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Additives are added to foods for a variety of reasons. The currently most controversial are the artificial sweeteners, originally invented as diabetic-friendly sweeteners, but now widely used to provide sweet taste to low carb/low calorie diets. Dietary supplements that claim to provide “easy” weight loss are included here [technically they are not food additives, but they are used as “diet additives”]. The third class of additives are those used to preserve food; originally this was limited to retarding spoilage, but has now been expanded to include preserving appearance as well. Finally, there are substances added during cooking, including thickeners (such as for jellies) and leavening agents (used in raising bread).

Artificial Sweeteners


Saccharin (Sweet 'n Low™) was introduced into diet colas about the time that diet sodas (or “pop” depending on which part of the country you grew up in) were introduced. At the time, the biggest issue was that the diet colas were known for their somewhat unpleasant [some described it as bitter] after taste, but many customers adjusted to the after taste in the interests of reducing calories. Apparently thinking that the after taste might mean that saccharin was somehow poisonous [remember, bitter tastebuds respond to poisons], researchers began to test the product on laboratory white rats, and found that consumption of saccharin was associated with an increased risk of bladder cancers in the rats. The soft drink industry countered that the dose rates in the study were equivalent to a Human drinking diet cola by the case daily, and therefore unrealistic. The FDA proposed banning saccharine in 1970's, and eventually did ban saccharin in 1977, as did the comparable Canadian agency. Under pressure from soft drink industry lobbists, the U.S. Congress cancelled the ban in 2000, and saccharin (marketed as Sweet 'n Low™) is currently approved for sale in U.S. at 30 mg/serving; but is still banned in Canada. The Canadian research has shown the bladder cancer risk is apparent in the Human population at dose rates equal to only two servings of diet soda per day (compared to behavioral dosing reported at up to 8 serving per day). The use of saccharin can not be supported from a point of view that seeks to increase the wellness of the general population.


Aspartame (Nutrasweet™, Equal™) is a chemical derivative of the amino acid phenylalinine, which is improperly metabolized and plaques out on the neurons of the brain in the developing brains of PKU [phenylketonuria] positive individuals causing potentially severe brain damage. There are also reports of phenylalanine being a neural stimulant in adult brains, and it has been suggested that over-stimulation with Phenylalanine may lead to brain neuron death at any age. In a study conducted at the European Ramazzinin Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences [Bologna, Italy], and published in the June volume of Environmental Health Perspectives reported an elevated incidence of leukemias and of lymphomas in male rats fed aspartame. The dose rate in the study was less than the recommended maximum for humans. The sweetner was fed to pregnant rats, then to the offspring [the test animals] after they were weaned. "At higher doses, the rats had a marked increase in cancers throughout the body." (Couzin, Jennifer, 2007. "Souring on Fake Sugar" in the ScienceScope column, Science vol 317 (6 July 2007): 29). Although there have been numerous reports of aspartame neurotoxicity, these have not been confirmed by rigorous clinical research [nor references to clinical research contradicting the claims]. Aspartame is considered safe in U.S. and Canada for use, except by PKU-positive individuals and children under two years. PKU-positive individuals should avoid any exposure to ingested aspartame. Dr. Janet Hull strongly recommends avoiding aspartame on her website (http://www.sweetpoison.com/). [“She holds a Doctorate in Nutrition, a Master's Degree in Environmental Science, is an international geographer and geologist, a former university professor, firefighter and Hazardous Waste Specialist and Emergency Responder. She is a Licensed Certified Nutritionist, certified fitness professional, author and aspartame victim.” quoting from her website.] Again, the potential risks reported for aspartame lead me to believe that its use can not be supported from a point of view that seeks to increase the wellness of the general population.


Sucralose (Splenda™) is another artificial sweetener which is currently approved as safe in U.S. and Canada, but also has numerous reports of potentially severe health risks. There are reasonably reliable reports of liver toxicity. There are a few reports [repeated without citations on numerous websites, creating the impression that the reports are more numerous than they really are] that the liver metabolites are analogs of chlorinated pesticides. Whether or not these claims are valid, the fact that there are liver metabolites suggests that the liver detects sucralose as a toxin, or the liver would not be trying to detoxify it. There have also been reports [again repeated without citation on numerous websites] of neurological symptoms that resemble migrane. Dr. Mercola [his website, mercola.com, does not appear [to me] to be a reliable source of information, lacking citations of sources of data] claims that among those patients diagnosed by him as migrane sufferers their symptoms become more severe on exposure to ingested sucralose [but he may provide hypochondriacs with confirmation of their self-diagnosed migranes]. I would recommend waiting until there is rigorous clinical data in support of the lack of serious side effects before introducing sucralose into any person's diet, when adopting a point of view that seeks to increase the wellness of the general population.

