Updated: Mar 16, 2018
After delving into a multitude of research studies and online reviews, I give you the good, the bad and the ugly + my personal opinion on safe consumption of common food additives (since I know that’s reaaaaally what you want. Right? Right guys?)
Despite my acceptance with some of these additives, it is important to know that many have not been studied for long periods of time, meaning we aren’t 100% sure of the long term side effects. A whole food (real ingredients, processed free with NO additives) is still the best nutrition out there.
If you are interested in more information on particular additives, feel free to review my references at the end of this post or search the abyss of the internet. The below are quick summaries, and there is still much more information to know on each additive.
The Facts: Erythritol is a zero calorie sugar alcohol that tastes like sugar, but does not spike blood sugar or cause tooth decay. It is made by fermenting the natural sugar found in corn, however it also occurs naturally in pears, grapes, mushrooms, melon, wine and cheese. The sugar alcohol has a zero glycemic index, and has not been found to affect blood sugar or insulin levels. Erythritol passes through the body largely undigested: 90% of the erythritol consumed goes straight to the small intestine and gets excreted unchanged through urine, while 10% is absorbed by the colon. Studies have shown that the small amount of erythritol absorbed by the colon is prone to fermentation and can cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) if consumed in large quantities.
IsaTales Take: Erythritol is commonly fermented from genetically modified cornstarch, changing it from a natural sweetener to a highly processed food additive. As the research shows, erythritol is generally safe to consume in small amounts over moderate periods of time, however I recommend consuming erythritol ONLY in 100% USDA Certified Organic (or Non-GMO Project) products. If you have sensitivity to corn or yeast, I would stay away due to the fermentation process.
The Facts: Citric acid is a common additive used for flavoring, bleaching and preservation. It’s naturally found in vegetables and fruits, particularly the citrus kind, but not all citric acid is created equal. The citric acid found in a variety of consumer goods (energy drinks, paints, cleaning products etc.) is usually created in a lab by mixing the sugars from sugar beets, cane sugar or cornstarch with the fungus from black mold called Aspergillus niger. The synthetically formed citric acid has been featured in over 1,000 studies showing that consumption can possibly link to reproductive toxicity, cell mutations, cancer and respiratory sensitization.
IsaTales Take: The process of synthetically created citric acid is daunting. While the black mold is said to be ultimately filtered out, there are still chances of microscopic waste being left behind in the process, in addition to other inorganic chemicals featured in the mixture. On the other hand, natural citric acid is actually beneficial to consume, as it acts as a alkalizing agent to bring down acidity (from too many processed foods or caffeine intake) and is also a natural antioxidant source that fights free radicals in the body. In sum, purchase citric acid containing products (again) ONLY with 100% USDA Certified Organic labels to assure you are not consuming trace amounts of toxic fungi that can ultimately be detrimental to your health.
The Facts: Xanthan gum is a common thickening agent and emulsifier (to prevent ingredients from separating). Like citric acid, it can also be found in packaged food as well as cleaning and cosmetic products. Xanthan gum is a compound made via fermentation with a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. This bacteria commonly infects cruciferous plants, causing black rot and bacterial wilt. Xanthan gum is made by pulling this bacteria from the plants and fermenting it in a lab; however, much like citric acid, the bacteria is generally recognized as safe after processing as the harmful compounds are to be killed off. Recent studies have shown that xanthan gum potentially lowers and stabilizes blood sugar and may reduce cholesterol at high doses. Xanthan gums natural emulsifying properties means it also binds to water in the intestine, and can create digestive discomfort and act as a laxative.
IsaTales Take: In order for xanthan gum to be safe for consumption, it undergoes a lot of processing. Because the exact manufacturing process of xanthan gum varies, we’re not always positive on what else might be mixed or left over in the process. I would recommend staying away if possible, or only consume in small doses. Arrowroot, ground flax and psyllium fiber are good alternatives.
