Food Additives: What Are You Eating?

As Americans continue to search for ways to lose weight and improve their dailydiet, they’re beginning to scrutinize food labels for nutrition information.  The amount of calories, carbs, fats and protein found in foods has become an integral part of the food purchasing process. But what about the ingredient list? Flavor additives, sugar substitutes and protein enhancers often look like foreign words scattered amidst a list of somewhat identifiable ingredients. In this article, we’ll take a look a few of the more common food additives, their function in food and whether or not they’re safe to consume.

Ingredients Used in Food Flavoring

Flavor enhancing ingredients are added to foods to intensify or bring out more of a food’s natural flavors. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), autolyzed yeast extracts and maltodextrin are three of the most common flavor enhancing ingredients on the market.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer best known for its use in Chinese food, but also widely used in other types of food. MSG is generally recognized as safe, but some people do not metabolize the additive well. This causes a buildup of MSG in the bloodstream and is responsible for what’s known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’.  Symptoms of this syndrome include burning or tingling of the face and chest, perspiration, excessive abdominal cramping, dizziness and headaches. People who have problems with MSG should avoid foods containing the additive as well as foods with hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP) for reasons to be discussed shortly.

Autolyzed Yeast Extracts are all natural flavor-enhancing ingredients. The autolyzation process is the partial breakdown of yeast cells by their own enzymes to create a partially non-soluble flavor enhancer. It is often used in meats and baked goods to produce a roasted, toasted or grilled flavor. There are no known side effects to eating autolyzed yeast extracts, but if a person is allergic to yeast, it’s best to avoid foods containing these extracts.

Maltodextrin is a flavoring agent made from natural cornstarch in a process known as partial hydrolysis that breaks the starch into smaller polymers. As a safeguard for people with food allergies and sensitivities, the FDA requires all maltodextrin in the U.S. to be produced using only corn or potato.

Maltodextrin is used in a wide variety of products to increase the shelf life of sweets, prevent granulation, give foods a powdery appearance, act as a ‘filler’ ingredient, prevent melting, lower sweetness, change taste of a food, and in beverages to enhance the natural smell and reduce nutrient loss. It is also used in cosmetics to enhance skin luster and elasticity. However, due to maltodextrin’s extremely high glycemic index, diabetics and hypoglycemic individuals should monitor their consumption.

Protein Bioavability Enhancers

Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP) or Hydrolyzed Plant Protein (HPP) is added to foods to make protein more bioavailable. Hydrolyzed protein is often used in protein supplements, as emulation stabilizers and foaming aids in a variety of personal care products.

The hydrolyization process breaks protein down into individual amino acids, which are then quickly absorbed by the body once ingested, a plus for bodybuilders and athletes.  However, in this case, there is a small catch. During digestion, the chemical reaction that occurs in the body when breaking down HPP and HVP sometimes results in the formulation of glutamate. This glutamate may join with free sodium to form MSG. People sensitive to MSG may then experience symptoms synonymous with ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. Unfortunately for MSG-sensitive people, foods with HVP and HPP do not need to list MSG as an ingredient because the MSG is created once the food is ingested.  To be safe, HVP and HPP should not be consumed if someone is sensitive to MSG.


High Oleic Safflower Oil is produced when scientists engineer the safflower seed to contain greater amounts of oleic acid than lineolic acid. The result is an oil containing high levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, a great alternative to oils high in saturated fat.

High Lineolic Safflower Oil is an unrefined cooking oil produced by natural safflower seeds. High lineolic safflower oil contains high amounts of polyunsaturated fat and is a great source of the essential fatty acid, lineolic acid.

Both high oleic safflower oil and high lineolic safflower oil are primarily used in foods such as heart healthy margarines, salad dressings, fried foods, and baby food. Both oils can also be found in massage oils and cosmetics.

Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Oils are trans fats that have the same cholesterol raising effect that saturated fats do. So what is hydrogenation? Hydrogenation is a synthetic process that involves heating an oil and passing hydrogen bubbles through it. Fatty acids in the oil pick up the hydrogen. The more hydrogen is picked up, the denser the oil becomes. Fully hydrogenated oils are solid at room temperature; partially hydrogenated oils are less solid, like margarine and shortening.  Cheaper than butter, but containing a rich texture and consistency, partially hydrogenated oils are used as a substitute for butter by thousands of food manufacturers.

However, research is proving that the dangers of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils far outweigh any possible benefits for consumption. Not only have they been proven to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, they can also decrease HDL (good) cholesterol. Studies have even shown that the negative effect on blood cholesterol levels when consuming trans fats is twice that of consuming similar amounts of saturated fat.

The FDA allows a claim of ‘0 grams of Trans Fat’ to appear on food labels as long as the amount of trans fat is below .5 grams per serving.  When in doubt, it’s best to read the label and determine what you’re really consuming. In addition, it’s important to keep the total amount of fat consumed to 30% or less of the daily caloric intake, with 10% or less coming from saturated fat and/or trans fats.

