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10 Harmful Food Additives That You Should Avoid

Seth Cleverley

Food additives are chemicals added to food to improve its appearance, taste or shelf-life. Some are completely safe, but there are others that pose a risk to your health, so you should watch out for them.

The following list includes 10 of the most harmful additives that you should stay well away from, and what effects they may cause when consumed:

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Monosodium glutamate is a flavour enhancer used in restaurant food, soups, chips, drinks, salad dressings, chewing gum, low-fat milk and other products.

The intake of too much MSG can cause headaches, weakness, nausea, altered heart rate, a burning sensation in the forearms and back of the neck, and tightness in the chest. Neonatal exposure has also been linked to stunted growth and obesity as there is a reduction in the discharge of the growth hormone. It must be listed on food packaging if present.

Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate

Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are preservatives that are used in processed meats to prevent the growth of bacteria and maintain the red colouring. They are used in ham, bacon, sausages, sandwich meats, corned beef, hot dogs and smoked fish.

Nitrates are harmless until they combine with chemicals in the stomach to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. These can also form when they are fried due to the high temperature, which is a particular problem when it comes to bacon.

Side effects can include nausea, dizziness, headaches and vomiting. Studies have also linked the consumption of cured meat with cancer.


Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener used in sugar-free chewing gums, drinks, desserts, cereals and as a table-top sweetener.

An excessive intake of aspartame can lead to nausea, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, hallucinations, joint pain, memory loss, palpitations, muscle spasms, and eventually brain cancer. Other studies have also found links to brain tumours and the metabolic disorder, phenylketonuria.


Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene, known as BHA and BHT, are antioxidants and preservatives that derive from petroleum. They are used to preserve fats and stop them becoming rancid. Side effects may include hyperactivity, asthma, tumours, angiodema, rhinitis, urticari and may affect estrogen levels. In addition, they have been linked with cancer in animal research.


Acesulfame-K is an artificial sweetener that contains the known carcinogen, methylene chloride. It's sold as a sugar substitute under the names Sweet One and Sunett, or is used in alcohol drinks, syrup, gelatine desserts, chewing gum and yoghurt. Our bodies are unable to metabolise it so it is passed in the urine, consequently having no caloric value, which is why it is substituted for sugar in diet food and drinks.

It has been said to increase the risk of developing cancer, affect the heart, liver and central nervous system, cause skin irritations, nerve damage, nerve pain, immune system damage, back pain, neck pain, chronic headaches, symptoms of Alzheimer’s, metabolic problems and thyroid problems.


Olestra is a zero-calorie fat substitute that is used in snacks and potato chips. It is not digested; it passes straight through the body because its molecules are too large. It has been found that olestra stops some vitamins and nutrients from being absorbed.

It may cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, incontinence, gas and bleeding.

Potassium bromate

Potassium bromate is a compound that helps dough to become full and obtain a greater volume during baking, but not all of it gets absorbed by the body. It is in some fast foods, rolls, white breads, buns and dough based desserts.

It increases the risk of developing numerous types of cancer and has been shown to cause thyroid problems and kidney tumours in rats. It has been banned in Canada and Europe but not in the United States so, although most companies do not use it, it is still worth watching out for.

High fructose corn syrup

High fructose corn syrup is a highly-refined artificial sweetener that is found in most processed foods, sweets, breads, salad dressings, canned vegetable, ketchup, desserts, flavoured yoghurts and cereals.

Some researchers have claimed that it increases your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and the risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes. It has been said to be more harmful than table sugar because it is absorbed by the digestive system far more quickly.

Food colourings

Blue 1 is used to colour sweets, drinks and baked goods. It has been linked with cancer because it causes damage to chromosomes in a cells nucleus.

Blue 2 is used in sweets, pet food and drinks. It has been found to cause brain tumours in mice.

Red 3 is a food colouring used in cherries, baked goods, ice cream and sweets. It has been linked to nerve damage and has caused thyroid tumours in rats.

Green 3 is used in drinks, cereals, mint jelly and sweets. It is a possible allergen and there have been links with bladder cancer.

Yellow 6 is found in sweets, bake goods, gelatine and sausages. It contains small amounts of many different carcinogens and has been found to cause adrenal gland and kidney tumours.

And finally…Trans fats

Trans fats are hydrogenated oils used to increase the shelf-life of products and are found in deep-fried fast foods and processed foods, such as margarine, baked goods, crisps and crackers.

They have been shown to increase the risk of heart attacks, heart diseases, kidney problems and strokes, contribute to diabetes and increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels whilst decreasing HDL (good) levels.

It is recommended by health authorities that they are only consumed in trace amounts and they have been eliminated from most foods but you should still watch out for them.

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