Luo Han Guo
The Facts: Luo Han Guo, or Monk Fruit, is a natural zero calorie sweetener (similar to stevia) from the Gourd family. In China, the Lo Han fruit has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and is renownedly considered a longevity aid and medicinal herb to treat cough and sore throat. Procter and Gamble patented the use of the sweetener in 1995, however they found it had too many additional flavors and volatile substances to make it a widespread sweetener. They then developed a way to process the substance to get rid of the undesired flavors and make it more shelf stable. It is generally recognized as safe for diabetics considering it doesn’t have an effect on blood sugar levels when consumed.
IsaTales Take: Because Luo Han Guo is relatively new to the market as a sweetener, there are no studies on its long term effects. I recommend proceeding with caution, as with any other additive, and to only consume if the Luo Han Guo is in its most pure form. Because larger food manufacturers like Procter and Gamble are likely to refine and process the sweetener, it will likely be mixed with inorganic chemicals and other additives that may cause harm to your body.
The Facts: Aspartame is one of the OG artificial sweeteners, with approval from The U.S. Food and Drug Administration over 35 years ago. In the body, Aspartame is broken down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. Methanol can be toxic in high amounts, but the amount broken down in the body from aspartame is very miniscule. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are naturally present in high-protein foods, and do not usually cause harm unless you have an allergy or are phenylalanine resistant. There has been a large handful of studies that show no correlation between aspartame and cancer, but a more recent study of over 125,000 people found a correlation between aspartame sweetened soda and blood-related cancers in men, but not women. Anti-aspartame activists claim consumption leads to severe side effects like depression, seizures, migraines, ADHD, obesity and digestive disorders.
IsaTales Take: Although there has been a handful of studies that recognize aspartame as generally safe for consumption, there has also been a small handful that show carcinogenic effects. I personally do not consume aspartame containing products, and recommend this to others as well. If something has the potential to digest as a toxin (although miniscule) in your body— why consume it?
The Facts: Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, and is an essential nutrient in human diets as it is needed to maintain connective tissue and bone structure, fight bacterial infections and boost collagen production. Ascorbic acid is occasionally added to foods as a preservative, antioxidant, color stabilizer and to increase a food’s vitamin C content. The ascorbic acid that is added to foods is generally made by mixing different types of bacteria with corn starch, corn sugar or rice starch.
IsatTales Take: Like many of the other additives listed above, the ascorbic acid added to packaged products is more often than not, synthetic and extremely processed. After thorough searching, I didn’t find any reports with extremely negative effects from consuming synthetic ascorbic acid. That doesn’t mean go crazy, because the fact that it is generally processed with corn puts you at a higher risk for GMO exposure and potential digestive issues. Eating fruits and veggies high in vitamin C (strawberries, oranges, broccoli) is a much better option.
The Facts: Guar gum (also known as gellan gum) is similar to xanthan gum in many ways. It is used in cosmetic and food products (milks, yogurt, ice cream, baking mixes, soups, supplements) to stabilize, emulsify and thicken the texture. It is created by milling the seeds of the Indian cluster bean. Guar gum lacks in essential nutrients but is high in fiber. Because of its ability to bind to water in the intestine, digestive discomfort is a potential side effect.
IsaTales Take: Guar gum is a better, natural alternative to other more processed thickening agents, but should still be consumed in moderation due to its potential digestive side effects. Digestive issues have a high correlation with mood disorders due to the mind-gut connection (will post about this later). Healthy gut, happy mind! Emulsifiers have also been linked to chronic low-level inflammation, which in turn can lead to significant diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.) later in life.
Sorry guys, this was a long one. Hope it helped! READ YOUR NUTRITION LABELS and stay away from processed, packaged food. Less waste & less additives = a happier planet and a healthier you.
Schernhammer ES et al. Consumption of artificial sweetener- and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1419-28. Epub 2012 Oct 24. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Aug;98(2):512.