Harvest Right is concerned about your health. Here is a report that describes the dangers of food additives that are commonly found in the processed foods we eat every day.
Food should be good for you, but much of what we eat can be harmful. More than 10,000 additives* are allowed in food. Some are direct additives that are deliberately formulated into processed food, others are indirect additives that get into food during processing, storage and packaging. How do you know which food additives to avoid? Many additives raise concerns and have been linked to serious health problems, including endocrine disruption and cancer.
Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives” helps you figure it all out by highlighting some of the worst failures of the regulatory system. The guide covers ingredients associated with serious health concerns, additives banned or restricted in other countries and other substances that shouldn’t be in food. The report also underscores the need for better government oversight of our food system.
Here’s a list of 12 additives that EWG calls the “Dirty Dozen.”
Nitrates and Nitrites
Ever wonder how cured meats like salami and ham are able to retain their seemingly fresh pink color after weeks on the store shelf? They may be treated with nitrates or nitrites – chemicals commonly used as coloring agents, preservatives and flavoring. Although they can prolong a food’s shelf life and give it an attractive hue, they come with health concerns.
Nitrites and nitrates are used as preservatives in cured meats such as bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs. Nitrites, which can form from nitrates, react with naturally occurring components of protein called amines. This reaction can form nitrosamines, which are known cancer-causing compounds. Nitrosamines can form in nitrite or nitrate-treated meat or in the digestive tract.
Studies have linked nitrites to stomach cancer (IARC 2010). Some data also suggest an association with cancer of the esophagus; one study showed an increased risk in people who eat cured meats more often (Rogers 1995; Mayne 2001). There is also evidence that nitrites may be associated with brain and thyroid cancers, but a causal link has not been established (Preston-Martin 1996; Pogoda 2001; Aschebrook-Kilfoy 2013; IARC 2010).
In 2010, scientists at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that ingested nitrites and nitrates are probable human carcinogens. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is currently considering listing nitrite in combination with amines or amides as a known carcinogen.
Potassium bromate is used to strengthen bread and cracker dough and help it rise during baking. It is listed as a known carcinogen by the state of California, and the international cancer agency classifies it as a possible human carcinogen (IARC 1999; OEHHA 2014). It causes tumors at multiple sites in animals, is toxic to the kidneys and can cause DNA damage (IARC 1999). Baking converts most potassium bromate to non-carcinogenic potassium bromide, but research in the United Kingdom has shown that bromate residues are still detectable in finished bread in small but significant amounts (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1993).
Both the United Kingdom and Canada prohibit the use of potassium bromate in food, and it is not allowed in the European Union either. The United States, however, still allows it to be added to flour.
It’s hard to believe that propyl paraben, an endocrine-disrupting chemical, is allowed in food, and even harder to believe that it’s “Generally Recognized as Safe.” Studies found that rats fed the FDA’s maximum limit for propyl paraben in food had decreased sperm counts. At this dose researchers also noted small decreases in testosterone, which become significant with higher exposures (Oishi 2002).
Propyl paraben acts as a weak synthetic estrogen (Routledge 1998; Kim 2011; Vo 2011). It can alter the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells (Terasaka 2006; Wróbel 2014). Propyl paraben has been reported to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells (Okubo 2001). And a recent study by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health linked propyl paraben to impaired fertility in women (Smith 2013).
Propyl paraben is used as a preservative in foods such as tortillas, muffins and food dyes. People can be exposed to it either as a direct additive or as result of contamination during food processing and packaging. Tests done on samples collected from 2008 to 2012 found propyl paraben in more than half of them, including beverages, dairy products, meat and vegetables (Liao 2013). In a federal study, 91 percent of Americans tested had detectable levels of propyl paraben in their urine (Calafat 2010).
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
The FDA considers the preservative butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) to be a GRAS additive – even though the National Toxicology Program classifies it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” the international cancer agency categorizes it as a possible human carcinogen, and it’s listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65 (NTP 2011; IARC 1986; OEHHA 2014). These designations are based on consistent evidence that BHA causes tumors in animals, although there is debate about whether these findings are relevant to humans.
The European Union classifies BHA as an endocrine disruptor. At higher doses, it can lower testosterone and the thyroid hormone thyroxin and adversely affect sperm quality and the sex organs of rats (Jeong 2005). One study reported that female rats given lower doses had a decrease in uterine weight, which may result from effects on estrogen metabolism (Kang 2005; Zhu 1997). Other studies found developmental effects such as decreased growth and increased mortality in rats that had not been weaned, and behavioral effects after weaning (EFSA 2011a; Vorhees 1981a).
