Do You Know What is in Your Food? Part 1 of 6

Part 1 – A Synopsis of Common Food Additives, Artificial Sweeteners, Artificial Colors, and Farming Practices

Have you ever wished that you had a dictionary to define the ingredients that are put in the food that you purchase?  It can become overwhelming trying to figure it out on your own.  To give you a helping hand, this article will define what ingredients to avoid when reading food ingredient labels.  We will address these in four categories:  food additives, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and farming practices.

Using these four categories, we will then apply them to each of the common food sections in your grocery store and make some suggestions to help you make healthier purchases, with the guiding principle that the fewer the ingredients in a product the better.


Food Additives

If you take a look at the ingredients label of just about any food in your kitchen pantry, there’s a good chance you’ll find a food additive.  Additives are used to enhance the flavor, appearance or texture of a product or to extend its shelf life.

Some of these substances have been associated with adverse health effects and should be avoided, while others are safe and can be consumed with minimal risk. If you have experienced side effects from any of these additives, it may be beneficial to reduce your intake of them or eliminate them from your diet completely.

MSG:  Flavor enhancer in frozen dinners, salty snacks and canned soups

Xanthum Gum:  Thickener, stabilizer for soups, salad dressings, syrups, sauces

Guar Gum:  High fiber thickener used in ice cream, salad dressings, sauces, soups

Natural Flavors:  Flavors that are extracted from plant or animal sources to enhance taste.  They may or may not contain man-made artificial chemicals

Yeast Extract:  Chemically made, high sodium flavor enhancer found in cheese, soy sauce, and salty snacks

Carrageenan:  Thickener, preservative and emulsifier used in almond milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, coffee creamers, dairy-free products like vegan cheese.  This is a potential carcinogen to humans in its degraded form.

Sodium Nitrates/Nitrites:  Preservative and salty flavor used in processed meats such as ham, sausage, hot dogs, bacon.  Nitrites can turn into nitrosamine, a compound that can have many negative effects on health.  It’s best to keep intake of processed meats to a minimum due to the nitrates used.

Trans Fats:  A saturated fat used to increase shelf life and consistency of products such as baked goods, margarine, microwave popcorn and biscuits.  Examples are mono and diglycerides, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.


Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are used in many diet foods and beverages to enhance sweetness while reducing calorie content.  They may promote weight loss and blood sugar control and yet certain types may cause mild side effects, but they are generally considered safe in moderation.

Common artificial sweeteners:  Maltitol, Aspartame, Sucralose, Splenda, Acesulfame Potassium

In discussing sweetness, it is important to consider the amount of sugar that is added to food products.  One teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams of sugar.  So when reading your nutrition label, look at the total sugars that are added per serving.  Excessive sugar can contribute to dental decay, and inflammation of the GI tract, but without offering any nutritive value to your diet.

Ingredients that indicate sugar on the ingredient list:  cane sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup

Sweeteners that may be more desirable found in food products:  dates, coconut palm sugar, maple sugar, inulin, erythritol (Non-GMO) stevia, and monk fruit.


Artificial Food Colorings

Artificial food coloring is used to brighten and improve the appearance of everything from candies to condiments.  Artificial food coloring may promote hyperactivity and allergic reactions in sensitive children, however more research is needed to evaluate the safety of food dyes.

Regardless, food dyes are primarily found in processed foods.  These should be limited in a healthy diet.  Always opt for whole foods, which are higher in important nutrients and naturally free of artificial food coloring.

Common Food Colorings:  Blue #1, Blue #2, Citrus Red #2, Red #3, Red #40, Green #3, Yellow #5, Yellow #6, Caramel Coloring (a potential carcinogen)


Farming Practices

Organic vs Non-Organic Foods

Today’s farming practices have become diversified.  Depending upon how the crops and farm animals are treated, pesticides or drying agents may have been added to the crops before harvesting and antibiotics or hormones may have been given to farm animals (i.e., chickens, cows).  For instance, glyphosate (Round Up) is used to treat many food products that have been shown to be carcinogenic to humans.

To provide for people that are sensitive to glyphosates, added hormones, and antibiotics, more farmers have switched to practices not using these harmful products, producing organic foods (as opposed to conventional non-organic foods).

Food products that are typically sprayed with glyphosates:  Oats, Corn, Soy, Wheat, Chickpeas, and Lentils (due to the run off on farm crops having glyphosates).  Any products made from these food sources will also have glyphosates in them, e.g., cereals, pastas, and breads.

Common Ingredients added to food products that are made from corn include:  maltodextrin, corn starch, corn meal, corn syrups, canola oil, corn oil and soybean oil.


GMO versus NON-GMO Food Products

A GMO (genetically modified organism) is any organism (plant or animal) whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. This is done to include resistance to certain pests, diseases or environmental conditions or to enhance the nutritional value.  The main concerns around GMO’s involves allergies, cancer and environmental issues – all of which may affect the consumer.  More research needs to be done to determine total health effects.

NON-GMO refers to food products that have not been genetically modified.  A product that is NON-GMO does NOT imply it is organic because it may still have been grown using pesticides, glyphosates and the like.

Organic food products can not use GMO products.  Meaning, cows that produce organic milk can not be fed GMO corn or alfalfa.  Therefore, organic foods are ALWAYS NON-GMO. So for those that have food sensitivities it may be very beneficial to look for food products that are organic, not just the NON-GMO label only.


Next up:  Parts 2 – 6 will examine how these terms apply when you are reading the ingredients lists and food labels of foods within the various sections in the grocery store.


For more information go to:

Food and Drug Administration (

USDA Food Composition Databases

Color additives information

American Dietetic Association (ADA)

Pub Med Central – National Institutes of Health

12 Common Food Additives- Should You Avoid Them?  Rachel Link, MS, RD Updated April 23, 2018

Consumer Advisory About Eating Fish and Shellfish

Bobby Approved:  Your Ultimate Shopping Guide At the Grocery by Bobby Parrish (a compilation of his YouTube videos)



Author: Michelle Hanson

Michelle Hanson, MA, RD, LD is Fresh & Natural Food’s Registered Dietitian. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics with a minor in Community Health from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. She is a registered dietitian and current member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Michelle has been a nutrition consultant for numerous years as well as a nutrition research director at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

Michelle is passionate about food and nutrition and believes in helping people find simple, realistic ways to make healthy eating a part of their everyday lifestyle.
If you are interested in meeting Michelle or have questions for her, you can email her at: She will look forward to meeting you!