Health, Nutrition

The Truth about Food Additives

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Okay, so you’ve probably never said this, but you probably have had a craving for ice cream. I found the aforementioned ingredients while scanning a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. This got me thinking: Just how many of these types of ingredients do we eat in a typical day…and should we be concerned? My ingredients list scanning prompted me to challenge my weekly TOPS meeting members to avoid any ingredients they couldn’t pronounce, or were unsure of, for one whole week. I also turned to Registered Dietitian and nutrition expert for TOPS, Dena McDowell, for a question and answer session about food additives. Here’s what she had to say.

Q: What purpose do food additives serve?

A: According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), food additives are substances that are added to foods to provide the following functions:

1. Thickeners/emulsifiers (mixing agents) – includes substances added to prevent ingredients from separating and allow substances to flow without clumping. Many of these substances help create an even texture.

2. Improved nutrient value of the final product – added vitamins and minerals to the final product.

3. To help prevent final product from spoiling – substances added to prevent bacterial or fungal contamination that can lead to food-borne illnesses.

4. To help prevent taste changes or color changes in the final product.

5. Enhance flavors – substances such as spices and natural or man-made flavors that help to improve the flavor of the food.

Q: How concerned should we be about food additives?

A: Per the FDA, there is a list of 700 “generally recognized as safe” additives that are allowed to be used in food production. These substances are tested for safety and are only allowed to be part of the food supply at levels that are considered to be safe. Given this information, independent researchers recommend trying to limit food additives whenever possible.

Q: Are there any specific food additives we should watch out for?

A: The FDA tests and maintains the generally recognized as safe additives list, which can be found at

There is a watch-dog group that also has created a list of food additives to limit or avoid. This list can be found at

Q: Is there a general rule-of-thumb we can follow when it comes to food additives?

A: My rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce it, then you should not be eating it. Since additives are prevalent in our food supply look at the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed by weight, meaning the first listed ingredient is the largest amount in the food product. If you see substances that you cannot recognize make sure they are at the end of the ingredient list. That way you know that you are consuming only a small amount of the ingredient in question.