Food Additives and Preservatives

By S. Chung, M.S. & H.S. Jeon, Ph.D.

Food Additives

Food additives refer to any substances that are added to change food in some way before it is consumed. Additives include preservatives for extending shelf life, flavoring and coloring for improving taste and appearance, and nutritional supplements such as vitamins and minerals. The contaminants from manufacturing, storing and packaging processes are also considered as indirect food additives [1-6].

It has been reported that 90% of an average meal of an American family is prepared from processed foods, which are very likely to contain additives [4]. While most of these food additives are approved for human consumption in America, it is strongly recommended that meals are prepared from whole foods to avoid any possible threats to our health by researchers and consumers.

Natural food additives, such as salt, sugar and vinegar and natural spices are also considered food additives. However, the main concerns of using food additives are mostly related to chemical substances and artificial ingredients. Many studies have shown the possible impact on human health of the continuous consumption of food with such additives. Common food additives include: [insert chart here].

Additives Commonly Found In Our Daily Meals: Preservatives

The names in the list above may sound complicated and unrelated to our daily lives. However, in fact, they are the most frequently used ingredients found in the processed foods we buy at the market. For example, cereals we eat every morning contain certain preservatives called BHA and BHT [Figure 1]. These chemicals are usually added to prevent oxidation of fats and oils in food. Oxygen tends to react with BHA and BHT before oxidizing fats, which in turn keeps the food from going rancid.

Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved BHA and BHT along with about 3,000 food additives for consumption, the additives have been shown to cause a number of health problems [4, 5]. Some studies claim that synthetic preservatives worsen attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in those affected [3]. Other studies show that certain persons may have more difficulty with digesting and metabolizing the compounds of BHA and BHT, which results in behavioral changes and other health problems [7]. [Insert Image Here]

Additionally, most fruit juices that are often marketed to parents of young children contain additives, including preservatives, artificial sweeteners and colorings. A study reports that preservatives such as sodium benzoates may cause increased hyperactivity in three-year-old and eight- to nine-year-old children [3]. The increase in the hyperactivity was about 50% greater for those children who regularly drank fruit juices with additives than those who drank juice without additives [8].

The function of preservatives often falls into three different categories: prevention of bacterial or fungal growth, prevention of oxidation, and prevention of natural ripening of fruits and vegetables. According to the FDA, consumption of food that is manufactured with preservatives is almost inevitable [9]. Recently, food irradiation has become more common in order to preserve meat and dairy products.

In this process, due to potential microbes existing in the food, food is exposed to high-energy radiation to kill microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, and insects. However, the labeling for irradiation is not required. Similarly, many of these modern synthetic preservatives are often labeled as ingredients for “freshness” while their true meanings and dangers are concealed from consumers.

The Safety of Food Additives

Food additives approved by the FDA are considered to be safe for human consumption, and many processed food manufacturers claim that there is no solid evidence to show a direct association between food additives and human health. How- ever, the U.S. government has claimed that safety aspects of food additives are not fully known [10]:

“any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food…. Such substance is not generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate its safety, as having been adequately shown through scientific procedures … to be safe under the conditions of its intended use….”

While there is no consensus on the safety of the consumption, the safety of the food additives and preservatives should be carefully examined once more before eating them. 

In addition to the previously mentioned health problems of consuming modern synthetic preservatives, other food and color additives have been linked with allergic reactions, cancer, asthma, and birth defects [11]. For example; sulfites used to prevent discoloration are shown to cause allergic reactions, according to the FDA. Once a person develops sulfite allergies, it can potentially lead to fatal respiratory distress [12].

Alternative Solutions

Once we decide to avoid these unknown dangers, we can turn to whole foods as an alternative. Whole foods, unlike processed food, do not contain any additional ingredients including natural ingredients such as salt; therefore, they do not contain any of the modern synthetic additives such as preservatives and colorings.

However, there are many other synthetic inputs such as pesticides and growth hormones that are not categorized as “food additives.” These chemical residues, for instance, are also found in whole foods, and they may put our health at risk.

The safest and healthiest way of eating food is to eat organic foods. Organic foods do not necessarily mean whole foods; they are foods that are produced without the use of any synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and food additives [13]. Regulations governing the certification of organic food in different countries and regions around the world allow us to be relatively confident about being free of unnatural or chemical substances in food that may cause health risks. 

In order to live a more Hemato-Centric Life, we should pause before consuming food from unknown sources to make sure we are not exposing ourselves to potential threats to the health of our body and blood


1. Dalton, Louisa. “Food Preservatives.” Chemical and Engineering News vol.80 no.45 (2002):40.

2. Food Additives and Ingredients Association and the Chemical Industry Education Centre. “Using Preservatives.” Accessed 3 February, 2012.

3. McCann, Donna, Angelina Barrett, Alison Cooper, Debbie Crumpler, Lindy Dalen, Kate Grimshaw, Elizabeth Kitchin, Kris Lok, Lucy Porteous, Emily Prince, Edmund Sonuga-Barke, John O Warner, and Jim Stevenson. “Food Additives and Hyperactive Behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old Children in the Community: A Randomised, Double-blinded, Placebo- controlled Trial.” The Lancet vol.370 no.9598 (2007): 1560–7.

4. Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Perennial, 2002.

5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “EAFUS: A Food Additive Database.” Accessed June, 2006.

6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “The List of Indirect Additives Used in Food Contact Substances.” Accessed 13 September, 2006.

7. Raloff, Janet. “Carcinogens in the Diet.” Science News Online, February 19, 2005. the_Diet

8. Hollingham, Richard. “Common Food Additive Doubles Kids’ Hyperactiv- ity.” Discover Magazine. January 15, 2008. effect-on-children/

9. Foulke, Judith E. “A Fresh Look at Food Preservatives.” FDA Consumer. October 1993. Accessed 3 August, 2006.

10. “U.S. Congress, Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” 21 U.S.C. 301, chapter 2, paragraphs (s). (Includes all amendments through December 31, 2004.)

11. U.S. Food and Drug Administration/International Food Information Council. “Food Ingredients and Colors.” November, 2004; Revised April 2010.

12. Papazian, Ruth. “Sulfites: Safe for Most, Dangerous for Some.” FDA Consumer December, 1996. Accessed 28 July, 2006. 13. Allen, Gary J. and Ken Albala. The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007.