A wide variety of foods contain BHA, including chips and preserved meats. It is also added to fats and to foods that contain fats and is allowed as a preservative in flavoring.
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a chemical cousin to BHA that is also listed as “generally recognized as safe.” It, too, is added to food as a preservative. The two compounds act synergistically and are often used together.
BHT is not a listed carcinogen, but some data have shown that it does cause cancer in animals. Rats fed BHT have developed lung and liver tumors (EFSA 2012). BHT has also been shown to cause developmental effects and thyroid changes in animals, suggesting that it may be able to disrupt endocrine signaling (EFSA 2012). A neurobehavioral study of rats exposed to BHT throughout development described effects on motor skills and coordination before the animals were weaned (Vorhees 1981b).
Propyl gallate is used as a preservative in products that contain edible fats, such as sausage and lard. It is classified as GRAS even though a National Toxicology Program study reported an association with tumors in male rats and rare brain tumors in two female rats (NTP 1982). These findings do not establish a causal link between propyl gallate and cancer, but they raise important questions about whether this chemical should be considered safe. A 2014 opinion by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the available reproductive studies on propyl gallate are outdated and poorly described. In addition, there is incomplete data on whether propyl gallate is an endocrine disruptor; some evidence suggests it may have estrogenic activity (EFSA 2014; Amadasi 2009; ter Veld 2006).
In 2010, Theocorp Holding Co. requested that the FDA list theobromine, an alkaloid found in chocolate that has effects similar to caffeine, as “generally recognized as safe” for use in a variety of foods, including bread, cereal and sport drinks. FDA scientists questioned the GRAS designation, noting that the estimated average human consumption rate was five times higher than the level the company reported as safe (NRDC FOIA 2013). They also said that the company had not adequately explained why the reproductive and developmental effects seen in animals exposed to theobromine were not a concern. In response, Theocorp withdrew its request to FDA, but theobromine was later declared GRAS and is being used in food outside FDA oversight (NRDC 2014).
Theobromine is just one example of an enormous loophole in the FDA’s voluntary GRAS notification process. The food additive industry is allowed to designate a substance as GRAS without even notifying the agency, relying instead on “expert panels.” Theocorp’s submission triggered important questions from FDA scientists about the additive’s safety. Instead of addressing them, the company withdrew the request, and the GRAS designation was made later without FDA approval. In some cases, companies forego FDA’s notification process altogether. The agency does not know the identity of these secretly GRAS-approved chemicals and cannot review data to determine whether they are truly safe in food (NRDC 2014).
Secret Flavor Ingredients
The term “natural flavor” finds its way into more than a quarter of EWG’s roster of 80,000 foods in the Food Scores database, with only salt, water and sugar mentioned more frequently on food labels. “Artificial flavors” are also very common food additives, appearing on one of every seven labels.
What do these terms really mean? Good question.
The truth is that when you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have almost no clue what chemicals may have been added to the food under the umbrella of this vague term. For people who have uncommon food allergies or are on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern.
In addition to the flavor-adding chemicals themselves, flavor mixtures often contain natural or artificial emulsifiers, solvents and preservatives that are called “incidental additives,” which means the manufacturer does not have to disclose their presence on food labels. Flavoring mixtures added to food are complex and can contain more than 100 distinct substances. The non-flavor chemicals that have other functional properties often make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture.
Consumers may be surprised to learn that so-called “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals such as the solvent propylene glycol or the preservative BHA. Flavor extracts and ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled “natural,” because the FDA has not fully defined what that term means. (Certified organic “natural flavors” must meet more stringent guidelines and cannot include synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients.)
The companies that make flavoring mixtures are often the same ones that make the fragrance chemicals in perfumes and cosmetics. EWG advocates full disclosure of fragrance ingredients and believes flavoring mixtures should be treated the same way.
EWG considers it troubling that food companies do not fully disclose their ingredients and use vague terms like “flavors.” Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. We are also concerned that processed food makers manipulate flavors to whet people’s appetite for unhealthy foods and encourage overeating.
Artificial colors are often used to increase the appeal of foods that have little nutritional value. Questions have been raised about the safety of one class of synthetic colors, called FD&C (Food, Drug & Cosmetics) colors, and contaminants in other artificial colorings as well.
Caramel colors III and IV, for example, may be contaminated with 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which caused tumors in a National Toxicology Program study (NTP 2004). The European Food Safety Authority has expressed concern about furan contamination, which is also associated with cancer (EFSA 2011b).
