24 Potentially Harmful Food Additives

by Katrina Cain on July 14, 2008

There are an overwhelming amount of websites dedicated to harmful additives in food; but many are totally obscured by an obvious bias, making it difficult to make an informed decision about foods to avoid. I am making a list here of additives or ingredients used in the preparation of the food we eat that have been mentioned in a number of different places as being carcinogenic, mutagenic (causes DNA mutations that can potentially cause cancer), or allergenic. Many additives used are colorants. These are the color additives approved by the FDA: FD&C Red #3 (not in cosmetics, external drugs or in lake form – explanation to come later), Citrus Red #2, FD&C Red #40, FD&C Blue #1, FD&C Blue #2, FD&C Green #3, Orange B, FD&C Yellow #5, and FD&C Yellow #6

Where possible, I have provided links to the FDA or other legitimate websites that address concerns about these ingredients. If you are wondering how the FDA reaches decisions about food additives, check out their guide to what tests should be performed for the FDA to pass the color for public consumption.

Harvey Wiley, a chemist and pioneer in the investigation of the safety of colorants in our food, was responsible for bringing about the first official document addressing these concerns called the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The law basically said that if the consumer would be deceived as to the product’s quality or freshness by the addition of an artificial colorant, then its use should be prohibited. Later, he hired a dye consultant by the name of Bernard Hess Ph.D to assess the more than 80 commercial colorants that were used at that time. Hesse concluded that only 7 should be approved for use and that the other 73 were not safe!

In the 1960’s the FDA instituted a new policy that required colorants to be demonstrated as safe. In the meantime, it gave the over 200 colorants being used at the time an island of reprieve until their safety could be confirmed or denied. Only 90 (as of 2002) of the original list are still being used. Also, the Color Additive Amendments in 1960 introduced a new clause into law called the Delaney Clause: it is illegal to distribute any artificial coloring that has caused cancer in either animals or humans. This very stringent law has been challenged many times on the notion that “any risk” could include one in 10 billion; that is one extra case of cancer in 10 billion people would render that colorant as banned in the U.S. There are some risks that are so negligible as to be virtually non existent (in my books, and I am pretty picky), but nonetheless, the Delaney Clause is strict in its lettering, and thus the U.S. consumer is protected. Why then, are some controversial colorants and other substances, still legally usable by manufacturers? It lies in the differing opinions of scientists as to the validity of whether the substance in question causes cancer or other ill effects. As with many things, it comes down to a battle of experts and the consumer is left to decide for themselves how to proceed.

After the 1960’s the FDA required evidence that new color additives were safe before they were allowed to be used. The evidence was not collected by the FDA, but by the manufacturer; clearly a conflict of interest situation unless you are dealing with incredibly scrupulous manufacturers! If a product was deemed safe for food, drugs and cosmetics, it received an FD&C label, if only for drugs and cosmetics, it received an D&C label and for external use drugs and cosmetics, it received an Ext. D&C label. Certification means that a sample from a batch of a particular color must undergo and pass FDA testing before it can be used. Currently, only coal tar and petroleum based products are batch monitored; that is, each new batch created must be certified. If a dye is naturally derived from plant, animal, or mineral sources, it doesn’t need individual batch certification, but is still heavily regulated by the FDA.

What I find interesting is if a additive is animal derived, it needs not be stated on the ingredient label, leaving vegetarians stuck unknowingly consuming products that they are ethically opposed to. Here is a list of naturally derived colorants that are animal derived, and thus not subject to certification: carmine or cochineal extract comes from the female cochineal insect (commonly used in Campari, fruits, yogurts, processed foods and cosmetics), and canthaxanthin, which can be derived from ocean crustaceans, but is mostly made synthetically (in the U.S. is commonly used for chicken feed). Here are a list of colorants and other products that could be harmful or not depending upon which expert you listen to.

