If you are concerned about food additives, and you should be, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published a guide. Titled Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives, it covers food additives linked to health concerns, and those banned or restricted in other countries.
1. Nitrites and nitrates
Nitrites and nitrates topped the list. They are used as preservatives in cured meats like bacon, hot dogs and salami. Studies have linked nitrites to stomach cancer, and one study found an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus in people who eat cured meats. Some studies have also linked nitrites with brain and thyroid cancers. Scientists at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that nitrites and nitrates are probable human carcinogens.
2. Potassium bromate
Potassium bromate is used in bread and cracker dough to strengthen it and help it rise. The state of California lists it is a known carcinogen. Studies have found that it causes tumors in animals, is toxic to the kidneys and can cause DNA damage. Both Britain and Canada have banned the use of potassium bromate in food. The EU has also banned the use of it in food.
3. Propyl Paraben
Propyl paraben is used as a preservative in foods, including tortillas and muffins. It is a chemical that is endocrine-disrupting, yet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS for short. Rats fed the maximum limit set by the FDA had decreased sperm counts. Studies also found that there are small decreases in testosterone at the maximum limit.
4. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is found in many types of foods including chips and preserved meats. The National Toxicology Program classifies BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen, and it’s listed under California’s Proposition 65 as a known carcinogen. The FDA considers it to be a GRAS additive.
5. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is used as a preservative. Although it’s not listed as a carcinogen, some studies have found that it causes cancer in animals.
6. Propyl gallate
Propyl gallate is used as a preservative in food products with edible fats like lard and sausage. The National Toxicology Program found an association between it and tumors in rats. However, it is as classified as GRAS.
Theobromine is an alkaloid found in chocolate. It has effects that are similar to caffeine. In 2010, Theocorp Holding Co. requested that the FDA list it as GRAS. FDA scientists said that the estimated average human consumption rate was five times higher than Theocorp reported as safe. They also expressed concern about reproductive and developmental effects found in animals. The company withdrew its FDA request, but later the federal agency recognized it as GRAS. Currently, it is being used outside FDA oversight.
8. Secret Flavor Ingredients
When the word “flavor” is listed as an ingredient you don’t really know what chemicals may have been added. Sometimes what is listed as flavors can contain BHA or genetically modified crops.
9. Artificial Colors
Artificial colors are added to foods to make them look more appealing. Synthetic colors, called Food, Drug & Cosmetics (FD&C) colors, have been linked to hyperactivity in children.
Diacetyl is used as a butter flavoring in microwave popcorn and in dairy products like yogurt and cheese. It is also used in “brown flavorings” like butterscotch and maple and in “fruit flavorings” like strawberry and raspberry. Studies have associated it with bronchiolitis obliterans, a severe and irreversible respiratory disease, in production workers.
Phosphates are found in over 20,000 products on EWG’s Food Scores database. They are used to leaven baked goods, reduce acid and improve moisture retention in processed meats. High phosphate levels are associated with heart disease and death for people with chronic kidney disease. Studies have linked higher phosphate levels to heart disease.
12. Aluminum Additives
Aluminum additives are used as stabilizers in some processed foods. Animals studies have linked exposure in the womb and during development to neurological effects.
Image: Kate Sumbler