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benefits of food additives

Food Additives: Benefits And Risks

Food additives generally have a bad reputation, but did you know that there are actually some important benefits of food additives? 

Whilst there are indeed many risks, food additives can actually improve many properties of the food that we buy and eat, including their taste, texture and appearance. We’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of food additives, so that you can better understand the substances that are in so much of the food we eat! 

In this article will cover:

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What Are Food Additives?

Before we discuss the benefits of food additives, let’s first establish exactly what they are!

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, food additives are “substances added to food to perform specific functions”, such as improving taste, freshness, safety, texture and appearance.

They are also known as E numbers, since ‘E’ (standing for ‘Europe’) is the code used for food additives by the European Food Safety Authority. 

Food additives are produced on a large scale and can come from plants, animals, minerals or synthetic materials. 

There are 5 main types of food additives, each with a different function. Those 5 types of additives, alongside their functions, are listed just below:

#1 Antioxidants

The main function of these kinds of additives stops food from going off, thus increasing their shelf life. They do this by reducing the chance of fats combining with oxygen (a process known as oxidisation), which is what causes foods to change colour and go rancid.

As well as being a risk to your health if consumed, rancid food also doesn’t taste nice! Preserving food is therefore one of the main advantages of food additives in food production.

One of the most common antioxidants is vitamin C (or ascorbic acid), which is used in fruits and vegetables to extend their shelf life. Check out these amazing super fruits for some healthy eating inspiration! 

#2 Colours

As you would expect, colours are used to add or enhance the colour of foods to make them look more appealing. 

They generally don’t affect the taste of food, but instead serve a predominantly aesthetic function. For example, colour additives can be used to make peas greener, or to give tomatoes their distinctive bright red colour. 

Colour additives can be either natural or artificial. Natural colours are derived from natural sources, such as turmeric and beetroot. However, the majority of colour additives are artificial, consisting of man-made dyes. 

Whilst they have been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), there is still controversy over the safety of artificial colours, with many studies finding them to cause hyperactivity in children. If this is something you want to know more about, stick with us as we’ll discuss this in more detail when we address both the risks and benefits of food additives. 

If you’re looking for ways to cut down on artificial additives, check out our list of natural energy drinks to give you a natural boost! 

#3 Emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners

The main function of this group of additives is to enhance the texture of foods.

Thickeners are used in sauces, soups and puddings to give a thicker consistency, whilst stabilisers help to mix ingredients that would normally separate, such as oil and water. This is one of the main benefits of food additives and preservatives, since oil and water are ingredients of so many common foods! 

Gelling agents are used in deserts such as yoghurts and jellies. Gelatin is perhaps the most common gelling agent, which is used in many sweets such as marshmallows and jelly sweets. 

Some other common foods that contain these kinds of additives are ice cream, mayonnaise, chocolate and margarine. These are all high-fat, processed foods. For some healthier alternatives, why not try replacing them with these healthy high fat foods?

#4 Preservatives

As the name suggests, preservatives are used to preserve foods and give them a longer shelf life - which is one of the key benefits of additives and preservatives. 

Preservatives are chemicals which prevent processes such as oxidation, which is what can cause food to spoil and become dangerous to eat. They can be either natural or synthetic. 

Examples of food preservatives include sodium benzoate, which is used in fizzy drinks and fruit juices, and sulphates used in dried fruits and alcoholic drinks. 

Preservatives are an extremely useful food additive as they reduce food cost and reduce food waste by making food last longer.

#5 Sweeteners

As you may have guessed, sweeteners are additives that are used to make foods sweeter in taste. 

Examples include stevia and aspartame, which are used in products such as diet fizzy drinks as a low-calorie alternative to sugar. 

Although they are generally lower in calories, there are some doubts over the safety of artificial sweeteners. Although there have been links made between artificial sweeteners and cancer, studies such as this one have disproved this theory, finding that sweeteners such as aspartame are in fact not carcinogenic. 

What Are The Benefits Of Food Additives?

So, now that you know what they are, we’ll now explain the benefits of food additives. From making food last longer to improving the taste, there are actually a whole host of good properties to food additives!

