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Food Additives, Good or Bad?

GymPlus Team

February 22, 2024

Food Additives, Good or Bad?

Like most aspects of nutrition, the debate around Food Additives is a pretty confusing one. Let me explore the main Food Additives here today. In an ideal world, I guess, we would not be talking about adding individual chemicals to our food to make it taste better, last longer or become more nutritious. But as it is, we do come across Food Additives in our daily lives, whether we like it or not. Hence, it’s handy to know which ones to trust and avoid.

What are Food Additives?

Food Additives are isolated chemical substances that are used to help process or prepare a food product. Food Additives have many functions: they can help keep food products fresh, they might make the food more appealing, or they might be added to add nutrients, colour or taste. The bottom line is that, like most things in nutrition, some are quite okay for you to eat, while others are something you should stay away from.

What are the 5 main Food Additives?

  • MSG (monosodium glutamate) – taste, think Chinese takeaway
  • Artificial food colouring – colour, think any colour in the rainbow
  • Sodium nitrite – preservation, think dried cured meats
  • Guar gum – thickening agent; think diet products that have had fat or sugar stripped away
  • High fructose corn syrup – sweetener. Luckily, it’s banned in Ireland!

The Lowdown on E-Numbers

E numbers are given for colours, preservatives, antioxidants, sweeteners, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners, and other additives.
Some food additives have names we recognize and can make sense of, such as Vitamin C or Aspartame. But most Food Additives are isolated chemical compounds we don’t relate to daily. Most Food Additives are described as “E-Number”, which is their name to be recognized by. Vitamin C is also known as E-300 and Aspartame as E-951.
Science moves quickly, making the E-Numbers confusing, as some will be added and dropped yearly. To our best knowledge, all E-Numbers still on the allowed list are safe to eat until we find scientific evidence to the contrary and take them off the list.

Give me a couple of examples of good Food Additives?

An example of a good food additive is Vitamin C, made synthetically and readily available. It is used to add to foods to increase the nutrient/vitamin content, but also to improve shelf life and reduce spoiling of foods. Vitamin C, D, B Vitamins and iron are often added to breakfast cereals to make them more nutritious (and to ensure that you get some goodness in your day, even if you only chose cereals.)
Stevia and erythritol are used to sweeten foods that would otherwise require sugar to get sweetened. They are commonly used in diet products or in healthier choice foods, where they work well in baking and in sweetened beverages.

Give me an example of a not-so-healthy Food Additive!

As with all added chemicals, these additives undergo rigorous testing all the time, resulting in additives being taken off the market (and new ones developed) continuously. Trans fat is a good example here. They used to be readily available in baked goods and margarine as a by-product of production methods or used as stabilizers. But since trans fats were shown to cause ill health in humans, they have been forbidden in Europe, so they are no longer available here. Hence, the population in Europe is no longer exposed to them.

I try to minimize my exposure to Food Additives by choosing to cook my own food as much as possible, eating fresh, unprocessed foods as snacks, and generally trying to eat as close to nature as possible. I know that this is not always possible. But I know that what I do most of the time stands by me during those times when I have to rely on more processed foods.

GymPlus Team

February 22, 2024

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