Food ingredients

Food additives: what to use and what must be left out

The increase in the number of studies about the impacts of food additives to health and the bigger access to information are making the general public to require more and more 100% natural products that are clean label and free from synthetic ingredients.

The concern about the environment has also become a constant. The use of ingredients obtained in a sustainable way contributes to positive perception of the company by the consumer, which can be reflected in a sales increase.

Considering this, the R&D sector is increasingly pressured not to use the highly-used additives for decades anymore, and seek for new solutions that please the modern consumer without changing the functional and sensory characteristics of their products.

In this post we will discuss some of the additives doomed by doctors, scientists and public opinion and try to answer questions such as: what is so wrong with them? Are there good substitutes? What are those?

The fifth taste makes all the difference

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is already an old acquaintance of all of us.

Widely used in Chinese cuisine, fast food dishes and a wide range of products, it is responsible for giving a unique flavor to the formulations and this flavor is called umami.

Umami is the fifth basic taste of human palate.

The particular taste of products containing umami makes them highly accepted by consumers. But why is this aspect promoted by MSG so special?

When present in foods, MSG activates taste receptors of taste buds. Such signals are sent to the brain, causing the umami’s characteristic sensation.

This makes GMS also to be used as an enhancer, making the product’s flavor much more remarkable.

Although its origin is glutamic acid, which is present in natural sources such as seaweed, some cheeses, fish, among others, GMS is a food additive.

In food labels, terms like sodium caseinate and autolysed yeast may appear as pseudonyms for MSG. In the human body, glutamate receptors are present in abundance in the stomach and intestine, which facilitates the absorption of MSG.

In the intestine, glutamate can be broken down and used for energy production or can be incorporated into other molecules.

Glutamate consumed in the diet is not able to cross the barrier that separates blood from the brain, which is why it is approved by the FDA as a GRAS.

So why has MSG been removed from a large portion of food formulations?

Monosodium glutamate: why to avoid

Recent studies have pointed out some side effects due to the consumption of MSG.

In newborn mice, because of the immaturity of the blood-brain barrier, glutamate consumed in the diet was able to enter the brain, which caused brain damage to them. In another study, ingestion of MSG caused the premature death of a significant number of flies.

Such effects have been observed in studies that used excessive amounts of MSG, which are not allowed by regulatory agencies.


Since it is not mandatory to report on the packaging the amount of MSG in a product, abuses can happen, being harmful to consumers.

In humans, the consumption of Chinese cuisine dishes, rich in GMS, has already been linked to symptoms such as itching, hyperactivity, headaches and swelling of the tongue and throat in some people.

As a consequence of this scenario, MSG received a negative perception by the population, which seeks to prevent the consumption of products containing this additive.

In addition, the quest for reducing sodium in products is a demand in many countries, both by the public and by regulators, and encompasses MSG, as it is a rich sodium ingredient.

Monosodium glutamate substitutes

Substitution of glutamate in various formulations has become a priority. Finding an alternative for such a powerful component is undoubtedly an arduous task. However, in many cases, this change happened successfully.

The umami mediterranean is an alternative to MSG that has low sodium content. The same has already been used for the formulation of ranch sauce, being able to promote a reduction of 30% in the sodium content of the product without changing its characteristic flavor.

The umami mediterranean is a natural additive and clean label.

Another natural alternative for the replacement of MSG is using herbal combinations.

They also stimulate the taste buds, enhancing the taste of the product. Another advantage to the use of herbs is the fact that many of them are rich in antioxidant compounds, which are related to a lower number of cancer diagnosed, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, among other conditions.

Sodium has already been successfully reduced in cheese mozzarella with the use of a saline product extracted from the Dead Sea, mostly composed of magnesium chloride.

Replacement of 50% in sodium content did not change the rheological and sensory characteristics of the product, which was well accepted by consumers.

The complete elimination of MSG in some products can be accomplished with the addition of a natural chicken and pork meat extract. This solution, already available in the market, fulfills the function of enhancing the flavor of the formulations without any synthetic additive and being 100% clean label, meeting the requirement of consumers.

The taste and texture that cannot be missed

Fats are great allies in the formulation of tasty products, since they promote an improvement in the appearance, the palatability and the texture of the most diverse types of food.

However, saturated and trans fats are associated with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

According to the USDA, the daily consumption of saturated fats should not exceed 10% of total daily calories, considering a diet of 2,000 kcal.

The search for healthier alternatives to saturated fat resulted in the synthesis of olestra fat, which has already been widely used in potato chips.

The chemical structure of the olestra is greater than the one of triglycerides that form fats. Because of this, it is not digested in the gastrointestinal tract, so it does not contribute with calories.

Because it is a lipid ingredient, olestra interacts with other lipophilic components of foods, such as vitamins and carotenoids (natural antioxidant pigments). As olestra is not digested, these essential nutrients are also not, which prevents it from being absorbed by the body.

Besides that, studies had already proven that mice that consumed chips containing olestra gained more weight than the ones that didn’t.


Olestra wasn’t capable of fulfilling its basic function, that would be to replace the fat to promote a reduction of weight.

Because of these evidence, olestra was forbidden in European Union countries and in Canada.

An alternative widely used in the food industry to reduce saturated fat content is the use of structured lipids. In this technology, fatty acids are rearranged in the triglyceride molecule, producing personalized fats to fulfill the function that is desired to obtain.

Another alternative may be the use of low sat fats. This type of fat is produced through the mixture of a vegetal oil with an structuring agent to certain conditions.

This way, there is a fat with low content of saturated fatty acids, consequently healthier, without lacking with functionality and sensory characteristics given to this type of component.

Other additives to be avoided and possible substitutes

In addition to MSG and saturated fat, other additives and ingredients show many controversial effects.In studies done in animals, synthetic dyes caused damage to the pancreas, colon, urinary tract, and digestive system. The tartrazine yellow dye, for example, has already been correlated with the development of cancer in several studies.

Dyes extracted from natural sources such as carotenoids, are presented as a viable alternative. Within this group, b-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A and lycopene, is a highlight. It is a powerful antioxidant that is related to a lower incidence of prostate cancer.

In greasy products, things like oxygen and light can lead to oxidation, which causes rancidity, decreasing the quality and shelf life of food. To avoid this effect, antioxidants are commonly used.

Alternatively, plant extracts rich in antioxidant compounds may also be used. These natural ingredients promote the protection of products rich in unsaturated fatty acids, the most susceptible to oxidation.


Replacing an ingredient or additive in very important formulations is not an easy task for any formulator in the food industry. Food additives are often called villains by the media and less informed public.

However, it is necessary to separate what really needs to be removed from the formulations of what can be beneficial to the products.

This way, natural additives emerge as possible substitutes for those related to human health harm.

Knowing the particularities of each one is essential for the development of formulations that meet the demands of consumers, coming up with alternatives that are both tasty and healthy.

Feel free to leave a comment

Get awesome content on inbox   Subscribe

BRF© 2019. All Rights Reserved.