#1- Makes food last longer 

One of the main benefits of food additives and preservatives is that they extend the shelf life of foods. This benefits the manufacturers, stockists, stores and consumers, so it’s no wonder that they are in so many foods!

So how do food additives help foods last longer? The addition of preservatives in foods causes a chemical reaction which slows the growth of harmful bacteria, preventing processes such as oxidation which is what makes food ‘go off’.

In the past, substances such as salt and other naturally-occurring substances would be used to help preserve food, particularly meat. Now, the scientific advancement of man-made preservatives means that food can be preserved for longer without the need for added salt. 

As such, a health benefit of food additives is that it helps keep food safe for consumers. It is also beneficial for manufacturers and stockists of foods, as they can keep products on the shelves for longer.

Making food last longer also means that there is less food waste, reducing the effects of landfill on the environment! If you’re conscious about the environment, why not invest in one of these reusable running bottles for your next workout? 

#2- Improve taste

When wondering ‘what are the benefits of food additives?’, one of the most obvious answers is that they can improve the taste of food. 

They are particularly used in long-life and processed foods, as processes such as canning and freezing can take away food’s natural flavours. By adding food additives, their flavour can be enhanced. 

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of the most commonly used flavour-enhancing food additives. It is popular in Asian cooking as well as canned vegetables, soups and processed meats, since it enhances the savory umami flavour foods. 

Although the FDA has said that it is technically safe, the safety of MSG is under question. Some people are particularly sensitive to MSG, reporting side-effects such as headaches, nausea, chest pain and heart palpitations. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence behind these claims, and they are generally short-term reactions.

If you’re looking to avoid additives like MSG, check out these handy recipe boxes that make it easier to make healthy meals at home with fresh ingredients! 

#3- Improve texture 

In addition to improving flavour, another advantage of using food additives is that it can enhance the texture of food. 

As we have discussed, emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners are used to improve the texture of things such as ice creams, sauces, and condiments.

If you’re looking for healthier alternatives to these kinds of foods, why not try out one of these healthy ice creams

For example, as we mentioned earlier, emulsifiers help to bind ingredients that would normally separate, such as oil and water. Without the use of additives, these ingredients would separate and spoil the texture of the food.

Texture is also a huge part of how we eat food. As well as the flavour itself, how a food feels in our mouth plays a role in how we perceive the food! 

Enhancing the texture of foods is a huge benefit to manufacturers and sellers of food, as it ultimately makes the product look more appetizing for customers to buy. For example, a customer is much more likely to buy a mayonnaise that looks thick in consistency, rather than one which is runny with a layer of oil at the top! 

#4- Can add nutritional value to food

Food additives are often associated with negative health effects. But in fact, one of the health benefits of food additives is that they can add nutritional value to foods. 

For example, fortified and enriched foods use additives to add positive health effects to foods, such as more fiber or vitamins. For example, many vegan products such as plant-based milks contain added B vitamins, which are usually lacking in a vegan diet. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the health benefits of food additives and other aspects of nutrition, why not expand your knowledge further by taking a Level 4 Sports Nutrition Course with OriGym

Enjoying this article so far? Here’s 3 more that we think you’ll love:

#5- Can aid weight loss  

Another potential health benefit of food additives is that they can provide a low-calorie alternative to other ingredients, thus aiding weight loss. 

The main example of this is the use of sweeteners such as stevia, which is often found in diet fizzy drinks and confectionery. Stevia is lower in calories than sugar, making it popular with people looking to lose weight or reduce their sugar intake. 

Despite their weight loss properties, many people report negative side effects of certain sweeteners, particularly aspartame. Aspartame has often been associated with symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and stomach pains. 

However, studies such as this one by the European Food Safety Authority have concluded that aspartame is in fact safe for consumption.

If you’re looking to lose weight, check out our guide to walking for weight loss for an easy way to burn calories! 

#6- Make food look better 

One of the main advantages of using food additives for manufacturers and sellers is that they can enhance the appearance of foods, making them more appealing and appetizing to consumers.

Food colours or food dyes are additives that are chemically designed to add colour to foods. They can be either natural or artificial, with artificial dyes being predominantly made from petroleum. 

