The 5 Potentially Harmful Food Additives to Look for on the Label
When was the last time you read a label? If you’re like us, you see the word Organic, Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free, All-Natural, Vegan and Organic on a label and think: that’s for me, because I am trying to eat healthy. Not so fast. These words don't tell the whole story.
In fact, many of these processed foods (like spreadable dairy-free cream cheese and other foods you look for to be healthier alternatives to the full-fat dairy) contain hidden additives that may be potentially unhealthy if eaten frequently or in large amounts. The truth is that even the most well-meaning food makers have to add preservatives and additives to their foods to keep products shelf-stable and delicious for weeks, months, or even longer.
If you're trying to eat healthily, you need to look for these five food additives and try to avoid them. (They're in everything.) Did you know that Maltodextrin spikes your blood glucose higher than table sugar? That's just one ingredient. See what else is lurking in that so-called healthy food.
So before you toss that tofu cream cheese or coconut-milk yogurt into your basket, thinking these are full of wholesome goodness, first check the label for five potentially harmful ingredients you need to know more about, and have an honest understanding of, since they could potentially do as much harm to your diet as your healthy intentions are doing good.
Just how healthy or dangerous are those packaged items you have come to rely on? We break down what the heck these ingredients are, why they’re there in the first place, and the potential risks or harmful side effects.
The potentially harmful food additive: Maltodextrin
What it’s designed to do: A thickener, preservative, and alternative sweetener
What the studies say: Maltodextrin has a higher glycemic index than table sugar, which means eating it can cause a spike in blood sugar after eating foods that contain it, which can be dangerous for anyone with diabetes or insulin resistance. It's often used as a sweetener but can be worse for you than plain old table sugar so if you're avoiding that, avoid this.
This 2016 study conducted by doctors in the Netherlands found that substituting unprocessed starches with Maltodextrin may increase the product's glycemic load, meaning elevates the sugar content and drives up how much blood glucose your body needs to metabolize in one sitting. This can lead to insulin response, fat storage, or weight gain. A study conducted by doctors at the University of South Carolina found evidence that foods that increase the glycemic load also increase inflammation, which is a major contributor to chronic diseases.
Who should stay away: People who are watching their weight, or are diabetic, or have Celiac’s Disease or are gluten sensitive, because Maltodextrin is derived from wheat and can contain gluten.
Where you find it: Often in packaged or processed foods like pasta, salad dressing, cereal, canned soup, low-fat products, powder formulas, protein powders, and supplements.
Bottom Line: If you are not sensitive to gluten you can probably tolerate Maltodextrin in small amounts but it can add up if you are not watching labels but longterm, the toll that inflammation takes on the body might make this one ingredient that most people will want to try to skip, not just anyone gluten insensitivities.
The potentially harmful food additive: Xanthan Gum
What it’s designed to do: Xanthan Gum is used as a thickener or as a stabilizer or emulsifier and many of your favorite gluten-free products probably contain it.
What the studies say: The word "gum" is not far off, since it can really mess up your intestines if you're not careful about amounts. When consumed in high doses, a study by Northern General Hospital discovered that Xanthan Gum can cause colonic distress, and is "a highly efficient laxative agent" that can cause flatulence and increase the "frequency of defecation." One study out of Brazil also found that it might cause inflammation in humans based on research conducted in the lab. Animals fed a diet that included Xanthan Gum had an increase in inflammatory tissue.
Who should stay away: Anyone with a sensitive stomach or concerned about their level of inflammation or who are already prone to IBS or diarrhea.
Where you find it: Bakery products, cake mixes, pie crusts, cereal bars, salad dressings, pasta sauces, spreads, vegetable patties, frozen pizza, honey-roasted peanuts and more.
Bottom Line: Added to many gluten-free products, Xantham Gum might upset your stomach as much as gluten itself.
