Deciphering food labels can be an arduous task.

Numerous additives are found in foods to enhance flavors, increase shelf life and make foods visually appealing. Thiamin mononitrate or citric acid may sound concerning, but are merely vitamins B1 and C.

Conversely, “natural flavors” can include MSG and aspartame. Knowing what food additives to avoid can make label reading a bit easier.

Here are 5 common food additives to spot and remove from your diet:

Hydrogenated Oils

When oils are hydrogenated, their molecular structure changes. This process makes oil take on a solid state at room temperature instead of a liquid one. Food manufacturers use such oils because they increase the shelf life of products, but unfortunately they wreak havoc in your body.

Hydrogenated oils or trans fats are being blamed for numerous health problems, and are linked with heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Trans fats have even been shown to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) in the blood, and also lower HDL (good cholesterol).

These fats are found in a wide variety of products, including fried foods, crackers, cookies, chips and even salad dressing and are listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the list of ingredients.

Food Dyes

Although natural dyes have been used for hundreds of year, synthetic dyes were invented around the turn of the last century. Today, 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes are added to food each year.

“These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit group the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.”

Found in anything from candy to cereal to ice cream, food dyes are widespread but are easy to spot in a label. Look for names such as red 3, red 40 and yellow 5.


This artificial sweetener marketed under the names NutraSweet and Equal has been controversial since before it was even introduced to the market, and the controversy continues to this day. Aspartame is linked to various forms of cancer, including leukemia, breast cancer and tumors in rodents. A Harvard study linked aspartame with a slight increase in cancer in men, while Danish and Norwegian studies each linked the sweetener to preterm delivery of babies.

Aspartame is found in more than 6,000 products, including soft drinks, gum, dessert mixes, puddings, yogurt and even some pharmaceuticals.

Caramel Coloring

This widely used coloring is found in hues ranging from yellow to black. It is made from heating a sugar compound, often with ammonia, alkalis or acids. When ammonia is used, caramel coloring contains contaminants 2- and 4-methylimidazole, which are possible human carcinogens.

Colas and other ammonia-caramel-colored beverages are the most concerning because they can contain large amounts of 4-mthylimidazole, while soy and Worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavored products, baked goods and other foods may contain smaller amounts.

Potassium Bromate

This agent is commonly used in commercial baking to improve the consistency of dough. Lab tests have shown this additive to be carcinogenic in rodents, making it a possible human carcinogen.

Although it has been outlawed in the much of the world, including the European Union, Canada and China, it is still legal in the United States in small quantities. Some brands of flour, bakery chains and restaurants voluntarily use non-bromated flour.

Bread and pizza crust commonly contain potassium bromate, so look for “potassium bromate” or “bromated flour” on the ingredients lists of baked goods and breads, and avoid products that contain them.

Feature image courtesy of Brian Talbot

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.