Sight is just as important as taste when it comes to how we eat and enjoy food; we expect certain foods to look a particular way. For example, we expect broccoli to be green, bananas to be yellow and tomatoes to be red! 

For some colourful and healthy meal inspiration, why not invest in one of these vegan cookbooks?

Food additives are therefore important as they help enhance or add these colours to foods, making them more appetizing. Consumers are much more likely to buy food that is the colour they expect it to be; this is an advantage of food additives in food production and selling as they subconsciously help them sell more of their product!

Artificial food colours are more popular than natural dyes as they are cheaper and easier to be mass-produced, as well as having a longer shelf life. Plus, since they are made in a lab, there are a lot more possible combinations of colours that can be created.

Despite their benefits, certain artificial food colours have been linked to some negative side effects, which we will discuss later in this article. 

Colours and dyes serve a purely aesthetic purpose; they do not add any nutritional value to foods, so it’s not hard to understand why some people deem artificial food colourings unnecessary.

However, natural food colours are a healthier alternative to artificial dyes and still have the same colour enhancing properties. Examples of natural food dyes include beetroot, turmeric and chlorophyll. 

Opting for natural food dyes is a great way to still reap the benefits of food additives, without the potential risks associated with artificial colours.

Potential Risks Of Food Additives

Now we have explained the benefits of food additives, let’s address the potential risks. For most people, food additives are not dangerous when consumed in moderation. However, there are some potential risks to highlight, which some people may be more sensitive to than others.

#1- Artificial food colours can cause hyperactivity in sensitive children 

Although adding colour to foods is one of the advantages of food additives, there are some potential risks associated with them too. 

The use of synthetic colours in foods has long been a cause of concern for parents, with some studies finding a link between certain E numbers and hyperactivity in children. 

The main colours associated with hyperactivity are:

  • Sunset yellow (E110)
  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Carmoisine (E122)
  • Ponceau (E124)
  • Quinoline yellow (E104) 
  • Allura red (E129)

Any food and drink products containing these E numbers must carry a warning on the packaging stating that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. 

However, the FAC (Food Advisory Committee) have stated that there is actually no causal link between food colourings and hyperactivity.

Furthermore, the Food Standard Agency encourages parents to remember that there are many other causes of hyperactivity in children. So whilst food additives may contribute to their behaviour, there may be other factors at play too. 

In general, it is advised to simply be more aware of the food additives your child is consuming if they are particularly sensitive, for example, if they have ADHD or other behavioural conditions. 

#2- Allergic reactions

Some food additives have been associated with allergic reactions.

As we have discussed, the main food additives that can cause adverse reactions is monosodium glutamate (MSG). It has been linked to symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, heart palpitations, nausea and chest pain. 

However, the FDA has stated that it is “generally safe to eat”. MSG is simply something that certain people may be more sensitive to than others.

Some other food additives can cause allergic reactions too. For example, the FDA have reported that the food colouring tartrazine can cause hives (an itchy rash) in approximately one in 10,000 people. Like most allergies, there is therefore a very minor risk since it only affects a handful of people.

#3- Possible links to cancer

Certain food additives may also have a link with cancer, namely nitrates and nitrites. 

These kinds of food additives are mainly used as preservatives in processed meats such as ham, bacon and chorizo. Whilst this preservation process is an advantage of food additives in food production, regularly consuming processed meats are known to increase the risk of bowel and stomach cancer. 

Overall, the majority of sources, including the World Cancer Research Fund, have concluded that there is currently no evidence that food additives are a direct cause of cancer. 

However, a balanced and healthy diet full of fresh, whole foods is recommended to reduce the risk of cancer. Whole foods do not contain additives, so you will naturally reduce the potential risks associated with them. 

Research has found that antioxidants can reduce the risk of cancer. Check out our list of the 25 best antioxidant foods to see how you can incorporate them into your diet. 

#4- Possible links to asthma

Some food additives are potentially dangerous to asthma sufferers, particularly sulfites.

Sulfites are used as preservatives in foods to help them last longer. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, they can cause adverse reactions to people with asthma, such as tightness in the chest, breathing difficulties, hives and even anaphylactic shock. 

Sulphites are mostly found in things such as wine, dried fruits and jam. They used to be used in fresh fruits and vegetables, but have since been banned by the FDA.