There is ongoing debate about the effects of the synthetic FD&C colors on children’s behavior. Some studies have found that mixtures of synthetic colorings and the preservative sodium benzoate were associated with hyperactivity (Bateman 2004; McCann 2007). The European Food Safety Authority concluded that synthetic coloring mixtures may have a “small and statistically significant effect on activity and attention in children,” and that this effect may be an issue for certain sensitive individuals (EFSA 2008a). Other studies have not found an association between hyperactivity and synthetic food coloring (Arnold 2012; EFSA 2008a).
Avoiding artificial colors such as Caramel III and IV can be difficult. Current regulation allows food manufacturers to simply print artificial color on the product label if the ingredient is on an FDA-approved list. But consumers can easily avoid the synthetic colors on FDA’s separate FD&C-certified list because they must be shown on the label with their full or abbreviated name, such as FD&C Yellow 5 or Yellow 5.
You may think that all dangerous artificial food colorings were banned by the FDA long ago, but there are five still on the market that are linked with cancer in animal testing. “Always opt for the product without the color, if you have a choice,” says Gerbstadt. “I’m not saying to avoid all coloring. Many are made from natural sources. But some specific dye colors do promote tumor formation, in the right combination and conditions.” Blue 1 and 2, found in beverages, candy, baked goods and pet food, are considered low risk but have been linked to cancer in mice. Red 3, used to dye cherries, fruit cocktail, candy, and baked goods, has been shown to cause thyroid tumors in rats. Green 3, added to candy and beverages, though rarely used, has been linked to bladder cancer. Studies have linked the widely used yellow 6—added to beverages, sausage, gelatin, baked goods, and candy—to tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney.
Concerns about food additives are not limited to consumers; some have been associated with serious workplace diseases. Diacetyl, used as a butter flavoring in microwave popcorn, is associated with a severe and irreversible respiratory condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, which leads to inflammation and permanent scarring of the airways. Diacetyl is also used to flavor dairy products such as yogurt and cheese as well as in “brown flavorings” such as butterscotch and maple and in fruit flavorings such as strawberry and raspberry (OSHA 2010).
Several flavor-related respiratory disease clusters have been identified, beginning with an investigation in 2000 of former workers at a microwave popcorn plant (NIOSH 2004). In one case, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found compromised lung function in 11 of 41 production workers – two-to-three times the expected number. There was little or no response to medical treatment, and workers with severe forms of the disease, some only in their 30s, ended up on waiting lists for lung transplants.
Occupational health concerns associated with flavoring chemicals go beyond diacetyl. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have identified other flavoring chemicals that may pose a risk to workers, including 2,3-pentanedione and acetaldehyde. NIOSH emphasizes that safety evaluations of flavoring chemicals are largely based on consumer exposure, and there are no occupational exposure guidelines for most. This means that workers could face much higher risks that are poorly understood.
Phosphates are among the most common food additives, found in more than 20,000 products in EWG’s Food Scores database. They can be used to leaven baked goods, reduce acid and improve moisture retention and tenderness in processed meats. Phosphates are frequently added to unhealthy highly processed foods, including fast foods. In people with chronic kidney disease, high phosphate levels in the body are associated with heart disease and death (Ritz 2012).
In people without kidney disease, one study has linked higher phosphorus levels in the blood to increased cardiovascular risk (Dhingra 2007). Another study that followed more than 3,000 people for 15 years also found an association between dietary phosphorus and heart disease. Other research has reported similar findings (Foley 2009; Cancela 2012). The jury is still out about whether there is truly a link between the consumption of phosphate food additives and health problems. More research is clearly needed. Meanwhile, the issue is being taken seriously by some government officials. In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority began a high-priority reevaluation of added phosphates in food, but the deadline for completion isn’t until the end of 2018 (EFSA 2013).
Aluminum is the most abundant metal in Earth’s crust. It can occur naturally in food, but people are mainly exposed through food additives (EFSA 2008b). Aluminum can accumulate and persist in the human body, particularly in bone. Additives containing aluminum, such as sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium aluminum sulfate, are used as stabilizers in many processed foods.
Animals exposed to aluminum in the womb and during development show neurological effects such as changes in behavior, learning and motor response. Neurotoxicity has occurred in people undergoing dialysis who received large intravenous doses of unpurified water, but a direct link between aluminum food additives and neurological effects has not been proven (Schreeder 1983; EFSA 2008b). A link with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders has been proposed, but the association remains unclear (Bondy 2013). While significant scientific uncertainty remains around whether there may be links between aluminum-based food additives and health effects, their widespread use warrants putting them on the “watch list.”
