Once upon a time, the words "aluminum" and "food" usually appeared in the same sentence when someone said "I cook food in an aluminum pan," or "I wrap my leftover food in aluminum foil." Now all too often, some form of aluminum as aluminum preservatives are in our food as well as other substances we put into our body.
I want to point out from the start that along with many foods, aluminum cooking utensils, aluminum cans, and foil, this metal is also present in the soil, water supply, some medications and healthcare products, and vaccines. Therefore, it can be a challenge to avoid this potentially toxic substance. Although this article focuses on aluminum preservatives in food, it also offers some tips (at the end) on how to avoid aluminum in other common items as well.
Aluminum and aluminum preservatives
The main reason you don't see much in the scientific literature about the effects of aluminum preservatives on your health is that these substances have been granted GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status by the Food and Drug Administration. Generally, the powers that be don't feel it is necessary to explore the health risks associated with them. However, not everyone feels that way, fortunately.
Read more about artificial food preservatives
Take some good folks at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, for example. In a journal appropriately called Food Additive and Contaminants, they reported on the aluminum content of common foods in the United States. Among the foods were frozen pizza, nondairy creamers, salt, pancakes and waffles, and various frozen foods. Overall they found that many of the foods provided "significant" levels of the metal, with the cheese on frozen pizzas harboring up to 14 milligrams per serving and single serving nondairy creamers with 1.5 mg while frozen pancakes and pancake/waffle mixes offered up to a whopping 180 mg per serving.
What does this mean? The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives states that the tolerable level of aluminum should be 1 mg/kg of body weight per week.
Translation: no more than 63 mg of aluminum per week for a person weighing 140 pounds and 27 mg per week for a 60-pound child.
Is your baby ingesting aluminum?
The presence of aluminum in baby food is especially worrisome, as infants are especially vulnerable to this metal. In a 2013 report in BMC Pediatrics, the Keele University (UK) researchers studied 30 widely used infant formulas and measured the aluminum content. Several years prior to this study, experts from the same University had looked at aluminum contamination in infant formulas and found widespread contamination. That's when they urged baby food makers to reduce aluminum levels.
However, the subsequent study again found that the aluminum content in ready-to-consume milks, soya-based milk products, and milk powders were all still too high. Since formula makers had not taken voluntary measures, the authors concluded that "regulatory and other non-voluntary methods are now required" to bring aluminum content down in these products.
Here's another scary finding: In a 2010 study from experts at Stanford University School of Medicine, it was reported that newborns in hospitals are often exposed to levels of aluminum in parental nutrition that exceed the levels recommended by the FDA. The authors made several recommendations, including the need for monitoring aluminum levels in any infant who is receiving intravenous feeding.
Health hazards of aluminum
The potential dangers associated with aluminum and aluminum preservatives is from accumulate exposure and that fact that the substances are stored in your tissues. Aluminum toxicity has been associated with various problems, including but not limited to confusion, muscle weakness, damage to the bones (resulting in pain, fracture, or deformities), seizures, speech problems, lung problems, nervous system issues (e.g., sleep problems, memory loss, headache, nervousness), interference with iron and phosphorus absorption, and Alzheimer's disease.
Aluminum preservatives to look for
When looking at food, medication, and supplement labels, look for the following evidence of aluminum preservatives:
- Aluminum ammonium sulfate (an acid), can be found in breakfast cereals
- Aluminum calcium silicate
- Aluminum hydroxide, included in children's vaccines
- Aluminum oleate
- Aluminum palmitate
- Aluminum potassium sulfate
- Aluminum sodium sulfate
- Aluminum sulfate
- Sodium aluminum phosphate
Read more about food preservatives to avoid
What you can do about aluminum exposure
- Read food, medication (especially antacids), and supplement labels carefully for the presence of aluminum and avoid these products.
- Avoid deodorants/antiperspirants that contain aluminum. Aluminum is a metalloestrogen, which may have an impact on hormone-sensitive cells (e.g., breast cells).
- Do not use aluminum cooking pots, pans, and other utensils, such as aluminum food steamers.
- Use sea salt instead of conventional table salt.
- Minimize or avoid using aluminum foil to heat or store food.
- Avoid beverages (especially colas) available in aluminum cans. Although the amount of the metal is low (reported to be 0.1 to 74 parts per million), there is the cumulative effect!
- Have your water checked for aluminum levels. Reverse osmosis and deionization are two methods that can remove aluminum from water.
Even though your body can withstand low levels of aluminum, exposure starts at an early age and your levels can keep building. Take steps not to minimize your exposure to aluminum and aluminum preservatives and help keep you and your family as free of these contaminants as possible.