Summary of artificial sweeteners

Natural sweeteners, as a nutrient found in food, have been around longer than we as the Human species [Homo sapiens] have been around. We have had thousands of generations to adapt to sugars as natural sweeteners, and to adapt to food being no sweeter than when it was picked off the tree, bush, vine or whatever. If we were in immediate danger of starvation (relative to carbohydrates) it would make biological sense to add additional sweeteners to our food, but the risk of carbohydrate starvation in most of the civilized world [ignoring certain disordered eating behaviors, such as low carb diets] is, as physicists say of the probability of rare events, “vanishingly small.” We simply need to relearn to enjoy the flavors of naturally sweetened foods, and abandon our expectation of food being over-sweetened. [the last sentence is rather easy to write, but the probability that the advice would be followed is less than vanishingly small].
    So, we insist that all foods must be over-sweetened; but when we satisfy our sweet tooth, our “self esteem” goes down about as fast as our waists get larger. …and we “need” non-nutritive, calorie-free sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners have been available commercially (as a food additive) for about one Century (100 years). How many Human generations can you fit into 100 years? Life span is the average amount of time from the birth of one generation to the first reproduction (resulting in live birth) by that generation. For Human individuals, this number ranges from about 11 - 13 years to about 35 years. Census data has reported generation-wide averages from about 15 years to about 23 years. It is a simple matter of doing algebra on a Monday morning: 100 divided by 23 equals 4 generations; 100 divided by 15 equals 6 generations. Most of the Evolutionary Biologists I know think it takes tens to hundreds of generations to adapt to changing conditions, which is the basis of worrying about extinctions caused by Human-caused environmental change [faster than adaptive processes]. Remember also, the wide-spread use of artificial sweeteners has been going on for only several (about 10) decades.

sugar alcohols

The USDA regulations concerning the Nutrition Facts Label on foods do not require that “sugar alcohols” [Xylitol, Mannitol, and Sorbital] be listed as a calorie source [nor included in the calories per serving], which means that the regulations permit not disclosing the sugar alcohols on the Nutririon Facts Label [but they must be listed in the ingredients].
    The simple sugars (Glucose, Fructose and Galactose) are usually described as C6H12O6, but can be represented as C6H7O(OH)5 to better reflect its structure [without drawing the structural formula]. Recalling that an alcohol is any organic molecule with at least one hydroxyl (-OH) group, it seems clear that the simple sugars [with five hydroxyls] are, by the definition of an alcohol, sugar alcohols. Fructose and Galactose are readily accepted into glycolysis, the first of the metabolic pathways of cell respiration, so the energy stored in them can be captured as ATPs with about the same efficiency as for glucose. The “sugar alcohols” are complex carbohydrates with some hydroxyls in chemically active locations. Starch on the other hand has to be modified to bring the hydroxyls into chemically active locations. The “sugar alcohols” have to be converted back to a structure more closely resembling starch to be disgested and absorbed. This costs energy initially, so the net energy released (and captured) is less than for an equally complex starch molecule. It also means that absorption is not as complete as for “normal” starches. Although the sugar alcohols are not listed as a calorie source on the Nutrition Facts Label, they still may contribute some [hidden] calories to an otherwise carefully designed weight-management diet.

dietary supplements

Dietary supplements are not food additives, but many people use them as “diet additives,” on the [usually] mistaken impression that the supplements can accelerate weight loss, or can contribute to wellness more effectively than can foods. None of the claims [of those which I personally have examined] are supported by scientific research nor by clinical research. Some state that they have research to back up their claims, but do not cite the references. Considering that the appropriate, citeable research would answer completely the criticisms of the scientific and medical communities, one would think that any vendor of such supplements would be eager to make the research results available for review by scientists and medical researchers, if they actually had good research data. Without availablity of reviewable research data, we can [and do] write the claims off as “pseudo-science.”
    The only governmental regulation of the dietary supplements is to demand that all claims of cures for diagnosable medical conditions must be supported by clinical trials supporting the claims [and ruling out significant side-effects]. Testimonials (including those read on camera by paid actors) do not have to be documented. It does not matter [to the regulations] whether the testimonials were quoted from customers, or written by advertising copy-writers.


