deep red shade to shampoos, candy, fruit juices, and more.

Food manufacturers used to replace “cochineal extract” and “carmine” (which you now know stands for the female cochineal insect) with the phrase “color added” on your labels, but the FDA recently cracked down and now requires them to list it in a non-deceptive manner.

I know the idea of eating bugs sounds gross, but as I pointed out earlier…it’s easy to be a sensationalist and start screaming “foul on the play”…and then label the dye as being a dangerous, disgusting bug poison without even looking at the research.

Fact is, even though this dye is derived from bugs, it hasn’t been proven to be toxic or carcionogenic like many commercial synthetic red dyes have in the past…so food manufacturers have no reason not to use it. Plus, the stuff has been used for over 500 years with an almost flawless track record.

My point here is, don’t jump on sensationalistic bandwagons and media hype without looking at the research first. I don’t believe there is an “evil food empire” that is out to get us or poison us with weird ingredients. That’s just silly – although ideas like this do generate a lot of social media buzz and get the idea creator a lot of blog post shares, retweets, and likes on Facebook.

But I digress…

As a consumer, it is imperative that you do your own research and use discretion when reading labels. (The following lists may help: Food Additive List | Color Additive List but they are only a starting point)

Here is a consumer report I read recently that I found interesting. It discusses some surprising facts about food additives you may want to be aware of. CLICK HERE to download (opens in new window).

(Disclosure: I have no associations, affiliations, or contracts of any kind with any consumer report companies or related informational websites)

Before reading the PDF here are a few important considerations to keep in mind:

1) When it comes to nutrition research and reporting we must form conclusions based on the best information we have available at the time. Use this report to increase your knowledge and then use that gained knowledge to help you make better informed decisions when you are reading labels while grocery shopping.

2) Consumer Reports publications are usually well-intentioned, but sometimes it can be difficult to know if there are any existing underlying biases or false assumptions. Use discretion when interpreting the information.

3) Beware of miracles. Not all proclaimed “health foods” or “healthy ingredients” are actually healthy – and not all weird sounding or hard to pronounce ingredients are “un-healthy”. For example, asbestos was once hailed as a ‘healthy miracle mineral’, but today we all know it as the silent killer that causes the deadly cancer, Mesothelioma.

4) When doing your own health and nutrition research at home, try not to rely on Google. Try to read results that are published in peer reviewed journals where the tests performed are reviewed with intense scientific scrutiny. It is always wise to get scientific based evidence that is compliant with current safety standards and based on fact. Try not to form opinions based on a single source until you research the science for yourself. Then, after you’ve done your research, question and analyze the facts a second time, and sometimes even a third time.

5) Try to eat food that is whole, fresh, pure, and non-processed as often as you can. Man made food is known to typically contain impurities (such as food additives), which can be deemed safe one day, and then unsafe the next (and vice versa).

Here are a few basic questions I usually ask myself when reading and interpreting studies and reports:

-Who is the lab that performed the test?
-What are the labs accreditation qualifications?
-Is the lab qualified to conduct lab tests for the product(s) being studied?
-What was the sample size…the detection limit…what test methods were used…where is the quality control?
-What sort of analytics did they run?
-What is the statistical significance of the results?
-What instrumentation was used?
-What was the basis for their risk assessment?
-Could there be any underlying bias, number skewing, or false assumptions?

Always try to view controversial topics from both sides. That way you’ll be able to form an objective opinion based on the research and evidence you have to work with without letting preconceived biases or sensationalistic ideas get in the way. This way you’ll be able to look at all of the evidence and decide for yourself what is best for you – not what a journalist says is best for you.

Sometimes you just have to take studies and “research” with a grain of salt. As I stated earrlier, just because a product is “approved” does not necessarily mean it is safe; also, just because a product has a big name that is hard to spell does not necessarily mean it is toxic.

Thanks for reading and i hope you enjoy the downloadable PDF report.

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Jamin Thompson
Jamin Thompson has been called "the most handsome fitness model in the world" and "a brilliant actor & writer", both by his mom. He's a former Clemson & UMiami athlete and World Ranked tennis player who writes to help others dominate in the gym, on the field, and in life using his real world, in the trenches experience. His book, The 6 Pack Secret, has been sold in over 50 countries and has helped thousands of folks from all walks of life get cut and jacked the healthy way.
Jamin Thompson


Athlete. Actor. Fitness model. The U + Clemson. Econ/MBA. Baltimore born. Wolf raised. IG: @JaminThompson. For business inquiries:
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One Response to The Truth About Food Additives

  1. Adam Simpson April 16, 2012 at 12:34 am #

    Nice post. Very informational. 

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