Are Food Additives Really Safe

Updated at: Jan 16, 2013
Are Food Additives Really Safe

Food additives are used for preserving and enhancing taste of food. Salt, sugar, spices and baking soda are some of the safe food preservatives. 

Dr Poonam Sachdev
Exercise & FitnessWritten by: Dr Poonam SachdevPublished at: Jan 16, 2013


When we buy food products most of us do not bother to read the ingredients and even if we read do we really know what exactly is alpha-tocopherol? Ascorbic acid? Sodium nitrite? Do you really know how do these food additives affect you?


Food Additives: What Are They?


A "food additive" is a substance that is added to a food product during production, processing, or storage. The additive can be a natural product like salt used to preserve or sugar used to sweeten or manufactured product like a color or dye to enhance appearance or taste. Food additives can be vitamins or minerals as well that are used to fortify foods. All the additives whether it is used as a preservative or to enhance appearance or taste or to fortify food it has to be approved for use by the Food Laws and the rules made for ensuring safety of food by the Government of India’s Ministry of Health under the provisions of Prevention of Food Adulteration Act & Rules.


Regulations for Food Additives

Any new food additive has to pass rigorous toxicity studies, including acute and chronic studies involving biochemical evaluation, teratogenic studies, reproductive studies besides the LD50 tests before it is approved for use. In India food safety is the responsibility of Government of India’s Ministry of Health under the provisions of Prevention of Food Adulteration Act & Rules. The legislation called "Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954" was drafted for this purpose.


Any new additive has to tested before being approved for use but food additives which have been in used in cooking for ages like salt, sugar, spices, and baking soda are “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” and do not need testing.

Food Additives: Guaranteed Safety?


Most of the food additives in use are safe—but this is not absolute for all the additives and every one of us. With time newer discoveries are being made and this can change the perception about an additive. Like sulfites were commonly used to prevent discoloration and spoilage in fresh foods. But reports of adverse reaction to sulfites has lead to the ban of it’s use on fresh products in the USA by the FDA.


Most food additives are safe for most people most of the time. But some people may develop adverse reaction to it. This is especially possible if you consume it in large amounts.


Some, additives like ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) are good for health. Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is often added to beverages or meat--it can help to reduce the severity of colds. Alpha-tocopherol or vitamin E is added to oils - it prevents the oil from becoming rancid. Vitamin E has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.


Food Additives: What to Watch Out for


Most food additives are known to be safe for most people most of the time. But you should avoid certain additives and consume most in moderation. Like too much salt can increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, where as excessive sugar can lead to tooth decay, and obesity. According to some experts on nutrition you should avoid sodium nitrite, saccharin, caffeine, olestra, acesulfame K, and all artificial coloring. You should limit your intake of food products with food additives. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fresh poultry and fish as much as possible

Food Poisoning

Food poisoning occurs due to consumption of contaminated and unsafe food. Millions of people are affected by food poisoning worldwide every year. Infection with food borne organisms can be without symptoms or it can cause acute illness like diarrheal diseases or even a life-threatening problem. Food poisoning is caused by consumption of food or water contaminated with bacteria, parasites, viruses, or toxins made by these germs.



Food poisoning can be caused by several different diseases and it may affect only a few or all the people who eat the contaminated food. The common causes of food poisoning are infection by bacteria, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, and botulism.


The germs can contaminate the food in different ways:

  • Meat or poultry may get contaminated with the bacteria present in the intestines of the animal that is being processed
  • Water used for growing the food or shipping may be contaminated with  manure or human waste
  • While handling or preparing food at restaurants, picnics or homes


Food poisoning mostly occurs after eating or drinking:

  • Any food prepared by someone who hands are dirty or contaminated with germs
  • Any food prepared using cooking utensils, cutting boards, and other tools that are not cleaned well
  • Dairy products or food containing mayonnaise which have not been refrigerated or stored properly
  • Frozen or refrigerated foods which have not been refrigerated or stored properly or which are not reheated properly
  • Raw fish, or oysters,
  • Raw fruits or vegetables which are not washed properly
  • Undercooked meat, poultry or eggs
  • Water from well or stream, or tap water that has not been treated properly

Common organisms that cause food poisoning are;

  • E. coli enteritis
  • Salmonella
  • Shigella
  • Many different viruses
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Botulism (Clostridium botulinum)
  • Campylobacter enteritis
  • Cholera
  • Fish poisoning
  • Listeria
  • Yersinia


People at higher risk of food poisoning are;

  • Infants and elderly
  • Who have serious medical condition, such as kidney disease or diabetes
  • Who have a weakened immune system


If you are pregnant or are breastfeeding be careful to avoid food poisoning.




You may develop the symptoms of food poisoning with in 2- 6 hours of eating the food or after a number of days  - depending on the cause of the food poisoning.


Some common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Diarrhea (it can be bloody)
  • Fever with or without chills
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness, or fatigue


Exams and Tests


Your doctor will take a detailed history (like history of eating out recently) and will examine you for signs of food poisoning. In most cases the diagnosis can be made clinically. If needed, your doctor will do tests to diagnose the cause of food poisoning. Your doctor may do

  • Blood tests
  • Tests on Leftover food, Stool or Vomit


In many cases even the tests may not be able to diagnose the cause of food poisoning.


Some people with serious infections may need specialized tests like

  • Sigmoidoscopy: A procedure in which a thin, tube-like tool is placed in the anus to find out the source of bleeding or infection
  • Electromyography: In this test the electric impulses in the muscles are tested to confirm botulism
  • Lumbar puncture: In this test fluid from the spine is tested if you have signs of nervous system dysfunction




Most people recover from food poisoning within a couple of days. The aim of treatment is to make you feel better and prevent dehydration.


  • Avoid eating solid foods until your diarrhea has stopped
  • Do not eat dairy products, as they can worsen the diarrhea and abdominal pain and cramps (due to temporary lactose intolerance).
  • Drink plenty of fluids like electrolyte solution, coconut water, (but avoid milk or caffeinated beverages) to prevent dehydration and replace fluids lost by diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Children should be given electrolyte solutions as recommended by WHO.


Some people with severe diarrhea and vomiting may need to be admitted in a hospital to replace fluids lost by diarrhea and vomiting through a vein (by IV). Most people with food poisoning do not need antibiotics. Avoid self medications with drugs to stop diarrhea purchased from a drugstore. If your symptoms are due to toxins from mushrooms or shellfish you will need to be admitted in a hospital.


Outlook (Prognosis)


Most people fully recover from the most common types of food poisoning within 12 - 48 hours. Serious complications can arise, however, from certain types of food poisoning.


Possible Complications

The commonest complication of food poisoning is dehydration due to diarrhea and vomiting.


Other complications that can occur include;

  • Arthritis (due to Yersinia and Salmonella infection)
  • Bleeding disorders (infection due to E. coli and others)
  • Death (due to mushrooms, certain fish poisonings, or botulism)
  • Kidney problems (secondary to infection with Shigella, E. coli)
  • Nervous system disorders (secondary to Botulism, or Campylobacter infection)
  • Pericarditis (due to Salmonella infection)

When to Contact a Medical Professional


Consult a doctor if;

  • Your diarrhea or vomiting last for more than 2 - 3 days
  • Your stool contains blood
  • You have severe diarrhea or vomiting
  • You have high fever (101°F)
  • You develop signs of dehydration like excessive thirst, dizziness, light-headedness




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