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Are Food-Additives Unsafe?

Potassium sorbate. Propionic acid. Ingredient lists often read like the answers to a high school chemistry exam. Should you be concerned?

An additive can't be put in food unless the Food and Drug Administration has ruled it's safe. But most nutritionists suggest limiting overall intake, and you may want to avoid some altogether. In general, foods with many additives undergo processing that can destroy nutrients, says JoAnn Hattner, a pediatric nutritionist at Stanford University Medical Center. A guide to some commonly used additives:

PRESERVATIVES

  • Function: To prevent spoilage

  • Found in: Vegetable oil, salad dressing, bread, baked goods, crackers, processed meat (such as hot dogs and lunch meat), cheese, fruit juice, cereal

  • Safe: Potassium sorbate, propionic acid, sodium benzoate, tocopherols (vitamin E), citric acid

  • Problematic: Nitrites (the body can convert them into carcinogens); sulfites (can trigger an allergic reaction in some people)

EMULSIFIERS AND STABILIZERS

  • Function: To keep foods (like oil and vinegar) from separating, and to provide a consistent texture

  • Found in: Salad dressing, peanut butter, baked goods, bread, cereal, chocolate, pudding, mayonnaise, margarine, cream cheese, soup, jam, jelly

  • Safe: Monoglycerides, diglycerides, polysorbate, sorbitan monostearate, lecithin, guar gum, modified starches

  • Problematic: None

COLORINGS

  • Function: To make food look more appealing and sometimes to protect light-sensitive vitamins

  • Found in: Cheese, margarine, ice cream, candy, gelatin, jelly, pudding, baked goods

  • Safe: Annatto, beta-carotene, beet juice, FD&C Red dye #40, FD&C Yellow dye #6

  • Problematic: FD&C Red dye #3 (linked to cancer in animal studies)

FLAVORINGS

  • Function: To enhance taste

  • Found in: Baked goods, chewing gum, canned fruit, fruit yogurt, candy, chocolate, gelatin, pudding, salad dressing, soft drinks, Chinese food, canned vegetables, soup, processed meat

  • Safe: Dextrose, fructose, sucrose, mannitol, disodium gyanylate

  • Problematic: MSG (can cause headaches and chest pain; pregnant women should avoid); sorbitol (can produce stomach pain and diarrhea); saccharin (linked to cancer in animal studies)

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