Diet Products

Aspartame, also known as E-951 is an artificial sweetener used in many diet products. Although it is close to 200 times sweeter than sugar, it adds virtually no calories, making it seemingly ideal for dieters. This chemical has been linked to brain tumors and memory loss. Aspartame is made up of 3 ingredients: Aspartic acid (40%), phenylalanine (50%) and methanol (10%). Ingestion of Aspartame increases aspartic acid levels in the blood; higher levels of aspartic acid can lead to the destruction of neurons – neurons don’t grow back; once they are gone, that’s it. Phenylalanine is an amino acid regularly found in the body, but some people suffer from a disorder called PKU; an inability to metabolize phenylalanine. If this disease is not diagnosed early, lethal levels can build up in the brain. For those of you with children, you may remember your newborn having their skin pricked to test their blood for this disease. High levels of phenylalanine have been found in the brains of people who consume aspartame. Methanol is slowly broken down in the small intestine, but if it reaches 30 degrees celsius or higher, it reacts with the chymotripsin to form formaldehyde. In Operation Desert Storm, troops were given ample quanitites of diet sodas that would heat up nicely in the desert, and many reported symptoms that mimic formaldehyde poisoning. In case you are not convinced, here is some more evidence that you might want to avoid this chemical: some American aviation publications have warned pilots off consuming products containing Aspartame do to complaints of seizure like symptoms, blurred vision and blackouts. My own sister in law suffers from epilepsy and has been told by her doctor to avoid Aspartame as it may increase her chances of having a seizure. And finally, 75% of complaints to the FDA regarding health complications from food additives have involved Aspartame. There are many governmental studies that refute the adverse affects of Aspartame, but since there is so much evidence implicating this chemical with health problems, I am not going to take any chances.

Acesulfame-K or Ace-K is an artificial sweetener used in Coke Zero. There have been inadequate studies to conclusively prove this substance is totally safe for human consumption. This additive was approved even though it failed to meet FDA standards.

Olestra is a fat substitute used in some potato chips. It is not taken up by the body during digestion and is passed through the small and large intestine in tact. For this reason, it is considered to have zero calories, but it causes a whole host of gastrointestinal related symptoms such as abdominal cramps, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and loose stools. What we won’t do to have our cake or chips and eat them too…

Saccharin is a product that demonstrates the sometimes backwards momentum gained in the food additive industry. Saccharin is used in Sweet and Low and in 1977, the FDA recommended that it be banned from use; the government responded by requiring a warning label to put onto products containing saccharin. The diet industry in 1997 petitioned the World Health Organization, and the U.S. and Canadian governments to remove saccharin from their list of cancer causing chemicals. The governments buckled by removing the requirement that products containing saccharin have a warning label. This will likely increase usage. This product has been shown to cause bladder and other cancer in rats and mice.

Colorants

Citrus Red 2 is carcinogenic and 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 those of you who candy orange peels or use orange zest, be cautious of where your oranges come from. We thought we were safe from additives with fresh fruit, but apparently, we were wrong.

Red dye #3; the marishino cherries of my youth… Studies were done in 1983 that showed thyroid tumors in rats on high amounts of this dye. As a result of these studies, the FDA recommended that Red dye #3 be banned in the U.S., but the governmental powers that be overruled the FDA’s decision and subsequently, this colorant is still used, but only as a straight color additive; not in lake form. Huh? O.K., it goes like this: straight color additives are water soluble and are ideal for use in foods that have a lower fat content, or a higher liquid content. Lakes are the water insoluble form of the same colorant and are used in products that have a low moisture content such as tablets, or in high fat products, such as icing.

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. There is a wonderful website called Toxicology Advice and Consulting that summarizes recent studies on over 600 different chemicals. You need only type the name of the chemical into the database and press enter. The Material Safety Data Sheet for Blue 2 states that it is “hazardous in case of ingestion, of inhalation”; although this may refer to people who use this dye in large amounts.

FD&C Green #3 has been linked to studies showing tumors in rats that were injected with this dye. David Steinman, author of The Safe Shopper’s Bible, recommends avoiding this dye as it has been found to be carcinogenic; however, I should point out that the studies for this dye have been in very much in dispute and it is difficult to find a lot of current information.

Tartrazine, also known as FD&C Yellow #5 or E-102; an ingredient that I have taught my 4 and 6 year old to recognize on a package of candy. It provides the color yellow and as such, can also 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.

FD&C Yellow #6 – Sunset Yellow is Sudan 1 that has been sulfonated. Sudan 1 often remains as an impurity in Sunset Yellow. It is banned in Norway and Finland and the Food Standards Agency in Britain has called for a 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, it may cause hyperactivity in children when combined with Sodium Benzoate. The Carcinogenic Potentcy Project at Berkeley has revealed no positive results for a cancer test summary. Basically this website is a summary of all of the studies done with regards to potential carcinogenic agents.

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. As a result of all the negative publicity for this colorant, the country of Sudan has asked to have its name changed.

Ferrous Gluconate is a naturally derrived, mineral colorant added to olives. It is also a medication used for treating anemia, and as a drug has side effects, and contraindications.