The potentially harmful food additive: Guar Gum
What it’s designed to do: A soluble fiber used as a thickener and binder
What the studies say: This stuff expands, which is great if you want to feel full but super dangerous if eaten in large quantities. In the 1990s, diet pills that used Guar Gum were banned by the FDA because they could swell up to 10 to 20 times the original size when ingested, causing dangerous blockages in the body. After a series of incidents where people suffered from esophageal and intestinal obstruction after taking the diet pills that contained Guar Gum, an analysis of FDA reports found that Guar Gum poses a deadly risk of swelling and obstructing the esophagus and small intestine. The FDA has now banned the use of Guar Gum in diet pills and strictly regulating the amount that can appear in food products.
However since Guar Gum is a soluble fiber, studies on high-fiber diets given to those with diabetes have shown that soluble fiber as part of a high-fiber diet can help reduce blood sugar levels and LDL (so-called bad cholesterol) by up to 20 percent over three months.
Who should stay away: Everyone should stay away from diet pills that contain the additive and stay wary of the amount used in food products, but if you need to add soluble fiber to your diet to lose weight, for medical purposes, it can be safe in small amounts.
Where you find it: Ice cream, yogurt, salad dressing, gluten-free baked goods, sauces, kefir, breakfast cereals, vegetable juices, pudding, and soup.
Bottom Line: Thanks to the FDA’s strict regulations, the amount of Guar Gum in food products pose no risk of obstruction, however, it’s important you’re aware of the amount you’re consuming since some foods like vegetable juices are allowed to contain 2 grams.
The potentially harmful food additive: Palm Fruit Oil
What it’s designed to do: Preserve and inexpensively add fat to foods
What the studies say: Palm Oil is bad for your heart, and can drive up cholesterol, but because it's cheap and stays solid at room temperature but melts when heated (like margarine), it's in 50 percent of all products at the store. A study conducted out of the University of Columbia found that contrary to the popular notion that Palm Oil can reduce cholesterol, it has minimal health benefits and can actually raise cholesterol even in small amounts, because of its high concentration of saturated fat.
Since Palm Oil is used so frequently in cooking, another study from Malaysia looked at what happens when you reheat foods that have been cooked with palm oil and found that the more often the oil gets heated the worse it is for you, becoming denser it became, and the likelier to lead to plaque deposits that can clog arteries and lead to heart disease. found that when the oil is reheated, it can actually increase plaque deposits in arteries.
Who should stay away: Anyone watching their saturated fat intake or concerned about the environmental impact of harvesting Palm Oil since it has led to deforestation across the planet, and the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest are being destroyed every hour.
Where you find it: Look at any supermarket aisle of packaged goods: About 50 percent of the products contain Palm Oil. Why? It's inexpensive and easy to add to any processed food. In fact, it's the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, but it's terrible for your heart. From pizza dough to margarine (because it's solid at room temperature) pretty much everything you buy at the store has palm oil added to it.
Bottom Line: In shampoo and hair ingredients, Palm Oil can be great, but if you're watching your cholesterol (and you should be) this is one to skip.
The potentially harmful food additive: Lactic Acid
What it’s designed to do: A preservative, curing agent, and flavoring agent
What the Studies Say: Lactic acid sounds so innocent since it's made by our very own bodies when we work out hard. However, in a study by doctors at The University of Augusta, Georgia in 2018, two-thirds of patients who took lactic acid experienced brain fog, confusion, and short term memory loss as well as bloating and fullness.
Who should stay away: Anyone trying to focus, keep their brain sharp or with a sensitive stomach. But for the most part lactic acid has not been determined to be harmful to you.
Where you find it: Pickled vegetables, sourdough bread, beer, wine, sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented soy foods like soy sauce and miso. It is not from animal products (despite the word lactic which sounds like it comes from milk–it actually occurs in the fermentation process). It also occurs naturally in your body when you need to convert glucose to fuel.
Bottom Line: If you’re someone who takes a product with Lactic Acid on the label you may want to monitor your symptoms and decide if you are having those issues as well.
Although small amounts of these additives won’t pose any high-risk health dangers in the immediate term, it’s essential to know precisely what's in the products you buy. These additives will likely be acceptable in moderation, but the best bet to avoid food additives is to stick to eating whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, so you don’t even have to worry about double-checking a label.