When food came mostly off the farm it was a lot easier to know what we were consuming. Now that factories and processed foods have taken over, it’s important to be aware of chemicals and food additives that can potentially cause harm. In the United States, more than 3,000 substances can be added to foods for the purpose of preservation, coloring, texture, increasing flavor and more. To help you understand which one’s to look out for on a food label, I have listed my top 10 additives and ingredients you should avoid.
1. Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate
Common sources: Many packaged meats such as hot dogs, bacon, ham, lunch meats and corned beef.
Why it’s used: Many of us look for meat that’s red or pink in color because it’s the freshest. However, this isn’t always the case. Sodium Nitrate and Nitrite have become favorite additives for meat processors because they stabilize the red color in cured meat and also add flavor. Actually without nitrite, most hot dogs and bacon would look grey. Nitrates and nitrites also prevent the growth of bacteria that cause botulism poisoning, though freezing and refrigeration would be a safer and still affective alternative.
Potential danger: Adding nitrites to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrates are harmless, but they can convert into nitrites. In the early 1970s, there were outbreaks of liver disorders, including cancer, in various farm animals in Norway. Intensive investigations revealed that all of the animals affected had consumed herring meal preserved by the addition of relatively large amounts of sodium nitrite. In addition to this, a 2006 study in the International Journal of Cancer suggests high consumption of processed meat may increase the risk of stomach cancer and that dietary nitrosamines might be responsible for this association.
Ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid are now being added to bacon to inhibit nitrosamine formation, which has greatly reduced the problem. But even so, there is still a risk that I think makes nitrites and nitrates worth avoiding, especially if you are consuming these types of foods (like lunchmeats) everyday. Pregnant women and children should especially limit these foods. At the very least, eat foods containing nitrites with a glass of orange juice or another good source of vitamin C which may help to inhibit the cancer causing agent.
2. Partially Hydrogenated oil
Common Sources: Products that contain hydrogenated oils include margarine, shortening, baked goods and fried items. Your local supermarket and bakery don’t always list the ingredients but often use hydrogenated oils in pastry, doughnuts, pies and breads.
Why it’s used: The chemical process of hydrogenation creates a solid fat or semi solid out of oil. This results in a butter-like consistency, only it’s a lot cheaper.
Potential health risk: Hydrogenated oils are rich in trans fat. Several decades of research show consumption of trans fatty acids promotes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immune dysfunction, and obesity and reproductive problems. Furthermore, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that trans fat had been causing about 50,000 premature heart attack deaths annually, making partially hydrogenated oil one of the most harmful ingredients in the food supply. Trans fat has twice the artery clogging ability as saturated fat.
Believe it or not fully hydrogenated oil is actually better than partially hydrogenated, because there is more trans fat created by partially hydrogenating an oil. However, many foods that contain any type of hydrogenated oil is usually high in saturated fat as well and should be limited.
There are also natural sources of trans fat such as that in beef and dairy. Though the amount of trans fat in these sources is small, it does count toward your overall intake which should not exceed 2g per day.
Read the ingredients if something is listed trans fat free. According to the government, a product must contain less than 0.5g of trans fats per serving to be trans-fat free. However, eating more than 1 serving will quickly add on your intake of trans fat. A good example is commercial peanut butter, which contains a tiny amount of partially hydrogenated oil to prevent separation. Most everyone uses more than a 2 Tablespoon serving, which increases the amount of trans fat.
3. Artificial Coloring (Specifically Red 3 & 40, Yellow 5, 6 & 10, Blue 1 & 2, Green 3 and Orange B)
Common Sources: Many products targeted to kids such as fruit roll-ups, juice boxes, Pop-tarts, pudding, macaroni and cheese and cereals including Trix and Froot Loops. Other big sources are candy such as Skittles, gum, cereal bars, soda, Gatorade, fruit juice, some yogurt brands and the skin on some Florida oranges.
Why it’s used: To boost color and make food and beverages more appealing to the eye. Artificial dyes are lower in cost than natural colors and have a longer shelf life.
Potential danger: Some research on artificial color shows potential danger ranging from tumors and cancer risk to allergy symptoms. Yellow 5, 6 and 10 and Red 40 have been of particular concern due to possible links to hyperactivity in children. However, many of the studies looked at a combination of additives which makes it harder to tell what specific dye was the cause.
