What Are the Pros and Cons of Food Additives?

Although food additives can improve the appearance, taste, safety, nutritional quality or shelf life of foods, they sometimes affect health adversely by causing reactions in sensitive individuals. Used in far larger amounts than are common in foods, some additives may even cause cancer.

Food additives play an important role in the enjoyment of food and in food safety. For example, breakfast cereals contain additives that increase their nutritional value. Additives added to meats help retard spoilage, thereby protecting consumers against illness due to bacteria and other pathogens. In addition, additives enhance the flavor of prepared foods by imparting saltiness or sweetness. Thickeners, stabilizers, emusifiers and other additives give prepared foods a pleasing texture and consistency.

Relatively few individuals are adversely affected by food additives. Among those who do have sensitivities, side effects may include digestive upset; sleeplessness and agitation; respiratory problems such as asthma; and hives, itching and other skin issues.

In the U.S., food additives are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA approves additives used in the nation's food supply after evaluating them for safety. Safety determinations are based on the additives' composition, the amount likely to be ingested, and the additives' possible effects on long-term health.