“Stuff” has been added to foods in order to preserve them since a very long time ago (as far back as “Once upon a time… ”). Some people think preservation is understood to refer primarily to extending shelf life, but some efforts are made to “preserve” appearance. For example, sliced apples tend to turn brown (and unappetizing) quickly, but the addition of small amounts of lemon juice will slow the browning [a recipe which my Grandmother probably learned early in her adult life, during the first decade of the 20th Century, perhaps last decade of the 19th Century]. It is almost true that all those food preservatives with long, unpronouncable names have not been around as long as the natural products used to preserve food; but it is more likely that the unpronouncable additives were in food long before food labels listed ingredients (starting around A.D. 1970). There is no valid reason to avoid the natural preservative additives (such as Vitamin C, Ascorbic acid, Citric acid, Calcium lactate, … ). The exceptions would be salt (due to its role in cardiovascular issues) and sulfites (due to documented cases of severe allergic reactions). Under current labeling regulations, it has become an easy matter to avoid the synthetic preservatives; just read the ingredients list, and if there is anything on the list that you don't want to eat, don't buy the product.
    It is “common knowledge” that coloring has been added to foods (to make them more attractive on the grocery shelves) only in the recent past. The reality is that red dye has been added to ground beef to make it appear more appetizing almost as long as butchers have been selling ground beef. It is simply a marketing activity; customers will generally buy the most attractive foods, and will even shop more frequently at stores that offer attractive foods. The only exception I know of is the patrons of “Health Food” stores who will accept the less attractive (as in discolored, or even visible insect damage) foods. Most of these patrons don't understand that the trucks delivering things like tomatoes stop first at the big chain stores who sort out all the best looking produce. The same truck then goes to the Mom-and-Pop stores, who sort out the best looking of the remaining produce. The same truck then goes to the Health Food store who sort out the best looking produce. The remaining tomatoes are then sold to food processors who use the best produce for canned tomatoes, the second best for tomato puree and tomato sauce, and the worst become ketchup.

thickeners & leavening agents

Thickeners and leavening agents (and even dyes and flavor enhancers) are added to foods just prior to cooking. And again the practice dates back to early civilization;the hunter-gatherers did not (as far as we know) use these products. For example, Anthropologists in the first half of the Twentieth Century collected recipes from some Native American tribes in which corn cakes (and Juniper berry cakes) were made by grinding the corn (or berries) on sandstone rocks to a flour, mixing with water only to make a dough, and cooking the cakes on hot flat stones. These cakes [I actually tried some corn cakes once] were drier than traditional Mexican-style tortillas (flat bread).
    Thickeners, such as pectins, gelatins (derived from glues, which hold plant [or animal] cells together to make complex plants or animals; pectin is commonly extracted from the left over material from apple juice manufacture, and is the glue that held the apple together; gelatin can be extracted from a variety of other plants, and from some algae). Most preserved fruit (as jams, jellies and marmalades) have pectin added to make the fruit spread less runny, compared to fruit preserves (such as strawberry preserves) typically without the pectin added. Some gelatins [Knox™ gelatin, Jello™ gelatin] are pectin; while the gelatin-like thickener in commercial ice cream is agar derived from algae (seaweed). The gluey material on the sides of the ice cream box that has been in the 'fridge too long is the agar which has separated from the ice cream. Another common thickener in many foods is gum usually derived from the inner bark of trees [sometimes listed simply as gum, and sometimes listed with an adjective suggesting the tree species used].
    Leavening agents are used in bread-making, and serve to cause the bread dough to raise (most often by trapping Carbon dioxide bubble in the dough). Leavened breads are “lighter” and softer than unleavened breads. “Flat breads” are traditionally unleavened. The most common leavening agents are “baker's” yeast, baking powder (baking soda plus a dry acid, activated by the addition of water), and baking soda (with acid such as vinegar or lemon juice added).