Though the FDA continues to refuse a ban on artificial coloring, many organizations including the Center for Science in the Public Interest are petitioning to have a warning label required on all products containing artificial colors. The FDA does require Yellow 5 to be clearly labeled as it may be more likely to cause a reaction than other additives. Many other countries have switched to natural coloring, but for some reason the same products in the US contain artificial versions. Artificial colors are used almost solely in foods of low nutritional value giving us yet another reason to limit consumption.
4. Potassium Bromate
Common Sources: Bread, rolls, buns and dough.
Why it’s used: Potassium Bromate is used as a flour improver/dough strengthener.
Potential danger: Potassium Bromate has been shown to be carcinogenic (cancer causing) in rats and nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys) in both humans and experimental animals when given orally. Though most of the bromate breaks down after processing as a food additive, small amounts still remain in the bread. Currently, Japan and the United States are one of the few countries that have not banned the use of bromate. Europe, United Kingdom and Canada are among those that have banned bromate. It is rarely used in California because a cancer warning is required on the label if a product contains more than a certain amount of bromate. Fortunately, many millers and bakers have stopped the use of Potassium Bromate in their products after the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban it. Always check ingredient lists on bread and bread products and avoid if bromated flour or potassium bromate are among the ingredients.
5. Aspartame and Acesulfame K
Common Sources: Aspartame sources include Equal, Nutrasweet, many diet products, soft drinks and gelatin desserts. Sources of Acesulfame K include the sugar substitutes Sunett and Sweet One and diet drinks.
Why they are used: Aspartame and Acesulfame K are artificial sweeteners. They are much sweeter than sugar, but are non caloric and do not impact the blood sugar.
Potential danger: The biggest danger with Aspartame seems to be with its breakdown product Phenylalanine. Phenylalanine is an amino acid, and those with the condition PKU have the inability to break it down. This can cause brain damage, behavioral or social problems, seizures, hyperactivity and stunted growth when sources of phenylalanine are consumed.
Many studies have been conducted on the safety of Aspartame, however the validity of some of the research has been questionable and the safety of Aspartame continues to be controversial topic among health professionals. A 2007 study published in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, found statistically significant increases in lymphomas and leukemias in rats that were fed 100 milligrams of Aspartame per kilogram of body weight. Though this is much greater than most consume, with the amount of products containing aspartame, there may still be a risk. A 2006 National Cancer Institute study seemed to dispute a connection between cancer and aspartame, but many feel the study had major limitations, including its reliance on imprecise food-frequency questionnaires, and it included only subjects between the ages of 50 and 69 who first consumed aspartame as adults. The effects of consuming aspartame from infancy or childhood might be very different, says CSPI, as suggested by the animal study.
Unfortunately, the amount and quality of the research on Acesulfame-K is low. Two rat studies suggest that the additive might cause cancer. In addition, large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product of Acesulfame-K, has been shown to affect the thyroid in animals. However, the small amounts in food may not be enough to cause harm. Though we need better controlled trials with Aspartame and Acesulfame K to learn more about their potential health risks, it may be a good idea to limit consumption as much as possible.
Common Sources: Non caloric sweeteners such as Sweet and Low, NectaSweet and Sweet Twin. Saccharin can also be found in baked goods, jams, chewing gum, canned fruit, candy, dessert toppings, and salad dressings. It is also used in some cosmetic products, vitamins, and pharmaceuticals.
Why it’s used: Saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar so very little of it is needed to sweeten foods. It also has no calories and does not impact the blood sugar. In the United States, 8 million pounds of saccharin disappear each year into food (2 to 3 million as tabletop sweetener), beverages (1 to 2 million pounds), and personal care products (3 million pounds).
The FDA has approved saccharin as a sweetener in beverages in amounts not to exceed 12 mg/fluid ounce, as a sugar substitute packaged in amounts not to exceed the sweetening power of 1 teaspoon of sugar (20 mg) for use in cooking or at the table, and in processed foods in amounts not to exceed 30 mg per serving.
