11 Food Additives You're Probably Eating Every Day (and What They Do)
My grandparents grew up in a time and place when they knew exactly where their food came from: their own backyard. That kind of transparency seems almost unimaginable to me.
The carton of milk I buy might have been sourced from hundreds — or even thousands — of animals. The apples I carefully select tell me only the country or state in which they were grown. Even the fresh bread from my favorite local bakery is suspect; I know nothing about the flour, the seeds, or the hands that bring it to life. And I haven't even gotten to processed food. (See also: I'm Eating What? 12 Gross Things in Your Food)
But let's be honest: It's pretty hard to avoid processed food entirely. Whether you're talking about technicolored junk food or just canned veggies, it all contains additives that, at best, are unnecessary and, at worst, are downright harmful. Here are 11 common food additives many of us probably ingest quite often — and what they could mean for your health.
Butylated HydroxyAnisole (BHA)
What It Is: A petroleum-based antioxidant preservative that helps keep fats from going rancid.
Where You'll Find It: Food packaging, butter, crackers, potato chips, cereal, and beer.
What It Does: It depends on whom you ask. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, BHA is "generally recognized as safe," while the National Institutes of Health says it's "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Studies have shown that in high doses it causes cancer in lab rats.
What It Is: A chemical blend of fully hydrogenated and non-hydrogenated oils, interesterified fat was developed in response to a backlash against hydrogenated oils, which have been found to have serious health effects.
Where You'll Find It: You could find interesterified fats in just about any processed food that contains vegetable oil, including deep-fried food, doughnuts, cookies, pastries, crackers, margarine, salad dressing, and mayonnaise. Look for terms like "stearate" or "stearic rich fats," as well as "fully hydrogenated vegetable oil, palm oil or palm kernel oil" on the label.
What It Does: One study found that significant consumption of interesterified fats created unhealthy levels of cholesterol and unfavorable blood glucose levels that bordered on pre-diabetes. Another study found no negative effects to cholesterol levels. What is certain is that this fat is less healthy than other saturated alternatives, such a coconut oil and butter. (See also: 10 Fat-Filled Foods You Should Stop Avoiding.)
Red #40 (Allura Red)
What It Is: A petroleum-based food dye that belongs, along with a number of other food colorants, to a group called azo dyes.
Where You'll Find It: As the most commonly used food colorant in the U.S., Red #40 is found in candy, cereal, soft drinks, pastries, maraschino cherries, fruit snacks, fruit cocktail, and even chocolate cake. (See also: You'll Be Surprised How Much Sugar These 10 Foods Have.)
What It Does: In 2007, the azo group of dyes was linked to hyperactivity in elementary school children. Questions over its potentially negative health effects have lead to its being banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, and Switzerland.
Yellow #5 (Tartrazine)
What It Is: A synthetic organic chemical dye which, like Red #40, belongs to the azo group.
Where You'll Find It: Cereal, pudding, snacks, macaroni and cheese, condiments, chips, cookies.
What It Does: Like Red #40, Yellow No. 5 has been linked to hyperactivity, as well as reactions like asthma, some skin conditions, and even cancer. None of these studies is considered conclusive, however, and the coloring remains an FDA approved food additive.
What It Is: A carbon-based synthetic compound used in plastics and epoxy resins.
Where You'll Find It: BPA is used in all kinds of polymers and plastics, but when it comes to food, you'll mostly find it in canned foods, because many cans have BPA in their lining. Significant amounts have been shown to leach into food.
What It Does: Although there isn't much debate about whether people ingest BPA regularly, there is controversy about whether it's safe or not. The biggest concern is that BPA disrupts endocrine function. Even so, one recent study that fed rats more than 70,000 times the amount of BPA ingested by a typical American found no ill effects.
What It Is: Chemical plasticizing agents that gets into our food via packaging and processing.
Where You'll Find It: A 2013 study detected phthalates in all 72 of the common food products it elected to test, including vegetables, dairy products, grains, meats, and processed foods.
What It Does: The use of this chemical has been banned in baby toys, but researchers still consider its potential health risks as up in the air. According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure has been shown to affect the reproductive system of laboratory animals.
What It Is: A chemical additive used in bread flour to strengthen bread dough and help improve rising.
Where You'll Find It: Although it's banned for use in many countries, in the United States, you'll find potassium bromate in many commercial baked breads and some bread flours. Because it's an oxidizing agent, it should ideally be used up during baking, leaving no trace in the finished product. Under some baking conditions, however, traces may remain.
What It Does: Potassium bromate has been found to have carcinogenic effects in animals. However, those effects were not found in animals fed bread-based diets made from flour treated with potassium bromate.
What It Is: Compounds that contain the sulfite ion and are used as food enhancers, particularly to prevent fermentation.
Where You'll Find It: Unlike many of the other additives on this list, sulfites are commonly found in the foods most people would consider to be relatively healthy, such as dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, fruit and vegetable juices, tomato pastes and purees, vinegar, and wine.
What It Does: Although sulfites have not been found to cause serious health effects, they have been linked to allergic reactions in some sensitive people.
What It Is: A seaweed extract widely used in the food industry for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing purposes.
Where You'll Find It: Carrageenan is most commonly found in yogurt, soy and almond milk, and ice cream, particularly low-fat versions.
What It Is: An inorganic salt that's used as both a fertilizer and a food additive.
Where You'll Find It: Ammonium sulfate is used in some commercial breads to speed rising and improve browning.
What It Does: Although the FDA has labeled ammonium sulfate as "generally recognized as safe," the chemical has been found to be toxic and have carcinogenic effects in lab rats.
What It Is: Secretions from a beaver's anal gland used to create vanilla or raspberry flavoring in some foods.
Where You'll Find It: You'll be happy to note you probably aren't eating this particular additive very often; there are plenty of alternatives, so annual consumption in the U.S. is low. However, castoreum is approved for use by the FDA and may only be listed as "natural flavor" on the label.
What It Does: Using a beaver's butt juice as a flavoring agent might seem weird, but this one actually has a long track record for safety. That said, it's kind of… gross… and it's definitely a no-no for vegans and vegetarians.
Although it's virtually impossible to avoid all additives, the best way to reduce exposure is to consume whole and unprocessed foods as much as possible. If you're really ambitious, you can even grow or produce some of your own — just like your grandparents did.
What food additives do you watch out for? Please share in comments so we can watch for them, too!