5 Common Food Additives You Should Know More About

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, johnnystiletto

Soy Lecithin, a commonly used food additive, can be found in such items as frozen desserts. Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, johnnystiletto

A recent NY times piece, “Always Hungry? Here’s Why,” caught our eye because of the themes we don’t see as frequently in the popular health, nutrition, and fitness conversations. The opinion piece featured JAMA studies that support the hypothesis that Americans have confused cause and effect when it comes to diet and obesity. “What if it’s not overeating that causes us to get fat, but the process of getting fatter that causes us to overeat?”

The study by David S. Ludwig, (New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School) and Mark I. Friedman (Nutrition Science Initiative) was interesting to us for one reason in particular: Their closing proposed someday tackling our nation’s obesity epidemic by focusing on diet quality rather than calorie quantity. That “information about calorie content would remain relevant, not as a strategy for weight loss, but rather to help people avoid eating too much highly processed food loaded with rapidly digesting carbohydrates.”

“People in the modern food environment seem to have greater control over what they eat than how much. With reduced consumption of refined grains, concentrated sugar and potato products and a few other sensible lifestyle choices, our internal body weight control system should be able to do the rest. Eventually, we could bring the body weight set point back to pre-epidemic levels. Addressing the underlying biological drive to overeat may make for a far more practical and effective solution to obesity than counting calories.”

This prompted us to continue to share education about the quality of our food – specifically, what’s been added (a.k.a. Direct Food Additives), for two reasons:

  1. Not everyone speaks ingredient-ese.
  2. The prevalence of food allergies and the resulting need to know exactly what’s in our food.

When it comes to the more mysterious ingredients, do you know what they are, why they’re in your food, or the possible effects they can have on your body?

5 common food additives you should know more about

Food and color ingredients are added for a variety of reasons – to maintain safety, freshness, flavor, and to blend, thicken, and color food. Here are a few:

    1. Xanthan Gum
      What it is: Xanthan Gum is made by fermenting corn sugar with a bacteria.
      Why it’s in your food: According to Fooducate, it’s one of the 30 most popular ingredients added to food products. Used to thicken or emulsify, it’s commonly found in salad dressings, sauces, and ice cream – even cottage cheese. More recently, it can be spotted in gluten-free foods to help give them a doughy and sticky consistency.
      Possible side effects: Xanthan Gum can be derived from a variety of sources such as corn, wheat, and soy. Individuals with an allergy to such sources should avoid foods containing Xanthan Gum. As a carbohydrate with 7 grams of fiber per tablespoon, it may also cause bloating in some people.
    2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
      What it is: High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn.
      Why it’s in your food: According to the FDA, it adds sweetness with or without the extra calories. This sweetener is cheaper than sucrose, which is a form of sugar made from sugar cane. According to WebMD, high fructose corn syrup is a common additive in many kinds of processed foods, not just sweets. Most non-diet soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.
      Possible side effects: Some experts have proposed that people metabolize high fructose corn syrup in a way that raises the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes more than sugar made from sugar cane. Much of the controversy stems from the correlation observed between obesity in the United States and consumption of high fructose corn syrup rising simultaneously.
    3. Soy Lecithin
      What it is: Soy lecithin is extracted from soybeans either mechanically or chemically using hexane. It’s actually a byproduct of soybean oil production.
      Why it’s in your food: Soy Lecithin is used as an emulsifier – it allows ingredients to mix smoothly and is intended to prevent separation, reduce stickiness, control crystallization, keep ingredients dispersed, and to help products dissolve more easily. Think salad dressings, oil sprays, peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, frozen desserts, and protein powders.
      Possible side effects: According to WebMD, it can cause side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, or fullness. According to a study from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, soy lecithin has been linked to negative effects on fertility and reproduction. A study reported by Cornell University observed links to a promotion in the risk of cancer.
    4. Maltodextrin
      What it is: Maltodextrin is an artificial sugar that has a mild, sweet taste. It’s also known as a polysaccharide and is created by applying acids or other enzymes to cornstarch. Maltodextrin is actually a term that applies to any starch hydrolysis product containing fewer than 20 glucose units. For this reason, maltodextrin refers to a family of products rather than one specific product. 
      Why it’s in your food: Since it’s fairly inexpensive, maltodextrin is often used in processed foods as a thickener or a filler. It’s also used as a binding agent in pharmaceuticals. Maltodextrin can be found in canned fruits, snacks, cereals, desserts, instant pudding, sauces, and salad dressings. Since it contains fewer calories than sugar, it’s found in sugar substitutes such as Splenda or Equal.
      Possible side effects: According to Livestrong.com, the consumption of maltodextrin has side effects and health risks similar to most food additives. These include allergic reactions, unexplained weight gain, bloating, and flatulence. Specific allergic reactions include rash, asthma, itching, and difficulty breathing. Wheat-derived maltodextrin may pose health concerns for individuals with celiac disease because it contains gluten. However, in most cases the maltodextrin production process completely removes the protein from the wheat resulting in a gluten-free wheat-derived maltodextrin.
    5. Guar gum
      What it is: Guar gum is a fiber from the seed of the guar plant. It’s categorized as a fat replacer (and a component of formulations used to replace fats).
      Why it’s in your food: Guar gum is used to provide expected texture and a creamy “mouth-feel” in reduced-fat foods. It can be found in products ranging from baked goods and dressings to frozen desserts and dairy products.
      Possible side effects: According to Natural Medicine’s Comprehensive Database, side effects include increased gas production, diarrhea, and loose stools. These side effects usually decrease or disappear after several days of use. High doses of guar gum or not drinking enough fluid with it can cause blockage of the esophagus and the intestines.

Bottom Line

Continue to educate yourself on how your food is produced and what’s in it.

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list. A more comprehensive listing of the different types of food additives can be found on FDA.gov.

Not sold on keeping these ingredients as part of your everyday nutrition? Seek to avoid foods that are highly processed. A quick, helpful guideline is to eat foods that are in their most original form (vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats and oils), and avoid foods with ingredient lists that contain items you don’t recognize.

What do you think – are the possible side effects worth the sacrifice? Does this help you create more awareness around your food?

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.