What are food additives? They are chemical substances that food manufacturers add to a wide range of processed foods to preserve the flavor or improve the taste and appearance of the finished product. They are common in foods requiring long shelf lives and are used widely in “diet” (i.e., low-fat) foods that need the flavor boost.
Some additives come from natural sources, but some highly process substances derived from unhealthy sources such as coal tar and peroxide.
Here’s a list of some food additives you may want to avoid. I’ve broken them down by category:
Food Additives – Artificial Food Colorings
- Citrus Red 2: carcinogenic food additive used to enhance the color of the skin in some Florida oranges and other fruits. Since most people don’t eat the skin of oranges, the FDA isn’t concerned, but for if you like candied orange peels or use orange zest, use organic oranges.
- FD&C; Blue #1: Brilliant Blue FCF was previously banned in many EU countries, but most have removed the ban. It is on the list of approved colorants in the U.S. The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in 1998, that this colorant causes cancer in rats. Studies have found this substance to be a skin and eye irritant and allergen.
- FD&C; Green #3: has been linked to studies showing tumors in rats that were injected with this dye.
- FD&C; Yellow #6: Sunset Yellow is Sudan 1 that has been sulfonated. Sudan 1 often remains as an impurity in Yellow #6. It is banned in Norway and Finland and the Food Standards Agency in Britain has called for the voluntary removal of Sunset Yellow from food and drink by 2009. It has been linked with a small percentage of skin irritations and asthmatic reactions. In addition, this food additive may cause hyperactivity in children when combined with Sodium Benzoate.
- FD&C; Red Dye #3: A cherry red dye derived from coal tar. In 1981, NIH researchers reported that this substance may interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain. In 1996, researchers at Northeastern Illinois University conducted studies and found that even low doses of Red #3 caused cancerous changes in human cell cultures. The FDA banned the use of Red Dye #3 in lake form in cosmetics but still allows the dye to be used in food products. Go figure.
- Sudan 1: also called CI Solvent Yellow 14 has been banned in the EU. Lab tests on exposed rats revealed bladder and liver tumor growth. Sudan 1 is banned in the U.S.
- Tartrazine: also known as FD&C; Yellow #5. It provides the color yellow and can be found in green and blue candies. There is currently a petition to the FDA to ban tartrazine from food. Some schools have banned products containing tartrazine and subsequently noticed a big difference in the overall behavior of their students. Tartrazine is a coal tar derivative, like most artificial colorings, and is one of the most controversial of the azo dies used in food. Norway has banned the substance. This chemical has been linked to severe allergic reactions, especially in asthmatics and is one of the food additives thought to be a cause of hyperactivity in children.
Food Additives – Preservatives
- BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole): a preservative used in cereals, potato chips, and chewing gum to stop them from becoming rancid. It accumulates in the body fat and it is known to disrupt the body’s hormone balance. This widely used food additive has been shown to cause cancer in mice, rats, and hamsters. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers BHA to be a carcinogen and that it poses a reasonable risk to health. Despite this warning, the FDA still allows BHA to be used as a food additive to prevent fat rancidity.
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): BHT also prevents oxidative rancidity of fats. It is used to preserve food odor, color, and flavor. Many packaging materials incorporate BHT. It is also added directly to shortening, cereals, and other foods containing fats and oils. Studies linking it to cancer are in conflict.
- Calcium Disodium EDTA: added as a preservative to prevent catalytic oxidation by metal ions or stabilizer and for iron fortification. It is also used to recover lead from used lead-acid batteries, and as an oral chelation agent to clean up heavy metal toxicity. EDTA has been found to be both cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic in laboratory animals. Oral exposures of this food additive have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues.
- Calcium propionate: used as a preservative in a wide variety of products, including but not limited to bread, other bakery goods, processed meat, whey, and other dairy products. In agriculture, it is used, amongst other things, to prevent milk fever in cows and as a feed supplement. Calcium propionate has been weakly linked to irritability, restlessness, inattention, and sleep disturbances in children. The Ecologist Online maintains that it is linked to allergic reactions in bakery workers.
- Chlorphenesin and Phenoxyethanol: anti-bacterial ingredients used in some nipple creams. The FDA has issued a consumer warning that these two substances cause depression of the central nervous system, vomiting, and diarrhea in infants. Phenoxyethanol is used as a preservative in medications and cosmetics.
- Sodium Benzoate, Benzoic Acid: a preservative added to fruit juice, carbonated drinks, pickles. Problems occur when sodium benzoate is used in beverages that also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The two substances, in an acidic solution, can react together to form small amounts of benzene, a chemical that causes leukemia and other cancers. In the early 1990s, the FDA had urged companies not to use benzoate in products that also contain ascorbic acid, but companies are still using that combination. A lawsuit filed in 2006 by private attorneys ultimately forced Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other soft-drink makers in the U.S. to reformulate affected beverages, typically fruit-flavored products.
- Sulfites: used as preservatives to maintain shelf life, color and inhibit bacterial growth in food products. They are also used to enhance the potency of certain medications. For most people, sulfites are not of particular concern, but people who are sensitive to them have experienced severe allergic reactions including anaphylactic shock. In addition, sulfites destroy thiamin (vitamin B1).
- TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone): a highly effective preservative for unsaturated vegetable oils and many edible animal fats. It does not cause discoloration even in the presence of iron and does not change the flavor or odor of the material it is added to. It is added to a wide range of foods, with the highest limit permitted for frozen fish and fish products. Its primary advantage as a food additive is enhancing storage life. It is also added to varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives. In high doses in animal studies, it acted as precursors to stomach tumors and damage to DNA. A number of studies have shown that prolonged exposure to TBHQ may induce carcinogenicity.
Food Additives – Color, Texture and Flavor Enhancers
- Acetone peroxide: a bleach and conditioner used in milling flour. It is also extremely unstable and explosive and has been used by terrorists in bomb-making.
- Aristolochic acid: an ingredient used in “traditional medicines” or “dietary supplements” that are known to potentially cause irreversible and fatal kidney failure.
- Artificial and natural flavoring: a generic term found on soda pop, candy, breakfast cereals, gelatin desserts, and many other foods. Hundreds of chemicals are used to mimic natural flavors; many may be used in a single flavoring, such as for cherry soda pop. Flavorings may include substances to which some people are sensitive, such as MSG or HVP.
- Chloropropanols: a family of drugs commonly found in Asian food sauces like black bean, soy, and oyster sauce. There are two specific substances within this category that are known carcinogens and that are banned in Canada and the UK:3-MCPD and 1,3 DCP. They are not banned in the United States, although the FDA has recommended that foreign products containing these food additives be banned from entering the U.S.
- Diacetyl: a chemical that imparts the buttery flavor in microwave popcorn has a disease named after it due to the large amount of microwave popcorn factory workers that came down with the lung condition Diacetyl Induced Bronchiolitis Obliterans; or “Popcorn Worker’s Lung”. There is no official ban in the EU, and U.S. companies are starting to voluntarily replace this ingredient in the microwave popcorn. The CDC has issued a safety alert for workers in factories that use diacetyl.
- Disodium Guanylate: a flavor enhancer used in conjunction with MSG. Disodium guanylate is not safe for babies under twelve weeks, and should generally be avoided by asthmatics and people with gout.
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP): found in instant soups, hotdogs, sauce mixes, beef stew. HVP consists of vegetable (usually soybean) protein that has been chemically broken down to the amino acids of which it is composed. It contains MSG and may cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): MSG is a known excitotoxin. Excitotoxins (glutamate, aspartate, cysteine) kill brain cells through a mechanism that causes the cells to fire repeatedly until they self destruct. MSG and aspartame, an artificial sweetener, are the most common excitotoxins. In the 1960s, studies found that large amounts of MSG fed to infant mice destroyed a large part of neurons in their brains.
After that research was publicized, public pressure forced baby-food companies to stop adding MSG to their products. Some controlled studies have shown that some people are sensitive to MSG. Reactions include headache, nausea, weakness, and burning sensation in the back of the neck and forearms. Some people complain of wheezing, changes in heart rate, and difficulty breathing. People who believe they are sensitive to MSG should be aware that other ingredients, such as “natural flavoring” and “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” contain larges quantities of glutamate. Also, foods such as Parmesan cheese and tomatoes contain glutamate that occurs naturally, but no reactions have been reported to those foods. In Japan, MSG is known as Aji-no-moto. This website page lists ingredients associated with MSG.
- Nonyl Alcohol: A synthetic flavoring, colorless to yellow with a citronella oil odor. This occurs in the oil of orange. Used in butter, citrus, peach, and pineapple flavorings for beverages, ice cream, ices, candy, baked goods, and chewing gum. Also used in the manufacture of artificial lemon oil. In experimental animals, this food additive has caused the central nervous system and liver damage.
Polysorbate 80 (also known as tween 80): a stabilizer used in a wide variety of products including ice cream, milk products, vitamin tablets, lotions and creams and medical products like vaccines and anti-cancer medications. This food additive has been linked to nonimmunologic allergic reactions, and one study has linked it to infertility. The study found that polysorbate 80 caused changes into the vagina and womb lining, hormonal changes, ovary deformities and degenerative follicles in mice. (Food Chem Toxicol. 1993 Mar;31(3):183-90. PMID: 8473002.) This is disturbing because this substance is in the new Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine which is being marketed for girls aged 9-26 in the United States.
- Potassium Bromate: a chemical added to flour to make bread rise better and give it a uniform consistency. Most of what is added to flour break down during the cooking process into bromide. An excess intake of bromide has been associated with the inhibition of iodine enzyme metabolism and theory known as bromide dominance. Bromide dominance blocks iodine and is associated with breast cancer and hypothyroidism. The potassium bromate that isn’t broken down remains in the baked good and is a known carcinogen. Numerous petitions have been made to the FDA to ban this ingredient and many flour mills have voluntarily stopped adding it to their products. This food additive is banned in most countries except the U.S. and Japan.
- Potassium Nitrate (SaltPeter): potassium nitrate has been a common ingredient of salted meat since the Middle Ages, but its use has been mostly discontinued due to health concerns over nitrosamines. Saltpeter is still used in some food applications, such as charcuterie and the brine used to make corned beef.
- Sodium nitrite: added to meats to stabilize them, give them their red color and provide that characteristic smoked flavor. Should not be confused with Sodium Nitrates, which exist naturally in just about all foods, and even in your own saliva.
Be aware that avoiding meats with nitrates in them will not help you be nitrate-free, as approximately 80% of dietary nitrates are derived from vegetable consumption. See this eye-opening study and this interesting post.
Sodium nitrite, rather than sodium nitrate, is most commonly used for curing. It is easy to confuse the two compounds because each can be altered to produce the other. For instance, oxidation will turn sodium nitrite into sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrates can be reduced to nitrites by certain microorganisms present in foods and in the gastrointestinal tract.
The concern over sodium nitrites in meat has to do with the possibility that when heated or mixed with stomach acid, they can be transformed into nitrosamines, which were thought to have carcinogenic properties. However, recent research has shown that this is not a viable concern.
However, recently, food companies have been adding ascorbic acid and erythorbic acid to nitrite treated meat to slow the formation of nitrosamines in the stomach.