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How Food Additives Impact Behavior, Performance, and Focus

If you have been living the keto lifestyle, you know food choices (and food additives) have a significant impact on how you feel physically and mentally.

Being healthy requires conscientious choices about the foods you choose to fuel your body. If you have been living the keto lifestyle, you know first-hand that your food choices have a significant impact on how you feel, both physically and mentally. Ketoers tend to eat more whole, natural foods than people on the typical western diet.  

That said, there are plenty of processed keto-friendly foods. Grocery store shelves lined with these pre-packaged “foodstuffs” can be a major source of temptation. But before you toss them into your cart, let’s take a minute to discuss the additives that these foods contain and how they might affect both mind body.

That’s mind and body.

Food additives are ingredients add

ed to processed foods to extend shelf life and enhance flavor, “mouthfeel” and appearance. And make no mistake about it – additives are big business in the food industry.

According to one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sixty-one percent of food purchases in the United States are of highly processed foods. Each morsel of these food choices contains additives of some type. Given the prevalence of food additives in the average diet, it is important to really understand how these chemicals affect you.

Food Additives and Behavior: Seeing Red and Feeling Blue

While many find it easier to “eat clean” when following a keto diet, there are a couple of additive pitfalls to which you’re more susceptible when you’re on a high-protein. One of them is MSG, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate.


MSG is the salt of glutamic acid, which is naturally present in our bodies and organically in some food proteins. It can also be found in processed foods such as broth, whey protein powders, certain cheese, some nuts and certain condiments such as fish or soy sauce.   

First, let’s start off by saying that MSG is not all bad. In fact, glutamate is an important major source of energy for the intestines, and it is estimated that once your digestive system is done with it, only about four-percent manages to make its way to the rest of your body. While the FDA considers MSG to be completely safe, the additive is shrouded in its own circle of controversy.  

MSG sensitivity has been known to cause symptoms such as nausea, headaches, heart palpitations and numbness or tingling in parts of the body. What is also being looked at is the possibility that MSG might influence behavior.

One study on the connection between MSG and behavior revealed that MSG causes changes in the neurotransmitter serotonin, leading to a higher incidence of depressive thoughts, actions and behaviors.  

To be fair, MSG is not the only food additive that has been shown to affect behavior. Added sugar, in all of its many forms and aliases, has been reported to have negative effects on behavior, including inappropriate behaviors in children (we can only assume this to be the case with some adults too), along with increased feelings of agitation, anger and anxiety.  

It is important to remember that the food that fuels the body also fuels the mind, and the cleaner and more natural that fuel is, the better you will feel mentally.  

Performance and Focus: Eating the Best to Be Your Best  

Eating a diet with a higher protein/fat to carbohydrate ratio automatically means that you must be living off bacon and grilled steak, right? Wrong. This line of thinking regarding the keto lifestyle is outdated, to say the least. However, a diet with higher protein and fat content can certainly include tasty processed meats such as bacon, ham, and various types of luncheon meats. If it isn’t already obvious, we are making our way toward a lively discussion about the good and bad of nitrates.  

Natural Nitrates vs Processed Nitrates

Nitrates are found naturally in many vegetables, including dark, leafy greens and root vegetables such as beets. Sodium nitrate is also added to certain meat products to enhance flavor and color while inhibiting the growth of bacteria, specifically botulism.

While most nitrates are consumed through natural sources, there has been serious speculation regarding the safety and health effects of sodium nitrate as a food additive.  

Nitrates on their own are a good thing, especially for performance and focus. A diet high in naturally-occurring nitrates has been shown to increase plasma nitrate concentrations and overall improve performance in moderate physical exercise.

The vasodilating effect of nitrates is also thought to be one mechanism of improving and protecting executive brain function, especially in older adults.

So, does this mean that a daily slab of bacon can slow down your rate of mental aging and help you log a killer workout? Not quite.  

Cooking meat that has been treated with nitrates will cause the nitrates to react with naturally occurring amines in the protein, which will then form N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are at the source of the reports of nitrates being a human carcinogen.

These compounds can also bind with hemoglobin and reduce the body’s ability to transport oxygen, resulting in the exact opposite effect of the naturally occurring nitrates found in produce. Loading up on meat nitrates can mean poorer performance ability and decreased mental function.

So long, bacon diet.

Bottom line? Keep the natural nitrates and pitch the nitrate-rich meats in your refrigerator.  


While naturally-occurring nitrates do not pose the same potential health risks as nitrates added to meats, there are other naturally-derived food additives that you’ll want to keep on your radar, one of which is carrageenan.

Carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed used as a thickener and emulsifier in many food items, including those with irresistible creaminess such as yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, coconut milk and ice cream.  

Carrageenan has been making headlines lately as more and more people seem to be developing sensitivities to this natural additive. Symptoms of carrageenan sensitivity include headaches, diarrhea, hives, abdominal pain and mental confusion.

In addition to these signs of intolerance, carrageenan is thought to promote generalized, systemic inflammation in the body. If you’ve ever heart JJ Virgin talk about dairy causing inflammation in the body, carrageenan is likely a contributing factor.

Not only can inflammation make a powerful workout less of a reality, but chronic inflammation is thought to be at the center of many of the serious illness that we suffer from today including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.  

Food Additives Are Not the Enemy

The FDA’s list of food additives is pages and pages long. Do you really need to memorize all of them and read every single list of ingredients in your grocery cart? Not really. The key is moderation, which is one of the things we emphasize in the 30-Day Keto Diet Launch Program, and the foundation upon which we built the meal plans for the program.

A combination of moderation, awareness and common sense is probably your best plan.  

You should be aware of the most common food additives. In addition to the food additives that were mentioned above, there are some other very common ones that are thought to be problematic for overall health and performance. On the other hand, there are some additives, such as ascorbic acid, that are quite beneficial. 

Unless you commit to eating a completely natural, non-processed diet, you’re goint to encounter additives and preservatives at some point, even if it is just in the occasional snack bar.

To help you sort through the endless list of additives and narrow it down to some that really matter, we have compiled a short list of some of the best and some of the worst. If you are interested in reducing the number of harmful additives in your foods, make this list your starting point.  

Avoid These 10 Additives

  • Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrate
  • Sodium Phosphate
  • Corn Syrup
  • Partially and Fully Hydrogenated Oils
  • Bromated Vegetable Oil
  • MSG
  • Carrageenan
  • BHA and BHT
  • Food Dyes: Yellow #5 and #6, Blue #1 and #2, Red #3 and #40
  • Caramel Coloring

The Good (or at least better) 

  • Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C)
  • Tocopherols (vitamin E)
  • Sorbic Acid
  • Propionic Acid
  • Good Ol’ Fashion Salt

You take good care of your body, and you are mindful about what you eat. There is no reason to let ingredients hidden in a list of unpronounceable names sabotage all your efforts. You don’t need to go completely nitrate free, but you can do your body good by avoiding some of the worst additives out there and understanding how they can negatively impact your health. 

In the end, you are your own best advocate and you have a responsibility to yourself to be knowledgeable about food additives that can harm, or improve your healthy lifestyle. Start today by making choices about what food additives you will or will not allow.

Your body will thank you tomorrow.  



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