The single most important thing you can do for your health is be an informed, label-reading consumer. When you purchase packaged, processed, manufactured foods, there is a high chance those foods contain food additives designed to increase shelf life, improve flavour or texture, or make the food more appealing to the eye. Unfortunately, a lot of these additives can also be downright dangerous.
Read on to see the 10 worst food ingredients that you should avoid.
1. Artifical Sweeteners
An artificial sweetener found in “diet,” “sugar-free,” and “no sugar added” products, aspartame (also known as Sweet n Low or Equal) is a combination of two amino acids and methanol. Three independent studies have found that aspartame causes cancer in animals, and one long-term study of humans conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found evidence that aspartame poses a slightly increased cancer risk to men. It has also been linked to pre-term delivery of babies, as well as headaches and dizziness in some people. Stay clear of diet products that claim to be “sugar free” as if they were a healthier choice; they most likely contain this artificial sweetener instead.
It’s not just aspartame, either. Acesulfame-Potassium, or “Ace-K,” is a relatively new artificial sweetener used in “diet,” “sugar free” and “no sugar added” products, including yogurts, baked goods, soft drinks, candy, gum, and frozen desserts. This artificial sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Safety tests done on Ace-K were performed in the 1970s, and were not high quality. Two of these studies suggested a link between Ace-K and cancer in rats. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is asking the FDA to conduct modern day, high-quality research on acesulfame-potassium or withdraw approval of this artificial sweetener.
Azodicarbonamide is another dough conditioner used to improve the texture of flour goods like bread and rolls. When bread containing this additive is baked, it releases urethane, a recognized carcinogen. Azodicarbonamide is banned in Australia and many European countries.
If this (long) additive name sounds familiar, it is because azodicarbonamide was recently big news. Since it is also used to create plastic foam yoga mats and the soles of shoes, azodicarbonamide earned itself the nickname: “The Yoga Mat Chemical.” Subway was pressured by customers to remove this chemical from its breads, but it can still be found in many breads and rolls in your local grocery store.
3. BHA And BHT
Butylated hydroxyanisole can be found in chips, chewing gum, butter, cereals, beer, preserved meats, and as a flavouring preservative. Classified as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program, BHA is listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Prop 65, largely due to the consistent evidence that BHA causes tumors in animals. The EU classifies these additives as endocrine system disruptors that can affect hormones.
Its chemical cousin, BHT isn’t much better. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is found in shortening, cereals, and food with fats and oils, where it is used as a preservative. BHT residues have been found in human fat, and it can easily be replaced by healthier preservatives, like vitamin E, in foods. Avoid both BHA and BHT, both of which have been banned in Japan, England, and many other European countries.
4. Sodium Nitrate/Sodium Nitrite
Sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite is used as a preservative, colouring, and flavouring in common processed meats such as bacon, cold cuts (lunch meats, ham, turkey) hot dogs, smoked fish and others. This ingredient is actually highly carcinogenic once it enters the human digestive system, wreaking havoc on the liver and pancreas in particular. Sodium nitrite is widely regarded as a toxic ingredient, and the USDA actually tried to ban the additive in the 1970s but was vetoed by food manufacturers who complained they had no alternative for preserving packaged meat products.
So why does the industry still use it? Simple: this chemical just happens to turn meats bright red. It’s actually a color fixer, and it makes old, dead meats appear fresh and vibrant. Choose meats like proscuitto or serrano ham that contains no added nitrates, or add your own cooked chicken and meat to your sandwiches and avoid this harmful ingredient altogether.
5. Caramel Colouring
The most widely used colorant added to foods and beverages, caramel coloring is made by heating high dextrose corn syrup together with ammonium compounds or acids. When produced with ammonia, caramel coloring contains the contaminants 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole. These two contaminants have been found to cause cancer in mice and rats, and are listed as known carcinogens under California’s Prop 65.
6. Food Colourings
Artificial colourings like FD&C Yellow 5 are used widely to make foods look more appealing. These yellow, red, and blue colourants, however, have been linked to negative effects on children’s behavior, including hyperactivity and attention issues.
Avoid these FD&C colourings: Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, all of which have been linked to behavioral issues, allergies, and even cancer in study animals.
7. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Not just found in your Chinese food takeout, MSG is a food additive and flavor enhancer used in many processed foods including soups, salad dressings, chips, crackers, as well as fast food and restaurant items. MSG is called an “excitotoxin,” as it is able to cross the blood brain barrier. Studies found that MSG fed to infant mice destroyed nerve cells in the brain. People have reported headaches, nausea, burning in the mouth, weakness in the legs and arms, and allergic skin reactions to MSG.
MSG can be found labeled as monopotassium glutamate, glutamate, glutamic acid, calcium cascinate, soy protein concentrate and isolate, and vegetable protein extract.
8. Partially Hydrogenated Oils/Trans Fat
Liquid vegetable oils react with hydrogen to form a semi-solid shortening, and this process of partial hydrogenation results in trans fat. Trans fat has been found to be the most dangerous of all fats for heart health. Trans fat/partially hydrogenated oils can be found in cooking oils, shortening, microwave popcorn, crackers, baked goods, icing, stick margarine, and fried restaurant foods.
9. Potassium Bromate
Potassium Bromate is a dough conditioner that has been long used to improve the texture of white flour in bread and rolls; it increases the volume and produces a fine texture. While most bromate breaks down to form a non-harmful bromide, the small amounts of bromate is a concern. Bromate has been found to cause cancer in animals, and this dough conditioner has been banned all over the world, except for in Japan and the United States. Any products with potassium bromate sold in California, however, must have a warning label that the product may cause cancer under Prop 65.
10. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a highly-refined artificial sweetener which has become the number one source of calories in North America. It is found in almost all processed foods, as well as bread, candy, flavoured yogurts, salad dressings, canned vegetables, cereals. High-fructose corn sryup raises chloesterol levels and has been linked to diabetes and obesity. In fact, many critics blame high-fructose corn syrup for the obesity epidemic.
The easiest way to avoid unhealthy food additives in the first place is with a healthy, whole food diet. If you have to buy food that’s been packaged in a box, can, bag, or bottle, be sure to read the labels, and stay away from these terrible ten.