Preservatives

Chlorphenesin and Phenoxyethanol are ingredients used in Mommy’s Bliss Nipple Cream. 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.

Sulfites are 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, sulphites are not of particular concern, but people who are sensitive to them have experienced severe allergic reactions including anaphalactic shock. In addition, sulfites destroy thaimin (vitamin B1). People with sulfite sensitivities should avoid any product containing sulfites.

BHA is a preservative used in cereals, potato chips and chewing gum to stop them from becoming rancid. It 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.

Color and Flavor Enhancers

Aristolochic acid is an ingredient used in “traditional medicines” or “dietary supplements” that is known to potentially cause irreversible and fatal kidney failure.

Sodium nitrate and nitrite are added to meats to stabilize them, give them their red color and provide that characteristic smoked flavor. They mix with the acid in your stomach to form nitrosamines, which are very strong cancer causing cells. They are especially present in fried bacon. Recently, food companies have been adding ascorbic acid and erythorbic acid to nitrate and nitrite treated meat to slow the formation of nitrosamines in the stomach which has significantly reduced the harm that these ingredients cause, but does not eliminate it completely. I always try to buy nitrite free lunch meat for my family when I can. Hot dogs are also filled with nitrites; without them, both bacon and hot dogs would be an ever appetizing shade of gray.

Chloropropanols are 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 materials be banned from entering the U.S.

Diacetyl, the 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 volunarily replace this ingredient in the microwave popcorn. The CDC has issued a safety alert for workers in factories that use diacetyl.

Potassium Bromate is a chemical added to flour to make bread rise better and give it a uniform consistency. Most of what is added to flour breaks down during the cooking process into bromide, which at this time, is shown little to no health risk, but what hasn’t been 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. It is banned in most countries except the U.S. and Japan.

Ephedra is an herb used in many supplements. This drug is illegal in the U.S. for use in supplements but does turn up in other products. It is commonly promoted for its effects on “enhancing manhood”. The list of effects on the body is about as long as my arm and include almost every system in the body. I do want to note, that this substance has been used for years in pharmaceutical preparations as an effective bronchodilator, but physicians are opting for newer, as effective drugs with less side effects. Ephedra is very strictly controlled in the United States because it can be used to make Methamphetamine.

Not intentionally added to food, but there nonetheless…

Methyl mercury is found in nearly all fish and shellfish and gets more concentrated up the fish food chain you go. Researches have concluded that most of us don’t eat enough for it to be a health concern, but some larger fish such as shark, swordfish, pike and walleye can contain up to 1ppm, the highest allowable safe limit for human consumption.

Benzene is carcinogenic and found in some foods. It can occur as a result of benzoate and ascorbic acid chemically combining in some soft drinks. The soft drink industry was made aware when tests came back positive for benzene and since then, have been taking steps to address the problem. In 2005, additional tests revealed benzene in soft drinks, but the FDA decided that the amount was too small to be of concern, but will continue to take random samples to monitor the situation.

Bisphenol A is used to package food and has been found to mimic the effects of estrogen, both in mice and human studies. It has been linked to obesity, causing the body to trigger fat cell activity and has be shown to have carcinogenic effects on developing fetuses, creating breast cancer precurser cells. World wide studies are underway to re evaluate the safety of using this product as it is still widely available although many companies including Nalgene, Mountain Equipment Coop and Patagonia are voluntarily ceasing to make products with Bisphenol A. In addition, Wal Mart (Canada) has discontinued sales of soothers, baby bottles, sippy cups, food and water containers and has made a commitment to do away with Bisphenol A in U.S. stores by 2009. How do you know if your container is made from Bisphenol A? Look on the bottom for the recycling triangle. If it has a 7 or 3, it contains Bisphenol A.

Please feel free to email me with suggestions and/or corrections to this article as I am an avid label reader for the health of my kids and myself.

For more information about colorants that are legal in the United States, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Color Additive Status List.

Summary of useful websites for investigating food additives:

Food Safety - Food Additives http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm

National Institute of Health – http://www.nih.gov/

Bibra Toxicology Advice and Consulting – http://www.bibra-information.co.uk/

Food Additives – http://www.foodadditivesworld.com/

FDA Consumer (until 2007) – http://www.fda.gov/fdac/fdacindex.html

A copy of this article can be found at The 18th Carnival For Improving Life and at All Things Eco as well as The Allergic Kid.

If you are interested in tips to keep your body healthy, check out Sport Fit.com; a down to earth blogger who talks fitness in plain language.

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