Mmmm…Additives. My Favourite!

What the Monoisopropyl Citrate is Polyvinylpyrrolidone? And are you really going to eat something that you can’’t even pronounce?

The Challenge

Go into your pantry or refrigerator and pull out any boxed item, dessert item, or any other item that is flavoured (i.e. salad dressing, sauces, etc.) Now look at the label and see how many ingredients you either can’’t pronounce or don’’t recognize. You know, all those ones that look like they might hurt your tongue if you try to say them out loud.

Surprising, isn’’t it? Who knew that there was disodium ethylene diamine tetra-acetate (EDTA) in a can of chick peas? Or that guar gum was in a box of spaghetti? These are just two examples of food additives used to make food last longer, look more appealing and taste better.

So What’s the Big Deal?

If those additives are making the food better, who cares if you can’’t pronounce it, right? Well, the name is only the beginning. What makes up that name could be an entire laboratory of chemicals. For example, Health Canada allows 32 different food additives to be labeled only as “colour” on an ingredients list. And that is just for colour additives! There are also additives used to stabilize, emulsify, soften, sweeten, preserve, texturize: the list goes on. The bottom line is that the average person in North America ingests approximately 68 kilograms (150lbs) of food additives a year! Holy magnesium silicate, Batman!

But what can all these additives do? Well, that’s where everything gets a little hazy. Health Canada’’s Bureau of Chemical Safety determines what additives are put in our food and whether they’’re safe. But even just a little research (from reliable sources) will produce results that conflict with Health Canada’’s approval list.

One prime example is tartrazine, a yellow dye found in a wide variety of products, everything from cereals to coloured cheeses. Remember, cheddar cheese isn’’t bright orange when it comes from the cow! Countries like Norway have banned tartrazine after studies found immunosuppressive, carcinogenic and behavioural side-effects.

What Can You Do About It?

So if Health Canada’’s approval doesn’’t guarantee safety, what can you do to limit the amount of additives you ingest? It’’s not easy, to be sure. But as a start, you can try limiting the amount of boxed items that you buy. Frozen dinners, many cereals and instant soups contain additives you don’’t need.

Secondly, try to remember to read ingredient labels before you buy. If an ingredient appears that you can’’t pronounce or have never heard of, write it down and do some research when you get home.

These quick tips will not only reduce the amount of additives you ingest, but will limit your sodium and bad fat intake, both of which are common in boxed foods. Now get out to the grocery store and start filling that pantry back up! Only this time you’’ll know what you’re putting in there!

Author Image

John Reid

John Reid is a University of Calgary Faculty of Kinesiology graduate and Precision Nutrition Certified Sports Nutritionist. When he’s not rowing for the Calgary Row Club you’ll find him enjoying every possible second in the mountains hiking, trail running and road cycling.

Outside of sports, John is involved with the Branch Out Neurological Foundation, a local non-profit charitable organization dedicated to fundraising for new and alternative forms of treatment for neurological disorders.


  1. While I agree that some additives are not so good health-wise, many are very necessary.  Without additives, specifically preservatives, food poisoning would be commonplace.  Yes, you don’t need it in your loaf of bread if you’ll eat it all in a few days, but that jar of jam on the shelf had better have preservatives in it or you’re taking a huge risk with that toast in the morning.  Same goes for canned foods.  Botulism anyone?  There’s a reason we don’t hear of many people dying of food poisoning and botulism these days. 

    The “pronounciation test” also doesn’t work.  Cyanide and methanol are quite easy to pronounce, but both will kill you quite effectively.  If you don’t get enough (R)-3,4-dihydroxy-5-((S)- 1,2-dihydroxyethyl)furan-2(5H)-one, however, you will die of scurvy.  Thankfully this is added in high quantities to many foods, though, so we don’t worry about scurvy anymore. 

    I do, however, fully support the underlying sentiment in this article – that manufacturers are going overboard and that we need to be aware of what is in our food.  I guess in principle I’m just suggesting that the awareness go beyond the knee-jerk reaction that “chemicals” are bad.  Some are hugely beneficial and their benefits cannot be evaluated by ones ability to pronounce them.  And googling the names – excellent idea, just be cautious of the source. 

  2. Thanks for your comment Matt! I appreciate the response. I do agree with what you’re saying; some food additives can have their place in today’s foods. That said, many people often overlook additive-free options in favour of convenience or habit. For example, perhaps natural honey or peanut butter instead of commercial jams at all?

    You’re correct, the pronunciation test is not foolproof. Like “i before e,” there are exceptions to the rule. However, it does provide an excellent starting ground for someone not familiar with reading ingredient labels, and is a lot easier than memorizing all the additives listed here: Yikes!

    You make a valid point, we cannot simply condemn food additives as harmful, many-syllabled, death-bringers. There is most certainly a middle ground. And we can both agree on the need for due diligence on the part of the consumer. So thank you for the very insightful comment and for justifying all those organic chemistry classes I took!

  3. In response to Matt’s comment; I think
    eating sugar filled, nutrient-dead products like jam is high risk, not avoiding
    carcinogenic chemicals made in laboratories.
    Loved this article!

  4. Great feedback, guys! Thanks for keeping the conversation going, it’s an interesting one for sure.