Potential danger: In the 1970s, a Canadian study that showed that saccharin was causing bladder cancer in rats. Though the FDA was going to ban it, a public outcry kept saccharin on the shelves because there were no other sugar substitutes at that time. Products that did contain saccharin had to have a health warning on the label. Further research has shown that male rats have a particular pH factor that predisposes them to bladder cancer so many question if saccharin actually would cause cancer in humans. The warning label is no longer required, but may feel there is still a potential danger with consumption of saccharin.
Some concern has been raised about saccharin consumption during pregnancy. Saccharin can cross the placenta and may remain in fetal tissues. It is uncertain how the combined exposure in utero and in the diet may influence cancer risk. Animal studies suggest that neonatal exposure showed the strongest relationship to bladder cancer risk.
7. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Common sources: Processed foods, canned soups, instant noodles, almost all fast foods, many chips and snack foods, frozen dinners, salad dressings, grill spices, bullion and Asian foods.
Why it’s used: To enhance flavors already present in foods (without providing their own separate flavor)
Potential danger: The effects of MSG are closely related to the dose as the more you eat, the more likely you are to be affected. However, some individuals are more sensitive than others and experience reactions at very low doses. Reactions can include migraines, asthma, rashes, irritability, anxiety, rapid heart beat and IBS symptoms. According to animal studies, as well as a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health study, those that consume MSG are more likely than people who don’t to be overweight or obese.
8. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydrozyttoluene (BHT)
Common Sources: Cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils
Why it’s used: Both BHA and BHT keep fats and oils from going rancid and are used to prevent foods from oxidizing.
Potential danger: BHA and BHT are antioxidants, however, the same chemical properties which make them excellent preservatives may also lead to adverse health effects. According to animal studies, BHT may be carcinogenic. There is also evidence that the same reactions may combat oxidative stress and that BHA and BHT have antimicrobial activity.
In the 1970s, Benjamin Feingold, a San Francisco MD who established the Feingold Diet, claimed that BHT could produce hyperactivity in some children. Some research supports this claim, and other studies refute it. There is evidence that certain persons may have difficulty metabolizing BHA and BHT, resulting in health and behavior changes.
BHA has replaced BHT in many foods in the US as it seems to pose less of a health risk. The European Union has banned BHA from all cosmetic products. BHT is banned from the British food supply due to reports of its carcinogenic risks and harmful renal effects. There are many other antioxidants that do not pose a health threat such as vitamin E and rosemary extract that hopefully more manufacturers will use instead of BHT and BHA.
9. Propyl Gallate
Common Sources: It’s used in vegetable oil, meat products, potato chips, soup base and chewing gum.
Why it’s used: This preservative is used to prevent fats and oils from spoiling and is often used in conjunction with BHT and BHA.
Potential danger: Animal studies have suggested a possible link between propyl gallate and cancer. Other possible side effects of consumption are stomach and skin irritability, as well as allergic reactions. It has also been suggested that propyl gallate may cause kidney and liver problems. Although the FDA considers propyl gallate safe, in other countries it is either banned or very limited in use.
Common Sources: Baked goods, dried fruit, condiments, olives, cornstarch, jams and jellies, frosting, shrimp, some soy protein products, wine and other alcoholic beverages.
Why it’s used: Sulfites act as a preservative used to prevent discoloration of food, bleach food starches, impede bacterial growth, and add stability to medication.
Potential danger: Some individuals are sensitive to sulfites and experience allergy symptoms, including headaches, asthma, hives, heart palpitations and even seizures after consumption. In severe cases, death has resulted from anaphylactic shock. Due to preparation methods, sulfite levels in the lettuce and potatoes served at restaurants was found to be very high. Consequently, FDA banned the most dangerous uses of sulfites and required that wine labels list sulfites on the labels, when used. To non-sensitive individuals, sulfites appear to be safe.
Though eating fresh, whole foods is best, processed foods will almost always play some role in the American diet. With most of the additives, they are not dangerous in small amounts, but the amounts consumed in the US greatly increase the risk. It’s best to check out the food label for any of the above ingredients to stay educated on what you are consuming and limit additives as much as possible.
For more information on another major food additive, high fructose corn syrup, look for my upcoming blog The Not-So-Sweet Truth about Sweeteners.
–Nicole Gould, RD LD