Other Potentially Dangerous Food Additives
If you don’t know what it is, it probably isn’t good for you.
Most, if not all, of the major companies in America distributing and selling processed food (dehydrated, canned and freeze dried) add ingredients to their food that may be dangerous to your health.
This gas is pumped into crates of apples and other fruits to stop them from producing ethylene, the natural hormone that ripens fruit. Commonly known as SmartFresh, this chemical preserves apples for up to a year and bananas up to a month. Causes slight eye irritation. Harmful if absorbed through skin. Harmful if inhaled. Harmful if swallowed. Avoid contact with skin, eyes or clothing. Avoid breathing vapor. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. Remove contaminated clothing and wash before reuse.
Maltodextrin is included in various types of foods as an artificial sweetener. Research has shown that over use of food products that contain maltodextrin can produce the following side effects. Abdominal bloating and flatulence can be experienced; other problems relating to digestion can also become a problem such as constipation and diarrhea Anyone suffering from a starch intolerance could experience wheezing, itching skin rashes or asthma. The danger that can affect body builders is a sudden drop in blood sugar levels if they work out to excess.
Weight gain that can have an effect on the cardiovascular system can be brought about by an insulin spike due to high carbohydrates in the body. Some tooth decay and other dental problems have been attributed to the consumption of maltodextrin.
Also headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, upset stomach, fatigue and weakness can all become side effects of maltodextrin. If a person is using maltodextrin on a regular basis for some time, any irregularities in the body should be seen as a warning and consumption should cease. Many products have adverse effects on their users but it is better to be aware that if side effects of maltodextrin are experienced in any way, then it must be seen as a warning and a person should reduce or cease consumption of products that contain maltodextrin.
Almost 90-percent of salmon sold in supermarkets today come from farms. The diet of farmed salmon doesn’t include crustaceans, which contains a natural astaxanthin that causes pink flesh in wild salmon. As a result, producers add astaxanthin to farm-salmon diets for that fresh-from-the-water appearance. Astaxanthin is manufactured from coal tar.
One of the most serious astaxanthin side effects is that it will lower your blood pressure. If you already have low blood pressure or are taking medication to reduce blood pressure Astaxanthin may cause serious problems. Astaxanthin side effects also include hormonal changes. If you are taking hormone-altering medications you must be aware that they can interact negatively with astaxanthin. Astaxanthin can also interact with herbs such as black cohosh, vitex, and saw palmetto, which are commonly used to alter hormone levels in the body.
It can cause breast enlargement in men. Because of possible hormonal changes, pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take astaxanthin since there may be dangerous side effects to both the developing fetus and the mother.
BENZOIC ACID/SODIUM BENZOATE
Often added to milk and meat products, these preservatives are used in many foods, including drinks, low-sugar products, cereals and meats. Both temporarily inhibit the proper functioning of digestive enzymes and cause headaches, stomach upset, asthma attacks and hyperactivity in children.
Propyl gallate is another preservative to avoid. It’s used to prevent fats and oils from spoiling and is often used in conjunction with BHA and BHT. This additive is sometimes found in meat products, chicken soup base, and chewing gum. Propyl gallate has not been proven to cause cancer, but studies done on animals have suggested that it could be linked to cancer, so it is an additive to be concerned about. “It’s important to read the label,” says Gerbstadt. “You really have to carry a cheat sheet around in the supermarket. I try to buy as few foods as possible containing preservatives.”
Egg yolks don’t always come out golden yellow, so producers use this pigment to make them more palatable. Although the amounts used are very small, tests have shown greater quantities of canthaxanthin can cause retinal damage.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
This ubiquitous sweetener helps maintain moisture while preserving freshness. A little fructose isn’t a problem but the sheer quantity of “hidden” fructose in processed foods is startling. The consumption of large quantities has been fingered as a causative factor in heart disease. It raises blood levels of cholesterol and triglyceride fats, while making blood cells more prone to clotting and accelerating the aging process.
MSG – Monosodium Glutamate
MSG is used as a flavor enhancer and is one of the worst food additives on the market and is used in canned soups, crackers, meats, salad dressings, frozen dinners and much more. It’s found in your local supermarket and restaurants, in your child’s school cafeteria and, amazingly, even in baby food and infant formula. MSG can cause headaches and nausea in some people, and animal studies link it to damaging nerve cells in the brains of infant mice. Gerbstadt recommends replacing MSG with a small amount of salt when possible. “Why bother using MSG when you can live without it?” she says. “MSG can cause migraine-like headaches and create other adverse affects for certain people. It is a flavor enhancer, but you’d be better off putting in a few grains of salt.”
Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten
Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten is essentially glutamic acid, which is a type of MSG. It has been shown to have negative effects on the human body, such as headaches, nausea, fuzzy thinking, diarrhea, heart irregularity, asthma, and mood swings. Because hydrolyzed corn gluten has some different components than typical MSG, food labels are not required to stat that the ingredient essentially is MSG and has the same side effects as MSG.
Trans fat makes it onto our dirty dozen list because eating too much of it leads to heart disease. “Trans fats are proven to cause heart disease, and make conditions perfect for stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, and limb loss due to vascular disease,” says Gerbstadt. “It would be wonderful if they could be banned.” Manufacturers have modified product ingredients lists to reduce the amount of trans fats, and are required to label trans fats amounts, but restaurant food, especially fast food chains, still serve foods laden with trans fats. Experts recommend we consume no more than two grams of trans fat per day, an amount easily accounted for if you eat meat and dairy.
Aspartame, also known by the brand names Nutrasweet and Equal, is an additive found in so-called diet foods such as low-calorie desserts, gelatins, drink mixes and soft drinks. It also comes in individual packages used in place of sugar as a sweetener. The safety of aspartame, a combination of two amino acids and methanol, has been the focus of hundreds of scientific studies. Conclusions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the ADA, and the Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that the additive is safe. Conversely, the Center for Science in the Public Interest gave it their lowest ranking in a review of food additives, quoting animal studies in 1970 and in 2007, which suggest that there is a link between aspartame and cancer. Gerbstadt, spokesperson from the ADA—an organization that supports the general safety of aspartame—says that the additive might be unhealthy for some people—especially those with the disease phenylketonuria, an enzyme disorder—because it contains phenalalanine. “Some people may be sensitive to it, and it’s easy to avoid,” she says.
Is cornstarch bad for your health? Although cornstarch may not pose an immediate threat to our health, it should still be avoided for several reasons. Those looking to reach their ideal weight should definitely go easy on foods containing cornstarch. Corn flour is full of calories and yet has no fiber, protein or any other nutrient and thus makes it a major weight reduction barrier, just like refined sugar. It is also very slow to digest and may contribute to various intestinal disorders. It’s colonic fermentation continues 10-13 hours after its ingestion.
This is a relatively new artificial sweetener, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998 for use in soft drinks. It is also found in baked goods, chewing gum, and gelatin desserts. Acesulfame-K—the “K” is the chemistry symbol for potassium—is considered 200 times sweeter than sugar. While Gerbstadt isn’t specifically concerned about this sweetener when used in moderation, there is a general concern that testing on this product has been scant. Some studies showed the additive may cause cancer in rats, but the substance makes top 12 lists of additives to avoid because further study is needed to conclude whether or not acesulfame-K is harmful.
Olestra, a synthetic fat known as the brand name Olean and found in some brands of potato chips, prevents fat from getting absorbed in your digestive system. This often leads to severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and gas. “If you eat fat when taking Olestra, the fat is going to go right through you,” says Gerbstadt. More significantly, though, Olestra inhibits healthy vitamin absorption from fat-soluble carotenoids that are found in fruits and vegetables and thought to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. “It blocks fat absorption, but it also blocks vitamin absorption,” says Gerbstadt.
Some foods, such as fruits and carrots, naturally contain sugar, but watch out for foods with added sugars, such as baked goods, cereals, crackers, even sauces and many other processed foods. Gerbstadt includes white sugar on the list of 12 because although it is non-toxic, large amounts are unsafe for our health and promote bad nutrition. “Simple sugars shouldn’t take up more than about 10 percent of the total calories you consume daily,” says Gerbstadt. Yet most Americans already are eating way over that amount, consuming 20, 30, or 40 percent of their calories from simple sugars, she says. Too much sugar not only leads to problems with weight control, tooth decay and blood sugar levels in diabetics; it also replaces good nutrition. “In addition to providing unnecessary calories, your body needs nutrients to metabolize sugar, so it robs your body of valuable vitamins and minerals,” says Gerbstadt.
A dash of sodium chloride, more commonly known as table salt, can certainly bring flavor to your meal. But salt is another hidden food additive that can lead to health issues. “Small amounts of salt are needed by the body and are beneficial in preserving food,” says Gerbstadt. “Excessive amounts of salt can become dangerous for your health, affecting cardiovascular function, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.”