Natural Sweeteners

Sorbitol is a natural sugar found in peaches, pears, apple juice, plums, and prunes. It is also added to dietetic jam, sugarless gum, and chocolate. The body poorly metabolizes sorbitol and if a person eats an overabundance of food with sorbitol, they may experience gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Interestingly enough, some doctors are finding that infants who drink fruit juices high in sorbitol tend to suffer from constant stomach aches and diarrhea. Reduce the amount of juice and, in most cases, the problem goes away.

Fructose is the natural sugar found in fruits and vegetables. It can also be added to foods as a sweetener.

Sucrose is table sugar.

Artificial Sweeteners

Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup. Corn syrup or corn sweetener is formed when corn is treated with certain enzymes (hydrolyzed) to produce a synthetic honey. When fructose is added to the hydrolyzed corn syrup, the end product is high fructose corn syrup.

Saccharin is one of the more controversial sweeteners of our time. Used in Sweet’n Low, saccharin is a sugar substitute 300 times sweeter than sugar. For many years, it was widely believed that saccharin could cause bladder cancer, but those findings were later refuted. In May 2000, the FDA took saccharin off of the list of potential cancer-causing agents.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener 180 times sweeter than sugar and is generally recognized as safe. Found in Equal and Nutrasweet, it is used in a wide variety of foods and beverages such as diet sodas. Unfortunately, aspartame is not safe for everyone.  Research shows that it is a known trigger for migraine headaches and may cause dizziness, shakiness, and diminished vision in susceptible people. There is a rare hereditary disease known as phenylketonuria that affects approximately 15,000 people in the United States. Since aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid that phenylketonurics don’t have the proper enzyme to break down, abnormally high levels of the amino acid will accumulate in the body. If left untreated, PKU can lead to severe brain and neurological damage.

Sucralose, (Splenda) is a derivative of sugar that’s 300 to 1,000 times sweeter than sugar, yet extremely low in calories.  To produce sucralose, chlorine is added to normal sugar to change sugar’s chemical structure. Although approved by the FDA, no long-term studies have been done on this relatively new sugar substitute. The few studies that have been done on sucralose show that it may not be the safest thing to ingest. Acesulfame-K (potassium) (Sunett) is a high-intensity sweetener, 200 times sweeter than sugar, that’s often used in baked goods because it doesn’t break down when heated. Similar in structure to saccharin, it is also used in more than 4,000 foods worldwide. Since it is safe for all populations and its calorie contribution is negligible, acesulfame-K is a good sugar substitution.

Neotame is a sugar substitute 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. Similar in structure to aspartame, it does not pose a risk for people suffering from PKU. Neotame can be used in cooking, baking and as a table sweetener. Approved by the FDA in 2002, many food and beverage manufacturers are working to incorporate neotame in their foods.

Sugar Alcohols: Not Technically Sweeteners, but Used to Sweeten Foods

Malitol, sugar alcohol, is a low calorie sugar substitute derived from Malt extract and is used as a low calorie sweetener to sweeten no-sugar products. Lower in calories than regular sugar, about 2.6 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohols are technically not considered sugar or alcohol.

Other sugar alcohols include: sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH), erythritol, and mannitol. One word of caution, sugar alcohols have been known to cause bloating, gas and diarrhea in some people, especially when consumed in large amounts.

Increasing awareness of what’s in the foods you eat can help to improve your health and may lead to greater successes at the gym. So, the next time you go to the grocery store, pick up a box of your favorite cereal, protein bar, or sugar-free drink and check the label. You might be surprised to discover what’s in it.

Works Cited

1. Ascherio, Alberto, Stampfer, Meir J, Willett, Walter C. Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health; The Channing Laboratory, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Trans Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease.  Copyright, 1999, President and Fellows of Harvard College. Access Date: 1-21-04.
2. Berglund, Duane R, Riveland, Neil, Bergman, Jerald. Safflower Production, . Access Date: 12-20-03.
3. Carper, Jean. Food: Your Miracle Medicine – Preventing and Curing Common Health Problems the Natural Way, Harper Paperbacks – HarperCollins. Copyright 1993 Jean Carper.
4. Chocolate Source Glossary. Access Date: 12-14-03.
5. Frequently Asked Questions: Natural Flavorings on Meat and Poultry Labels, Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture.
6. Kaplan, Phil. The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners. Copyright 1996-2004 Access Date: 12-10-03.
7. Lichtenstein, Alice H, Jauhiainen, Matti, McGladdery, Sandra, Ausman, Lynne M, Jalbert, Susan, Vilella-Bach Montserrat, Ehnholm, Christian, Frohlich, Jerry, Schaefer, Ernest J, Impact of Hydrogenated Fat on High-Density Lipoprotein Subfractions and Metabolism. TekTran, USDA, Agricultural Research Service, 2-12-02. Access Date: 12-15-03.
8. Margen, Sheldon, M.D., Ogar, Dale A. The Not-So-Sweet Side Effects of Artificial Sweetners, ThirdAge Health, Copyright 2002 Sheldon Margen and Dale Ogar.


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.