There are many food additives lurking in the foods you eat every day—and you probably don’t even know it! Some are safe, but many others (which have been used for years) have potential health risks. Your best defense is to learn about them and pay attention to the ingredient list the next time you go food shopping. Here are 10 to keep at the top of your mind.
1. Potassium Bromate
This additive is used to strengthen the dough of bread and crackers. It also helps the dough rise during baking. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies potassium bromate as a possible carcinogen. Although baking has been shown to convert most of the additive to non-cancer causing potassium bromide, research in the United Kingdom has shown that potassium bromate residues are still detectable in baked bread in significant enough amounts to be potentially dangerous.
The United Kingdom, European Union, and Canada have banned the use of the additive in food. The United States does still allow its use, so it’s important to read the ingredient list before purchasing bread and crackers.
2. Artificial Food Colors
You’ll find artificial colors in bright candy, carbonated drinks, gelatin desserts, and breakfast cereal. These colors are used to increase the eye appeal of foods that typically don’t have many nutrients. Some colors have been associated with cancer in animal studies including Blue 1, Blue 2, and Red 3. Studies found that Yellow 6 was associated with tumors in animals. Red 40 has been associated with reactions similar to allergies, while Yellow 5 with hyperactivity in children.
Your best bet is to avoid foods made with artificial food colors alltogether. They’re typically found in foods that aren’t very nutritious anyway. Instead, choose whole, less processed foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein.
This alkaloid found in chocolate has a similar upper effect to caffeine. It is commonly used in cereal, bread, and sports drinks. Although the FDA deems theobromine safe, it’s only at five times less than the average person consumes of it.
This additive was first synthesized over 80 years ago and is found in thousands of food products. It’s used to lengthen the shelf life in unsalted butter and is also added to butter-flavored products like microwave popcorn, margarine, and cooking sprays and oils.
Between 2005 to 2007, employees in American factories became sick after being exposed to diacetyl over a long period of time. Some were even diagnosed with obstructive lung disease, which can be fatal. Possible side effects include wheezing and persistent dry cough, and shortness of breath. After this came to light, many food companies switched to safer ingredients.
5. Aluminum Additives
This metal is used as a stabilizer in many processed foods in the form of sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium aluminum sulfate. Research has found that animals exposed to aluminum in the womb and during development show changes in behavior, and learning and motor response. There have also been questions about a link with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. As such, it’s an additive to be wary about and limit consumption and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has put it on their watch list.
6. Propyl Gallate
Propyl gallate is used as an antioxidant preservative that prevents spoilage of fats and oils. It’s typically found in sausage, lard, potato sticks, chicken soup base, and chewing gum. Although it is of the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list, it’s been associated with tumors in male rats and brain tumors in female rats. More studies need to be conducted to determine if it truly is safe.
7. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
This additive helps slow down rancidity in oils and is typically used together with BHA (described on the next slide). It is typically found in cereal, chewing gum, potato chips, and oil. Some studies have found BHT can cause cancer in animals. As BHT is easily replaced with safe substitutes, read the ingredient list and avoid products made with it.
8. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
BHA also helps slow down the rancidity of oils and is typically used together with BHT. It is also found in cereal, chewing gum, preserved meat, potato chips, and vegetable oil. Several organizations have categorized BHA as a “possible human carcinogen” or “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” because studies have found that it causes tumors in animals. BHA can easily be substituted by food companies, so be sure to read the ingredient list and avoid foods made with it.
9. Nitrates and Nitrites
These additives are commonly used as coloring agents, preservatives, and flavor enhancers. They’re commonly used in cured meats like salami, hot dogs, bacon, smoked fish, and sausage. Studies have linked nitrites to certain forms of cancer such as stomach, brain, thyroid, and esophageal.
Look for nitrite-free products and/or eat cured meats and smoked fish on occasion.
Typically found in energy drinks and teas, this tropical plant has seeds that contain caffeine. It actually contains three to five times more caffeine than other plants and twice of what coffee contains. Overconsumption can cause insomnia, anxiety, painful urination, tremors, vomiting and abdominal spasms.
Be particularly careful if mixing guarana with alcohol. The Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that is can be very dangerous. If you’re revved up on caffeine but intoxicated, you may falsely believe that you’re okay to drive, which can lead to potentially deadly accidents.