13 Scary Food Additives to Avoid
Most of the processed foods we eat are studded with mysterious additives. They extend shelf life. They create exciting flavors, colors and textures. But they don’t do great things for our health. Find out which ones to avoid, and why.
Acesulfame-K: Used in candies, baked goods, chewing gum, dry beverage mixes, canned fruit, gelatin desserts, diet soda, and as a tabletop sweetener under the brand names Sunette and Sweet One. About 200 times sweeter than sugar, acesulfame-K was tested for safety in the 1970s. The tests were not conducted with gold-standard protocols; however, two rat studies suggested that the chemical could cause cancer. In addition, large doses of a breakdown product from this chemical affected the thyroid in test animals.
Aspartame: Used in breakfast cereals, soft drinks, drink mixes, gelatin desserts, frozen desserts, yogurt, chewing gum, diet foods, and as a tabletop sweetener under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet. Used in more than 6,000 products worldwide, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Studies have suggested that it might cause cancer — especially with lifelong consumption — or neurological problems. Aspartame also lowers the acidity of urine and may make the urinary tract more susceptible to infection.
Read more about why you should avoid aspartame here.
Saccharin: Used in many diet products as well as a tabletop sweetener under the brand name Sweet’N Low. About 350 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin has been shown in animal studies to cause bladder cancer; rodent studies indicate that saccharin can cause cancer of the uterus, ovaries, skin, blood vessels and more. A major study conducted by the National Cancer Institute found that the artificial sweeteners saccharin and cyclamate are associated with higher incidence of bladder cancer. In 1977 the FDA wanted to ban saccharin; however, industry pressure has kept it in circulation.
Dyes and Colorings
Caramel coloring: Found in colas, baked goods, precooked meats, gravy mix, soy and Worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavored products, liquors, syrups, wine, and beer. The most widely used (by weight) dye, caramel coloring is often made by heating sugars with ammonium compounds, acids or alkalis, and it contains contaminants that have been shown by the U.S. National Toxicology Program to cause cancer in male and female mice. In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, concluded that caramel coloring, when produced with ammonia, contains contaminants that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Avoid beverages with caramel coloring, since the amounts consumed in one drink are so large.
Yellow 5: Used in gelatin desserts, candy, pet food and baked goods. This is the second most widely used coloring. It causes allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, primarily in aspirin-sensitive persons, and triggers hyperactivity in some children. It may also be contaminated with cancer-causing substances.
Yellow 6: Used in beverages, candy and baked goods. This is the third most widely used dye. Industry-sponsored animal tests indicated that this dye causes tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney. Like Yellow 5, it may also be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. Yellow 6 may also cause sometimes-severe hypersensitivity reactions.
Blue 2: Found in pet food, beverages and candy. Some animal studies found evidence that Blue 2 causes brain cancer in male rats. Blue 2 and other artificial colorings are made from petroleum, much of it refined near China’s Yellow River Delta, one of the world’s most toxic polluted areas
Preservatives and Additives
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and hydrogenated vegetable oil (commonly called trans fats): Used to make packaged foods more appealing and last longer. Trans fats — created by converting liquid oils to solids by adding hydrogen — are found in crackers, baked goods, fried restaurant foods, stick margarine, icing and microwave popcorn. Trans fats can raise blood cholesterol to dangerous levels; Harvard School of Public Health researchers estimate that trans fat has caused about 50,000 premature heart-attack deaths annually, making partially hydrogenated oil one of the most harmful ingredients in the food supply. When the public heard about the danger and the FDA required that trans fats be listed on labels beginning in 2006, consumption dropped and many food manufacturers have moved to safer ingredients. Still, read labels carefully, since even small amounts of trans fats are harmful.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): A synthetic antioxidant found in butter, cereals, baked goods, sweets, beer, vegetable oils, potato chips, snack foods, nuts and nut products, glazed fruits, chewing gum, animal feeds, and sausage, poultry and meat products. BHA slows the deterioration of flavors and odors in foods — especially in those containing vegetable and animal fat — and increases shelf life. In studies, three different species of lab animals developed cancer from exposure to BHA, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers BHA “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Propyl gallate: A preservative used in vegetable oil, mayonnaise, meat products, chicken soup base and chewing gum. Propyl gallate slows the spoilage of fats and oils but can cause stomach or skin problems for asthmatics and aspirin-sensitive people. Studies on rats and mice suggest that this preservative might cause cancer.
Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate: Preservatives, colorings and flavorings used in bacon, ham, hot dogs, cold cuts, smoked fish and corned beef. These chemicals give certain foods their characteristic flavor and color; they also prevent botulism, although critics argue that safer ingredients do the same thing. Several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women and adults with various types of cancer.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG): A flavor enhancer used in meats, condiments, soups and baked goods. Tests in the 1960s showed that MSG caused brain damage in lab animals; after that, baby-food manufacturers removed it from their products. Perhaps the biggest danger MSG poses
is to people with asthma, who may suffer a temporary increase in symptoms after consumption. MSG is what’s called a “free glutamate” — one of the amino acids. There are other forms of free glutamates present as additives in processed food, including hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, soy extracts, protein isolates and “natural flavorings.”
Mycoprotein: A synthetic meat marketed under the brand name Quorn, it can be purchased in the form of sausages, burgers and other meat-like products, or folded into vegan and vegetarian meals, such as casseroles and curries. Fabricated from fungus grown in vats and then dried and woven into “meat,” mycoprotein, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, can provoke allergic reactions as powerful as those caused by more common food allergens such as peanuts, soy and dairy. To date, the CSPI has received 1,500 adverse-reaction reports to mycoprotein, including accounts of severe vomiting.