How Do Food Additives Affect Your Body?

Food additives are compounds that are added to foods for industrial purposes. They are used to preserve the food, or to improve properties like taste, smell, or texture. They aren't nutrients, and they don't have any nutritional value.
How Do Food Additives Affect Your Body?
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines food additives as substances added to foods to maintain or improve their safety, texture, freshness, flavor, or appearance. People have used some additives, like salt, for centuries. Many cultures have used salt throughout history to preserve foods. However, other food additives were introduced with the rise of the modern industry. Read this article to find out how food additives affect your body.

Using food additives is justified, in principle, by the technological need. The main goal is to guarantee the proper preservation of foods with regard to their nutritional quality, or to stabilize them.

Nevertheless, companies add these compounds to make the flavor or appearance of some products more attractive. In any case, at least in theory, food manufacturers should always respect the recommendations of organizations like the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Classification of food additives

Food additives come from different sources. Some of them are extracted from vegetables, others from animals or minerals, and there’s a group that’s produced synthetically. Nowadays, the food industry uses thousands of these substances, which they add to foods for specific purposes.

The WHO and FAO group these compounds into three large categories:

  • Flavorings: substances added to improve flavor or fragrance.
  • Enzyme preparations: these are natural proteins that catalyze chemical reactions and can’t be in the final food product.
  • Other additives: these are used to add color or to sweeten.
Person at grocery store with shopping list.
The food industry uses additives to process the foods we buy in supermarkets.

Health risks of food additives

Every country has specialized organizations dedicated to analyzing the impact of food additives on people’s health. On an international level, the WHO and FAO are in charge of this task. For this purpose, they formed the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

In order to know how food additives affect your body, they start with an allowable daily amount. This is the amount of additive present in food or water that a person can consume per day, without seeing any health effects.

Determining the risks

The risks you can be exposed to when you eat food additives are listed in the Codex system. To build and publish any Codex, you have to involve several intergovernmental agencies that analyze the risks of each case and make a list, in addition to rules, directives, and recommendations.

The first step to evaluate risks is to identify the dangers. Scientists look at these  from a toxicological point of view.

After these analyses, scientists then determine the additives a person can consume per day, related to body weight, without causing risks for their health. After that, they classify the risks.

Most known adverse reactions

Food additives can cause different adverse reactions. This is especially the case when they’re used illegally, without being subject to the controls of regulatory agencies. These reactions are organized into three large groups:

  • Allergic reactions: these are due to an immunological response. The substance that most commonly causes allergic reactions are dyes.
  • Non-immunological intolerance or idiosyncrasy: these have to do with an unidentified intolerance that the person who consumes them has.
  • Endocrine or neurotoxicity disruptors: when substances interfere with the synthesis or release of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Ingredients on box listing different food additives.
There are governmental organizations to regulate the food additives used.

Physical manifestations of the adverse effects of food additives

There are a series of manifestations or diseases linked to these adverse reactions. The following list is a compilation and is not complete, nor conclusive, about the adverse effects of these substances.

The most well-known effects are:

  • Respiratory conditions like asthma and rhinitis: in general, the effects of dyes on your central nervous system cause these problems.
  • Skin problems like hives or contact dermatitis: these afflictions are mostly related to preservatives and dyes.
  • Changes to your central nervous system and endocrine system.

Things to keep in mind

There are food additives in the vast majority of the food we eat and buy every day. Therefore, we should take the time to look at the ingredients in our purchases, and in that way we’ll know if a recognized organization approves them. If you think that you’ve had an allergic reaction to a food, then the best thing is to see a medical professional.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Núñez, M. (2015). Guía completa de aditivos alimentarios. RBA Libros.
  • Ibáñez, F., Paloma Torre, and A. Irigoyen. “Aditivos alimentarios.” Área de Nutrición y Bromatología, Universidad Pública de Navarra (2003): 3-5.
  • Kraser, Rocío Belén, and Sandra Analía Hernández. “Colorantes alimentarios y su relación con la salud:¿ cómo abordar esta problemática desde el estudio de las disoluciones?.” Revista Eureka sobre Enseñanza y Divulgación de las Ciencias (2020): 1202-1202.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.