From algae to sweeteners: unknown ingredients & what they do to you

Taryn Davies
Published: September 19, 2017

Processed foods often contain many harmful chemicals used as food preservatives and flavour enhancers. While a well-informed and demanding consumer may check out the food label on a product before purchasing it, these ingredients are often disguised under unrecognisable names.

Looking through any supermarket shelf, there is a list of worst offenders of ingredients that we can barely pronounce. Dr Sara Diaz from Whatsinit? explains what exactly these unknown ingredients are and what they do to you.

BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)

What it does: This is used to stop the oxidation of foods and cosmetics.

Why it's bad: The National Toxicology Program listed BHT as likely to be a human carcinogen.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

What it does: High Fructose Corn Syrup is incredbly cheap, so that's why it's used to replace sugar in a lot of processed food and drinks.

Why it's bad: Studies have shown that it can cause tissue damage, which might lead to health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Yellow #5

What it does: It's used to colour certain foods.

Why it's bad: The majority of colourants that are used in food come from coal tar, in fact there is evidence to show that they even contain small amounts of lead and arsenic. These coal tar colours have been linked to potentially causing cancer as well.

Propylene glycol alginate (E405)

What it does: E405 is used to thicken food, stabilise and emulsify too. The food additive is not only used in this way, but is also used in anti freezes for both vehicles and airport runways.

Why it's bad: Some reports suggest that it is safe, however there have been suggestions that there are negative side effects associated with using it. These include stomach upset and nausea, whether it's ingested or used on the skin as a cosmetic.

Do you know what's in the food you eat?

Polysorbate 60

What it does: Short for polyoxyethylene-(20)- sorbitan monostearate, Polsorbate 60 is an emulsifier used in the food industry. It doesn't spoil, so it is often used to replace dairy products in baked goods.

Why it's bad: If it used in large quantities, it can cause allergic reactions that include skin irritability and diarrhoea.

Enriched flour

What it does: This might sound like an innocent ingredient. but in reality there are no nutrients in this, and most likely it has been bleached.

Why it's bad: The body sees the enriched flour as a refined starch which means it will cause your blood sugar levels to soar.


What it does: Taurine is found naturally in meat, seafood and milk, and can help support brain development as well as improving athletic performance. You'll also find large quantities of taurine in energy drinks.

For the average consumer, energy drinks don’t even state how much of these special ingredients are found in the product, masking the quantities behind the term ‘proprietary blend’ or ‘energy blend'.

Why it's bad: While there have been no direct issues from the intake of taurine at limited amounts, deaths of athletes in Europe have been linked to energy drinks containing this substance. This has led several countries to ban or limit the sale of taurine until further research can clear its consumption as safe.


What it does: Algae is used in the food industry to help thicken food, as well as boosting the healthy bacteria. It is even added to toothpaste and some medicines. It's likely you eat algae every day without even realising it.

Why it's bad:As some types of algae may be toxic for humans, contamination of food and drinks with blue/green algae may result in headaches, diarrhoea, weakness, liver damage, nausea and vomiting.


Food processing can be useful and convenient, but when you can, back to basics is best for your health.