Although many of the 3,000 natural and synthetic food additives approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration enhance our food supply, others are linked to potentially dangerous health problems. Use the information in this chart to identify, understand, and perhaps avoid the most common additives.

—Elaine Gavalas

Additive

Also known as

What it is

Health concern

Artificial colors

Coloring agent, color, Citrus Red or Red No. 2, Brilliant Blue or Blue No. 1, Sunset Yellow or Yellow No. 6,and others

Synthetic dyes (including coal-tar dyes) found in most processed foods and many drugs. These dyes correct and enhance food colors.

Studies have linked artificial colors with behavior and learning problems in sensitive children. One of the most common colors, Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine), is associated with allergic reactions and conditions. A small risk of cancer and tumors is associated with certain dyes, such as Red No. 3.

Aspartame

NutraSweet, Equal

Low-calorie sugar substitute found in diet foods, such as soft drinks, gum, and candy.

Studies have linked aspartame to headaches, depression, nausea, and sleep disorders.

BHA, BHT

Butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene

Preservatives that prevent dietary fats and oils found in baked goods, candy, and breakfast cereals from going rancid.

High doses may be carcinogenic.

MSG

Monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), natural flavorings

Enhances flavor of meat and other foods.

In sensitive individuals, MSG can cause nausea, headaches, and difficulty breathing.

Sulfites

Sodium sulfite, potassium bisulfite

Preservative found in dried fruits, processed potatoes, seafood, wines, and beer that prevents discoloration and spoilage.

In sensitive individuals, sulfites can cause allergic and asthmatic reactions, including hives and breathing difficulty. People allergic to aspirin or with asthma should avoid.

—E.G.