A recent study found that nearly 60% of packaged food bought by American households contains artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners.
Food additives are substances incorporated into food to improve appearance, flavor, texture, or shelf life. However, some of these compounds may have adverse health effects.
For example, food additives, such as nitrites, have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, and artificial colors are associated with neurobehavioral symptoms in children. Moreover, food additives, such as aspartame, may contribute to anxiety-like behavior, weight gain, and obesity.
Because of these potential concerns, scientists from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill sought to examine the number of additive-containing foods Americans purchase at grocery stores and whether that amount has changed. Their research appears in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The team gathered information on food purchases in United States households to conduct the study using Nielsen Homescan Consumer Panel data collected in 2001 and 2019. The Nielsen Homescan panel is an ongoing national longitudinal survey in which participating families record all purchases by scanning the product’s UPC with a handheld scanning device.
After gathering the data, the researchers focused on four food additive types — flavors, preservatives, non-nutritive sweeteners, and color additives.
They then matched the UPS scans to food products and searched for the product’s ingredients in commercial nutrition databases.
The team found that between 2001 and 2019, the percentage of food products containing additives purchased by U.S. households increased from 49.6% to 59.5%. Moreover, while the number of artificially flavored carbonated soft drink purchases decreased in that timeframe, the proportion of purchased foods that contained artificial sweeteners increased.
Moreover, the data showed a 20% increase in purchases of additive-containing baby foods and a 15% increase in food purchases that contained three or more additives.
The research team concludes that despite a decrease in artificially flavored soft drink purchases, U.S. households are buying more additive-containing food now than in years past.
However, the study authors say their research has some limitations. For example, the data did not include food bought at fast-food restaurants. In addition, the team didn’t examine each ingredient to determine if it also had additives. The authors suggest that because of these limitations, their study may have underestimated the number of additives purchased by U.S. families.
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