There are also links between tartrazine (yellow food colouring) with asthmatic symptoms, and MSG has also been found to have an adverse reaction for asthma sufferers.

If you have asthma, it is therefore recommended to be careful consuming food additives, as you may be more sensitive to them than others. 

#5- Digestive problems  

There are also possible links between food additives and digestive problems.

Claims have been made about the effect of food additives on guy health and the digestive system, with many additives causing issues such as intestinal and metabolic diseases. 

As well as links to asthma, sulphites can also cause diarrhea and stomach cramps. MSG has also been associated with diarrhea in some cases. 

There has also been research into the effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut. Studies such as this one found that consuming artificial sweeteners can cause blood sugar issues and alter the bacteria in the gut when compared to natural sugars.

With this in mind, if you suffer from stomach pain or digestive issues, it is worth considering limiting your consumption of food additives! There are also some natural foods and drinks which can actively improve gut health. For example, one of the many benefits of peppermint tea is that it aids digestion!

FAQs

How can I avoid the risks of food additives?

Now that we have discussed the risks and benefits of food additives, you may be wondering how you can avoid the potential damaging side effects associated with them. 

The short answer is, simply avoid them! That said, it's not always as easy as that since the many benefits of food additives and preservatives mean that they are in many of the food products we consume everyday.

Instead of struggling to cut them out completely, just being aware of how much you are consuming is a good place to start. Make sure to check product labels for additives, particularly if there is a specific type of additive you want to avoid. 

However, the best way to avoid the risks of food additives is to simply consume more whole foods instead of processed products. Natural, fresh and organic foods are free from additives!

Furthermore, eating more wholefoods contributes to a healthy, balanced diet. There are so many benefits to healthy eating for the body and mind, including more energy, improved heart health and increased immunity! 

How are food additives regulated? 

Considering the number of advantages and disadvantages of food additives, you may be wondering how food additives are regulated and monitored. 

Organisations such as the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the Food Drug Administration in the USA play a key role in regulating the safety of food additives. 

For example, the Food Standards Agency ensures that food additives remain safe by carrying out regular testing and ensuring that all food labels accurately list the additives present in the ingredients list. They will also take legal action if any rules and regulations are not followed by food manufacturers. 

You can find a complete list of all the food additives approved by the Food Standards Agency here.

Before you go!

So, now that you know the risks and benefits of food additives, will you be altering your diet? Despite the benefits of food additives and preservatives such as improving the taste, texture and shelf life of the foods we eat, there are clearly some potential risks that should be considered.

If you’re passionate about all things nutrition, health and wellbeing, we think you’d make a great personal trainer! Enquire today to find out how taking a personal training course with OriGym can help you kickstart a career in the fitness industry. 

You can also browse the full range of OriGym’s courses by downloading our free prospectus here

References

Suez J, Korem T, Zilberman-Schapira G, Segal E, Elinav E. Non-caloric artificial sweeteners and the microbiome: findings and challenges. Gut Microbes. 2015;6(2):149-155. doi:10.1080/19490976.2015.1017700

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Adverse Reactions to Food Additives. 2021.

Do Food Additives Increase Cancer Risk? Hui, S. World Cancer Research Fund. 2017. 

Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). FDA. 2012. 

Colour Additives and Behavioral Effects in Children. Science Board to the FDA. 2019. 

EFSA ANS Panel (EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food), 2013. Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of aspartame (E 951) as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2013;11(12): pp.3496, 263. 

M.R. Weihrauch, V. Diehl. Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk? Annals of Oncology. Volume 15, Issue 10. 2004. Pages 1460-1465. 

Additives. British Nutrition Foundation. 2018. 

Written by Alice Williams

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

Alice is a freelance content writer at OriGym. With a first-class degree in French and Linguistics, she loves all things language, fitness and culture. As part of her degree, she spent a year living in France where she worked for a lifestyle blog, gaining professional experience in both translation and content writing. 

When she’s not writing, you can usually find Alice practicing yoga and she hopes to one day become a yoga instructor herself. She also loves running, tennis and cooking up a vegan storm in the kitchen! It was this passion for health and fitness, combined with her love for writing, that brought Alice to OriGym.

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