Nutrition Series Part 3: Elimination of Harmful Food Additives

By Jennie Shafer / a couple of years ago

Nutrition Series Part 3: Elimination of Harmful Food Additives


(Originally this post included discussion on eliminating both sugar and food additives, but the deeper I got into the research, the more I realized each one needs it’s own commentary. So keep your eyes open for the sugar elimination article and do your best to absorb the craziness that is food additives!)

Part 1: Gluten Free, Casein Free Diet
Part 2: Sensitive Six Elimination Diet

What are food additives?

A food additive is a substance added to food to enhance its flavor or appearance or to preserve it. Not all food additives are harmful! Our ancestors utilized salt to preserve meats, added spices to make food more flavorful and preserved fruits and veggies with sugar and vinegar.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cites three main reasons for why food additives are used:

  1. To Maintain or Improve Safety and Freshness
  2. To Maintain or Improve Nutritional Value
  3. To Improve Taste, Texture and Appearance.

Direct vs Indirect

There are 2 primary types of additives; direct and indirect. “Direct food additives are those that are added to a food for a specific purpose in that food. For example, xanthan gum -used in salad dressings, chocolate milk, bakery fillings, puddings and other foods to add texture – is a direct additive. Most direct additives are identified on the ingredient label of foods.”

Indirect food additives are those that become part of the food in trace amounts due to its packaging, storage or other handling. For instance, minute amounts of packaging substances may find their way into foods during storage. Food packaging manufacturers must prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that all materials coming in contact with food are safe before they are permitted for use in such a manner.”

Certain food additives are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), specifically those in use before 1958, including spices, baking soda, etc, things that have been in use for centuries.

What are color additives?

There are also color additives that can be added to food to regulate, change, improve or enhance the color of the food or drink. The FDA handles tracking these as well and making sure they are safe for human use.

Certified colors are synthetically produced and there are 9 currently approved for use in the USA which must be specified on food labels. This list includes:

  1. Blue 1
  2. Blue 2
  3. Green 3
  4. Red 3
  5. Red 40
  6. Yellow 5
  7. Yellow 6
  8. Orange B
  9. Citrus Red 2

The italicized dyes are illegal outside of the US.

Exempt colors are made from natural sources such as a red/blue from dehydrated beets, or a red/green from grape skins. These do not have to be identified on labels.

Banned additives

Okay, great, so the FDA has a handle on all this mumbo-jumbo right? Wrong. Many of these food and color additives that are allowed in the USA are outlawed around the world. The three most widely used dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6) are ‘contaminated with known carcinogens’ *cancer causers* and are banned around the world.

Most of these additives are banned secondary to evidence of birth defects, toxicity, hyperactivity, tumors and cancers in animal testing. Food dyes are also known to cause migraines, headaches and mood swings. For a list of other banned additives, click here.

Why should I cut them from my child’s diet?

Try to avoid:

  • Nitrites and nitrates; which are linked to gastric cancers even though the FDA labels them GRAS
  • Sulfites; if sensitive to them, can cause respiratory distress
  • Sorbic acid; linked to respiratory distress, immune response (itching, running eyes)
  • Dyes; specifically Yellow Dye number 5, as it is linked with respiratory problems and has been for over 30 years.
  • Sodium benzoate; linked with hyperactivity and can react with other additives to form a cancer causing substance
  • Propyl paraben; an endocrine disruptor, meaning it messes with hormones
  • Cultured dextrose; known to cause insomnia, irritability and fatigue
  • Parabens; an endocrine disruptor
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG); linked to a wide variety of health problems including, hyperactivity, migraines, behavioral problems, hives, and neuro-toxicity.
  • Aspartame; migraines, behavioral issues, cancer, poor reaction to psychiatric medications, etc
  • Propyl Gallate; stomach and skin irritability, kidney and liver disruption, cancer
  • Alginate; bloating, diarrhea, nausea
  • Bromates; linked to cancer and can disrupt genetic material within cells

Y’all, this is just a teensy tiny fraction of the negative effects documented from harmful additives.

We know that children with the 4 A’s are prone to food sensitivities and their bodies struggle to appropriately detox with help. So while some of these preservatives and colors are not harmful in small doses, the buildup is what will cause harm. This type of elimination diet can cause confusion because you may have before believed your child to be reactive to certain foods, when in fact, he/she was reactive to an additive or a dye found in the food.

One study noted that additives and dyes “appear to be more of a public health problem than an ADHD problem”, which succinctly sums it up.


There is a growing body of evidence including scientific studies and personal accounts from parents and children of how artificial colors can cause hyperactivity. Many parents report their child becomes a different person after being exposed to certain food dyes and preservatives. Wild mood swings are a typical response to several of these dyes. The FDA reports on their website that the evidence is inconclusive, but does admit SOME children may have a reduction in hyperactivity if these products are removed from their diet.

There is so much research, so much evidence indicating how awful these chemicals are for you, that it has been hard for me to be comprehensive and clear. If we, as neuro-typical adults should not be having these products, why would we give them to our compromised children?

I could not find definitive percentages on reduction of symptoms after families eliminated these foods, possibly because there is such a wide variety of symptoms and health factors that are involved.

How to cut these foods?

Thankfully, this may be the easiest part, but one that will need long term vigilance. Just like with the GFCF diet and the Sensitive Six elimination diet, you will have to become a food label critic. Every item needs to be scrutinized and inspected. Look for labels that say “nitrite-free”, “additive-free”, but make sure you read the label. You will see a difference in your child’s performance and behaviors, but one slip up can bring ‘the beast’ back.



About the author

Jennie Shafer

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