Americans are eating more food additives, according to a new study that found about 60% of foods they purchase contain coloring or flavoring agents, preservatives and sweeteners.

That’s up by 10% from 2001.

“Our research clearly shows that the proportion of ultra-processed foods with additives in Americans’ shopping carts increased significantly between 2001 and 2019,” said study leader Elizabeth Dunford, a nutrition researcher at the Gillings Global School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). “We observed this trend across all food and additive categories.”

This is important, according to the study, published recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, because the health consequences of food additives are not fully understood.

Assessing exposure to these additives is a key to understanding any role they play in weight gain, negative changes to the gut microbiome and other adverse health outcomes that are associated with ultra-processed foods, according to researchers.

More than half of the overall packaged food and beverage products bought by U.S. households contained three or more additives in 2019, according to the research.

A 22% higher percentage of baby food purchases were ultra-processed and contained additives.

“These findings give us reason for concern, given the growing evidence linking high consumption of processed foods with adverse health outcomes,” Dunford said in journal news release.

One positive trend identified in the study is a decrease in use of added flavors in carbonated soft drinks.

Consumers buy more than 400,000 different packaged foods and beverages each year at grocery stores. This means they are consuming more sugar, sodium and saturated fats.

“With manufacturers producing foods and beverages with an increasingly higher number of additives, it is more important than ever to understand what is in the foods that Americans are buying and eating,” said senior investigator Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at UNC.

“U.S. consumers are demanding a much higher level of transparency from brands and retailers than in previous years,” he said in the release. “We hope the findings from this study will be used to inform policymakers on where Americans — especially babies — are being exposed to additives, and how the packaged food supply is changing.”

Investigators used data from the Nielsen consumer panel between 2001 and 2019 to compare product purchases over time. They said previous studies had been difficult because of a lack of publicly available databases with names and quantities of top additives in U.S. foods.

“The findings from this study could be used to inform policymakers on where American consumers are getting an increasing number of additives and how the packaged food supply is changing,” Dunford said. “The results can also set the foundation for future work in this area and provide direction for future researchers.

At the least, Dunford said she hopes the work will result in a further look at the types and amounts of ingredients being used in the manufacturing of baby food products.

Experts from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City wrote an editorial that accompanied the findings.

“By providing data on exposure to food additives in ultra-processed foods found in grocery-purchased foods over time, Dr. Dunford’s team is leading the way with much-needed research. Their novel method enabled them to document food additive-exposure changes over time and by food and additive category,” co-author Mona Calvo, of Icahn’s division of nephrology, said in the release.

“Most importantly, the authors’ unique approach enabled exposure estimates in the understudied, vulnerable populations of infants and children,” said co-author Dr. Jaime Uribarri, a professor of nephrology.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on food additives and children’s health.

SOURCE: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, news release, March 13, 2023