Reports have linked the substances to everything from diabetes and cancer to metabolic disorders and saggy skin. The worst part is, they seem to be lurking everywhere—even in so-called healthy snacks and packaged goods. With scary reports of what these flavor- and appearance-enhancers can do to our health in the long run, we don’t blame you if you try to avoid any ingredients you can’t identify or pronounce. But not all additives are bad news. There are a number of widely studied additives that are considered safe to consume. In fact, some of the science behind some substances’ safety is so convincing that diet experts don’t even think twice about eating a number of them. Are they worth reevaluating on your end, too? Scroll down to see what the experts had to say and decide for yourself.
“Although consumers these days are looking for a short ingredient list on food labels, citric acid is likely to be found in many products. It’s naturally found in many fruits, and is regarded as a safe additive to other foods. It’s widely used in products such as jellies, jams, candies and ice cream, so while the food additive itself is shown to be safe, the packaged and processed foods that it’s typically found in are often high-calorie and should be consumed in small portions.” – Heather Mangieri, RDN, a board certified sports dietetics specialist
“I don’t give it a second thought when I see lecithin on a food label. The emulsifier is typically made from eggs or soy and is totally harmless unless you have a food allergy.” – Marisa Moore, RDN of Marisa Moore Nutrition
“Cochineal extract is a red food coloring made from an insect source and used in foods like ketchup and fruit-flavored drinks. Although I believe eating foods with added color and flavor should be kept to a minimum, cochineal is likely safer than consuming artificial additives and not something I go out of my way to avoid at this time.” – Ginger Hultin MS RDN LDN, a Chicago-based integrative oncology dietitian.
“Since carrageenan, an additive found in many milk alternatives, is made from red algae, it’s not something I avoid using. Unless my clients respond adversely to it, it's not something I advise them to worry about either.” – Dana James CDN, of Food Coach NYC
“Disodium phosphate is a food additive that acts as a thickener and helps to regulate foods’ acidity and moisture. It also helps keep oil- and water-based ingredients, which would otherwise separate, mixed together. This food additive is found in the half and half I use in my morning cup of coffee. Without it, the cream would separate from the liquid, which would not be very appetizing. This additive is found to be safe, but I’m still mindful to consume it in moderation.” – Heather Mangieri, RDN, a board certified sports dietetics specialist
“Ascorbic acid isn’t something I worry about eating. Although ‘acid’ sounds like something that would be threatening, it’s just added vitamin C. It not only boosts the vitamin C level of the food but also helps prevent spoilage. I welcome this one.” – Marisa Moore, RDN of Marisa Moore Nutrition
“Ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C, can be found in a variety of products ranging from baked goods to dried fruit. As far as preservatives go, it's impossible to eat a 100 percent preservative-free diet and if I had my picks, this certainly doesn't bother me compared to most of the other chemicals found in our food system.” – Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN of Middleberg Nutrition
“Whenever I have a latte or an iced coffee, I put one Splenda (sucralose) in it for sweetness and am not concerned about its safety. According to a review of the scientific evidence to date, sucralose is considered safe for human consumption and does not cause cancer. – Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet
“We don't worry much about food additives that we consume infrequently or in small quantities. So for instance, if there is an artificial sweetener in a dessert, we don't sweat it.” – Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CFT, and authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and Other Sodium Additives
“Since we’ve never experienced any MSG sensitivities, we don't worry much about eating it. However, we are aware that if we have it, we may retain water, the same as we would after eating any salty food.” – Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CFT, and authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure
“I don't sweat added salt or sodium in my food. For example, even a good-quality soup made from unprocessed ingredients requires a good amount of added salt for taste. If you’re generally eating an unprocessed diet with plenty of high-potassium fresh produce (which helps balance sodium in the body), occasionally eating foods with added salt isn't a worry of mine.” – Ginger Hultin MS RDN LDN, a Chicago-based integrative oncology dietitian
“Research has found that foods that have added plant sterols or phytosterols can help lower cholesterol levels, so this isn’t an additive I worry about consuming. It’s actually something I might recommend to someone with high cholesterol.” – Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics