Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dr. Alison Chen, ND Headshot

The Truth Behind 6 Of The Most Common Food Additives

Posted: Updated:
97 via Getty Images

Food: it's one of the most important contributors to your good health! It provides all the necessary nutrients for us to not only survive but thrive!

It has fiber for a healthy digestive system, essential fats to keep inflammation at bay, and is a source of vitamins and minerals essential to the workings of our basic cellular functions. It is a cornerstone of health and as best stated by Hippocrates, "let food be thy medicine"!

While his words are as true today as it was in Hippocrates day, should he be living in this 21st century he might be inclined to retract his statement after a trip to the grocery store.

One long and confusing glance at the nutrition labels of many pre-packaged and processed foods might have him wondering what about these products is actually food, and more importantly, medicine?

What are Additives?

Additives are chemical substances that are added to foods during preparation or storage in order to enhance presentation, taste, and shelf stability. Many additives have been critical for times of low food supplies, in places where crops don't thrive and when weather limits growth.

And while some regions and in certain times of the year there is limited meat availability and produce growth, most people have unlimited access to fresh foods all year round.

Most of us have heard of "high fructose corn syrup" and "food dyes", however fewer are aware of the health effects they have, good or bad.

Nutrition labels can be confusing, but by arming yourself with the knowledge of at least some of these additives may be the deciding factor as to whether or not you take these items to the check-out counter.

Here are my top 5 additives to be aware of when making food decisions for yourself and your family. Understand these additives so you can make more informed choices about what ends up on your plate and in your body!

1. Artificial Sweeteners:

Artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin, are added to nearly 6,000 products sold in the US, including baby foods, frozen dinners and yogurts. Although these non-caloric/ nutritive artificial sweeteners (NAS) have not been shown to increase blood sugar levels, recent studies have shown that they can lead to glucose intolerance, imbalances in our intestinal microflora as well as metabolic disease (a risk factor in the development of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke). In addition, high-aspartame diets have been associated with increased irritable mood, increased depression, and decreased performance on spatial orientation tests. Perhaps they aren't so sweet after all?

There are natural options when it comes to sweeteners if you feel the need to satisfy that sweet tooth. Check out my list of natural sweeteners for more information.

2. High Fructose Corn Syrup:

The average North American consumes 50g of fructose per day, which is 1.5 times more sweet than regular sugar. It is also more soluble in water, making it an ideal sweetener for drinks and canned fruit and added to more than 40% of foods and beverages in North America.

Unfortunately, the consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been linked to metabolic syndrome and may be a potential factor in the obesity epidemic. As obesity is a predisposing factor in chronic disease and is associated with a loss in life expectancy, eliminating or minimizing your consumption of high fructose corn syrup is definitely something to consider when reaching for those pre-packaged goods.

3. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG):

MSG is used as a food flavor enhancer and while it's commonly known to reduce appetite and hunger, surprisingly, this food additive may not affect actual food consumption. Studies are inconclusive, but there appears to be a preference to crave more starch-type foods after MSG ingestion leading to potential long-term weight gain.

MSG has also been linked to an increase in headache frequency due to an increase in systolic blood pressure as well as muscle tightness, cramps and fatigue. I find many of my patients have a sensitivity to MSG and get extremely lethargic and sleepy after a saucy and greasy take-out meal.

4. Trans Fats:

Most people are aware that they need to avoid trans fats. With "trans-fat free" plastered all over bags of chips and crackers, what does this really mean?

Trans- fat is short for transaturated fats and involves a process known as hydrogenation. This chemical reaction includes the addition of hydrogen molecules to the fat molecule for the purpose of increasing the shelf-life of pre-packaged foods. It is well known that trans-fats increase the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes as they raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and lower protective levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels.

Not all fats are bad for you, with many actually having numerous health benefits. Learn more about healthy fats and their optimal cooking temperatures to ensure you're getting the right kinds of fat in your diet.

5. Common Food Dyes:

Adding bright colors to pre-packaged foods might make them appear more appetizing, but the effects of these dyes may be less than appealing.

Studies have shown that children with ADHD show excess inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity, especially when taking 50mg or more of artificial food coloring (AFC). In addition, large doses of AFCs have been shown to create heavy stress on the liver and kidneys and affect learning, memory, and hyperactivity. Not to mention that certain AFCs can cause both allergic and non-allergic reactions, such as migraines, eczema flairs, gut inflammation and nausea.

Natural food dyes can be made with beet juice or beetroot powder, chlorophyll, red cabbage as well as many other natural options. Get creative and find all the colors of the rainbow in nature!

6. Salt:

While it's commonly believed that chronic excessive use of table salt (NaCl or Sodium chloride) leads to high blood pressure and heart disease, it is now evident that this is actually specific to those with salt-sensitive hypertension, which makes up 2/3 of essential hypertensive patients over 60 years old. In fact, chloride has been shown to have protective cardiovascular effects. So what's so bad about salt?

It all comes down to physiology.

NaCl causes a redistribution of fluid from inside the cells of our body to the outside environment (due to osmolarity), which can increase our blood fluid volume. In addition, sodium chloride can increase arterial constriction as well as peripheral vascular resistance, raising blood pressure and putting strain on the heart muscle.

These effects may increase the concern for those currently exhibiting high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, salt-sensitive hypertension or a deficiency in the ability to excrete sodium via the kidneys, potentially putting them at high risk of suffering a stroke and/ or heart condition. In general, Western diets consists of excessive amounts of salt, especially in processed foods, and should be used in moderation.

So you may want to think twice before reaching for the salt shaker, or better yet, try incorporating different herbs and seasonings to give your meals a salt-free boost in taste!

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook