There is a lot of finger pointing in the health food world. Every month, we have a new villain—trans fat, sugar, and processed meats (and for good reason).
But as the media buzzes about new “danger foods” to add to the list, there are a number of other potentially toxic ingredients that slip under the radar.
Some of the worst food additives are proven carcinogens, banned in other countries, and contributors to numerous cancers, hormone dysfunction, and erratic behavior.
Here’s a list of the most dangerous food additives that may not be in the headlines right now, but continue to threaten our health.
How it’s labeled: Acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Equal, NutraSweet, Saccharin, Sweet’n Low, Splenda, Sorbitol
If these seem too good to be true, you’re right. Zero-calorie sweeteners are highly processed and chemically-derived.
They trick your digestive system and jumble hormone signals, leading to more intense sugar cravings, laxative effects, and potential cancer cell proliferation (see this 22-year Aspartame study, linking it to lymphoma and leukemia).
Artificial sweeteners also have the highest risk of allergic reaction, ranging from skin outbreaks to migraine headaches. A lot of these reactions are misdiagnosed as symptoms of other health issues.
If you’re suffering from headaches, intense carb cravings, or skin breakouts, take stock of the artificial sweeteners in your daily diet.
Check out this exhaustive study round-up from Dr. Mercola, and if you want to get a real scare, watch the video below. With its skull and crossbones imagery, it’s admittedly sensationalized; but if you’re a Diet Coke guzzler, this is a must-watch:
Look for fake sugar derivatives in most diet sodas, sports drinks, calorie-free yogurts, juices, and chewing gum.
How it’s labeled: BHT, BHA, TBHQ, sodium benzoate
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydrozyttoluene (BHT) are preservatives used to preserve flavor and color or prevent rancidity. Classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “known/likely human carcinogen”, it’s directly linked to testicular, urinary, and thyroid cancers.
Sodium benzoate in soft drinks may also react with added vitamin C to make benzene, a cancer-causing substance, shown in this study to increase ADD and hyperactivity in children.
California requires warning labels on products containing BHA, notifying consumers they may cause cancer.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest notes benzoates could easily be replaced with “safer chemicals (e.g., vitamin E), safer processes (e.g., packing foods with nitrogen instead of oxygen/air), or could simply be left out”—but, strangely, they are still permitted by the FDA.
Watch out for them in potato chips, cereals, and vegetable oils.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup is pretty much the worst sugar for your body, ever.
It creates a massive spike in insulin, heavily taxes the liver during metabolization, and actively contributes to obesity and diabetes. What’s worse, HFCS also inhibits leptin, the hormone that signals fullness to the brain, causing you to crave more sugar and feel less satisfied, thus earning its status among the worst food additives of all.
Read the full story we wrote on HFCS and how it compares to other sweeteners here.
Partially Hydrogenated Anything
The process of partial hydrogenation—pressurizing oil to rip open the carbon bonds and squeeze in more hydrogen—is used in the food industry to lower cost, extend the shelf-life, and manipulate texture (resulting in margarine’s mystifying spreadable-solid form). This process converts fatty acid chains into trans fat.
Trans fat circulates the body and actively kills good cholesterol and lowers cyclooxygenase, an enzyme integral in regulating blood flow.
Despite the direct correlation with heart disease, trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils are allowed in all US foods. Labels that claim “trans fat free” can still contain up to 0.5 grams of that sludge, so look for it on the ingredients list, not just in the nutrition facts.
Sodium Nitrite & Nitrate
These preservatives are found in cured meats and dried fruits.
In general, when nitrites are digested, they’re converted into nitric oxide, a molecule that aids in blood vasodilation and neurotransmission. However, when cooked at high temperatures and consumed in larger quantities, sodium nitrite can combine with gastric acids to form nitrosamine, a known carcinogen.
Your body’s individual gut flora determine whether the nitrates convert to nitrosamine; for example, if your gut doesn’t have enough of a certain enzyme, you could be more at risk. However, there is contention on whether the nitrates are really the problem, or rather, the trans fat, antibiotics, and artificial colorings that compose most processed meats.
Either way, it’s a good idea to consider how much cheap meat you’re consuming.
If you’re going to eat cured meats (because, let’s be honest, no one wants to give up bacon), the best policy is to choose free-range, sustainably-farmed products that don’t have trans fat and antibiotics, but have higher protein content and fewer added nitrites.
This additive is used in many bread flours to add structure and texture to the dough.
Until the 1990s, we believed the chemical was fully broken down into potassium bromide, a similar yet non-carcinogenic chemical, during the baking process.
But this study in the UK found potassium bromate was still measurable in seven out of 22 packaged breads. Researchers in this study classified potassium bromate as “a complete carcinogen”, meaning that it initiates and promotes cancer cell formation.
And although it’s outlawed in nearly every country in the world, it’s still allowed in the U.S. and Japan. In California, however, they ruled that potassium bromate effectively “meets criteria for listing as ‘cancer causing’”, and products using it are now required to be labeled as such. In all other states, you’ll have to look closely at the label.
The strange thing about chemical dyes is that most are easily replaceable with organically-derived dyes, but the government continues to resist legislation.
In March 2011, the FDA reopened the discussion on whether to ban certain harmful artificial colorings, but ultimately, threw it back out, concluding there was not enough causational evidence to merit a ban.
However, a closer look at the meeting minutes shows the issue deeply divided the FDA panel; the vote passed by only a small margin. So until the food industry catches up, look for products labeled with “no artificial dyes” and check the ingredients list.
Here are the big offenders:
- Also known as “indigotine”, the same dye used to color denim
- Banned in Norway, Finland, and France
- May cause chromosomal damage
- Recently linked to increased hyperactivity in children
- Found in sports drinks, candy, kids’ cereals, icings, baked goods…even pet food
- Demonstrated chromosomal damage in laboratory animals
- Partially banned in the 1990s; now back on the market
- Linked to thyroid and lymph tumors
- Red #40 is banned in most European countries for its association with basal cell carcinoma and bladder cancer
- Possible interference with brain-nerve transmission
- Found in cough syrups, maraschino cherries, baked goods, sausage casings, candy, and cosmetics
- Often contaminated with benzidine, a known carcinogen
- Banned in Norway and Sweden
- Increases the number of kidney and adrenal gland tumors in laboratory animals; may cause chromosomal damage
- Yellow #5 shown to worsen asthma symptoms and scramble DNA information, leading to cell mutation
- Found in gelatin desserts, lemon-flavored baked goods, cakes, sports drinks, soda, and kids’ cereals
For further reading, refer to Toxicology of Food Dyes from the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health
- Many of these studies found carcinogenic or toxic effects only after high dosages. If you’re concerned about how much of a certain additive you’re eating, do two things:
- Read the studies closely (in this BHT study, for example, rats were exposed to 500 mg per kilogram of body weight per day; whereas, the acceptable daily intake for humans is 0.25 mg/kg body weight/day).
- Look up the “no-observed-adverse-effect level” (NOAEL) threshold for toxicity (here’s the report used by the European Union). Chances are, if you don’t have repeated exposure to certain additives, you’re probably not at risk for these related diseases.
- There are many conflicting studies, and the science is always changing. The debate concerning artificial sweeteners is especially contentious, with many well-cited studies convincingly arguing for the additives’ safety (like this study about aspartame and this one about sucralose).
- Not all additives are bad. Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of “Read It before You Eat It”, stresses the importance of decoding ingredients lists. Not all multisyllabic ingredients are cause for alarm. Although, as a rule, the fewer ingredients, the better.
— Bonnie Taub-Dix (@eatsmartbd) October 23, 2014
By reading articles like this one! Or browsing consumer reports. This infographic from the Center for Science in Public Interest also gives a very thorough rundown of some of the worst food additives and their dangers.
Do your due diligence by checking the ingredients lists. Further reduce your toxin intake by eating organic, non-GMO fruits and vegetables and sustainably-farmed meat. Use the Organic.org store finder to locate a market close to home.
The idea of carcinogenic additives will make anyone anxious. But don’t freak out—just simplify (see below). Stress is just as bad (if not worse!) for your health as these ingredients. So take a deep breath and follow this one very important rule…
The rule for avoiding toxic additives is simple: Eat more whole foods and fewer processed ones. The best foods are the ones that don’t have ingredients lists at all.