    The dyes and flavor enhancers has been the subject of a surprising amount of criticism. The only clinical testing which has confirmed problems with F D & C colors involve F D & C Red #40 and F D & C Yellow #5. Red #40 has been shown in clinical studies to cause increased physical activity (resembling the classic “sugar high” claimed for all children) in diagnosed ADHD and autistic children. Diagnosed autistic children may have sufficient self-awareness to recognize the red dye as the source of their sugar high, and will select snacks (or breakfast cereals) on the correctly assessed red dye concentration, showing a clear preference for red popsicles and red Fruit Loops™ over other color choices. [Given that sugar causes the sugar-crash without the sugar-high in diagnosed diabetics, I would suggest that the sugar-high in non-autistic, non-ADHD children may also be caused by FD&C Red #40 rather than sugar; as soon as we test “normal” children for their reaction to Red #40, we are likely to find a similar effect as for the autistic population (many sugar dense snacks and candies contain red dye as well as sugar)]. F D & C Yellow #5 has been shown, in clinical tests, to cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. No other claims for adverse health effects for approved dyes have been confirmed in clinical testing.
    MSG or monosodium glutamate (Accent™) has been suggested as a cause of allergy-like insensitive individuals as well as in individuals not known to exhibit any other allergies. In a carefully designed double blind study, four groups of subjects were given the following:
  1) Chinese food with MSG,
  2) Chinese food without MSG,
  3) American food without MSG, and
  4) American food with MSG.
Both groups receiving Chinese food exhibited positive reactions to the MSG, whether or not MSG was in the food; and both groups receiving American food exhibited negative reactions to the MSG, whether or not MSG was in the food. Two alternative explanations were offered to explain the results: the reaction to MSG was a placebo effect, or the reaction was caused by some other ingredient in the Chinese food. In either explanation, MSG had no effect on the subjects.
    Another common additive to red meats is meat-tenderizer, with two ( or 3) choices of tenderizer. The most familiar is Adolf's™ meat tenderizer, which contains an protein-digesting enzyme (Papain) from the milky (latex) sap of Papaya fruits. The other effective meat tenderizer is garlic powder, which also contains a protein-digesting enzyme [and adds flavor]. Either product works best sprinkled on the meat, which is then stabbed repeatedly with a fork, and the powder “rubbed” to work it into the meat. When the meat is left to marinade before cooking (frying, grilling, … ), some of the larger proteins will be broken down into smaller polypeptide fragments which are easier to digest, giving the meat a more tender consistency in the mouth. Why papayas or garlic need a protein-digesting enzyme is unclear, but it works! According to the website, www.indiacurry.com, yogurt is an effective tenderizer for fowl, and ginger has similar enzymes to those in garlic or papaya.


The regulation of food additives by the U.S. Goverment is limited to maintaining the GRAS list, where GRAS is the acronym for Generally Recognized As Safe. To be listed on the GRAS list, a product must be shown to be “generally recognized as safe,” based on published scientific research studies (unless the product has been in use since before 1958 when the GRAS list became the standard for food additives). Generally, the product has to have been tested on at least two non-human animal species to determine the maximum dose with no observable side effects. This dose may be adjusted to a dose per body weight. The maximum dose is then divided by 100 to guess the safe level for Human exposure.


Coffee consumption, and specifically caffeine from coffee [but not from soft drinks], has been the subject of numerous claims of adverse health effects. Because food additives are also the subject of numerous claims of harmful effects, I have included a discussion of coffee here in the context of food additives [which coffee is not, but caffeine in soft drinks is a food additive]. Many to most of the claims of adverse health effects attribuable to coffee consumption have failed to be confirmed in clinical trials, although most have been extensively tested. One study, reported in news articles (14 Nov 2005), of long term consumption of coffee by women who reported being heavy coffee drinkers. The study confirmed that there is no long term increase in blood pressure in these women, in spite of numerous claims of blood pressure increases. It was observed that a single dose [3 to 4 cups] first thing in the morning caused a spike in blood pressure, but within 2 to 4 hours pressure had returned to normal. However, the study reported that there is a long term increase in blood pressure associated with long term consumption of [large doses of] diet colas. The presumption is that the blood pressure increase due to diet colas must be driven by some other ingredient than caffeine in the diet cola [diet and non-diet colas tend to deliver a higher dose of caffeine per ounce than does coffee, even dark roast coffee]. I should point out that the same applies to the claims of positive effects (such as waking up in the morning, concentrating on mental tasks); clinical trials have failed to confirm these claims as well.
    There have been two clinical studies [which I have seen] that have documented significant effects of coffee consumption. In one study (around 1980) reported that in known allergic individuals, the caffeine from the coffee provided systemic relief from the allergies, but stated that the results should be considered to be tentative, and larger studies are needed to be confirmed the results. In the other study, reported in news articles (15 Nov 2005) a reasonably large study showed that consumption of decaffeinated coffee increases LDL-cholesterol [LDL-cholesterol is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular health issues], and reported that non-decaffeinated coffee is not known to have this effect. The unanswered question is what is responsible for the increased LDL-cholesterol, such as residual chemicals from the decaffeination process.


© 2004-2010 TwoOldGuys ™

revised: 26 May 2009