Ultra-Processed Foods: What You Need to Know About Food Additives

Processed Foods

Beyond the unhealthy amounts of sugar, fat and salt typically found in ultra-processed foods, ingredients often include colourings, flavourings and processing chemicals. Illustration: wildpixel/Getty Images

What’s so bad about ultra-processed foods? They’re convenient, tasty and appealing. 

Unfortunately, it’s often the very ingredients that make them so convenient, tasty and appealing that raise questions.  

Beyond the unhealthy amounts of sugar, fat and salt typically found in ultra-processed foods, ingredients often include colourings, flavourings and processing chemicals. 

California recently banned four potentially dangerous food additives commonly found in soda, baked goods and candies. It was the first state to adopt the bans on additives allowed in the U.S.

Around 12,000 products sold in California contain the four newly banned additives. The ban will go into effect in 2027.  

The four additives are already illegal in Europe but three are still allowed in food in Canada

  • Brominated vegetable oil is allowed in Canada in citrus beverages
  • Potassium bromate, formerly found in baked goods, is banned in Canada
  • Propylparaben is allowed in Canada in some marinades and carbonated citrus beverages
  • Red No.3 dye found in products such as Skittles, frosting, strawberry drink powder and fruit cocktail cups is also allowed in Canada
  • Red No. 3 dye also is found in pink and lavender Peeps, candies that are popular around Easter. After Easter 2024, the manufacturer, Just Born, says the candy will no longer contain red dye No. 3

The California bill banning these additives originally included titanium dioxide. It’s the same chemical pigment used in sunscreen that leaves a white coating on your skin. In food, it’s ubiquitous as a whitening and brightening agent. Titanium dioxide is being phased out of food in Europe but food-grade titanium is allowed in Canada.   

Among other additives banned in Europe but allowed in Canada and the U.S. is the preservative BHT, found in packaged cereals. 

“The approach that California has taken is precautionary. ‘If there’s a chance of harm, don’t take the chance,'” says Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, and prolific author of books about the relevance of science to everyday life. 

“With colour additives that are only of cosmetic value and have no nutritional benefit, that’s not unreasonable. We don’t need them. They’re only used to make nutritionally poor food more attractive.” 

Preservatives, however, do a great deal of good, without a doubt, he says. “You don’t want to eat food that’s contaminated with mold, fungi or bacteria.” The preservatives BHA and BHT, banned in Europe, are still allowed in Canada and the U.S. 


Additives on Canadian and American Grocery Shelves

Schwarcz is reassuring about additives currently found in food on Canadian and American supermarket shelves. “There’s no reason to worry,” he says. “But we should be concerned about eating foods with these additives because they don’t have nutritional value.” 

He explains, “Food is unbelievably complex, containing hundreds of thousands of compounds. We can’t predict exactly what may be hazardous. And we are exposed to so many things in the water we drink and the air we breathe. It’s virtually impossible to tease out what specifically could be harmful.” 

Besides, he adds, “Average life expectancy keeps increasing every year so we can’t be doing that much wrong, although we did have a bit of a setback with COVID.” 


Natural vs. Synthetic

And while there’s a growing trend for people to seek out food with only natural ingredients, Schwarcz says, “This business of natural and synthetic is the biggest myth I have to fight. There’s no equation that says natural is good and synthetic is bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s made by a chemist in a lab or by nature in a plant. Nature is not benign.” 

However, he explains, “The so-called natural dyes, which are extracts of fruits or vegetables, generally are safe because the foods they’re extracted from are safe and natural dyes have a long history of safe use.” 

Also be aware that “natural” also includes insects. For example, cochineal is a tiny cactus-dwelling bug that produces a bright red colour used in textiles, cosmetics and food, including pink lemonade and other foods sold in Canadian supermarkets.

Dr. Schwarcz advises, “Aside from worrying about individual additives, consider the nutritional aspect overall of food. Highly processed food with a long list of additives is not as healthy as oatmeal or stir-fried vegetables. The more highly processed food in the diet, the greater the possibility of health issues. 

“But it’s debatable about exactly what the problem is with that, because those foods are also high in salt, fat and sugar. So it may be more complicated. Processed foods also contain a various emulsifiers and studies have shown that emulsifiers can affect the bacteria in our gut. I would say that you can have a healthy diet and some additives may be part of that. Or, you can have a terrible diet even if additives are avoided.”  

In the end, he says, “Eat an apple. No brominated vegetable oil, no potassium bromate, no propylparaben and no Red dye No. 3.”