Young woman reads the label for food additives on a juice container at the grocery storeWe get it: the last thing you want to read while you’re pregnant is another “what not to eat” post. While you probably already know that you should avoid certain fish, undercooked meats, soft cheese, alcohol, and high levels of caffeine, you may not know food additives should also be considered.
Most of the food you’ll find at a grocery store contains additives to make it look, smell and taste better or last longer and aid in processing. If you pick up an average food product and read the label, you’ll find flavor enhancers, preservatives, thickening agents, and food colorings listed among the ingredients.
The truth is, everything we eat has some chemicals in it. Some chemicals are harmful, and some aren’t; some are even beneficial. Natural foods are often better than artificial or unnatural, but natural things may also be dangerous. Consider this: a “natural” mushroom may be poisonous; “natural” butter, eggs, and animal fats are often linked to heart disease; and too much “natural” sugar is associated with diabetes.

How can I ensure what I’m eating is safe?

No food or additive currently in use has been entirely proven to cause birth defects. From what we know right now, the danger to your baby from the chemical additives in food is small.
If you want to attempt to remove even this small risk, here are a few guidelines to assist you:

  • Use most sugar substitutes in moderation
  • Try to steer away from processed foods
  • When possible, prepare meals from scratch with fresh ingredients. Or, to make things easier, you could use frozen or packaged organic ready-to-go foods.
  • Avoid fish like king mackerel, swordfish, shark, and tilefish, which contain high levels of mercury
  • Keep away from foods preserved with nitrates, like frankfurters, salami, lunch meats, and smoked meat
  • When cooking, don’t use MSG or flavor enhancers that contain MSG
  • Select lean cuts of meat and remove any fat you can see before cooking (chemicals that livestock ingest concentrate in the fat of the animal)
  • Buy organic produce whenever possible and practical


Tips to Control Your Consumption of Food Additives

Look for unprocessed, fresh foods – The more processed a food is, the more likely it is to have more additives. So if you eat a lot of processed foods, you’ll end up consuming more additives. Avoiding pre-prepared meals and eating fresh produce will help you avoid the risk.
Wash produce – Always wash fresh produce well so any fertilizers and pesticides that were sprayed on it are removed as much as possible. Chemicals tend to concentrate in the core of a fruit or vegetable. So, remove the stem from tomatoes and other fruit, and cut the ends of carrots.
Check food labels – The obvious way to avoid potentially harmful additives is to check the label on your foods. Avoid foods with additives like MSG, food colorings, olestra, and Saccharin.
Eat a variety of foods – Try to get a varied, balanced diet by eating a variety of foods from each part of the food pyramid. That way, you’ll avoid getting too much of any one ingredient or additive.
Go organic – Eating organically produced meat and produce will allow you to avoid exposure to chemicals. That’s because organically raised animals can’t be given antibiotics or growth hormones. They’re only permitted to be fed 100% organic feed. But you’ll still need to wash organic produce carefully before eating.
Naturally sweet – Eating foods that have natural forms of sugar is better than adding a sugar substitute. So if you have a sweet tooth, try sweetening your coffee or tea with honey and snacking on foods with natural sugars like strawberries.
Cut out the fat – The fatty parts of your meat are usually the least healthy part. Also, the chemicals that livestock ingest concentrate in the fat of the animal. As a result, cutting the fat off meat cuts before cooking will help you avoid extra chemicals and additives.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 7, 2013, and has since been updated.