We owe a lot to science. The ability to preserve foods through canning or refrigeration comes from scientific discovery. Enviable skill at baking bread attends an intimate knowledge of chemistry. For the gift of eating freeze-dried MREs (meals ready to eat) in outer space or at a campsite far from home, we owe our gratitude to food scientists. But for all its advancements, our proclivity to encourage innovation in our food system can sometimes end up hurting us.
It’s nice to be able to rely on the convenience of packaged foods from time to time, but an overreliance can lead to repeated exposure to unnatural and unnecessary chemicals. While some packaged foods on the market today are admirably full of healthful ingredients (see “14 Sustainable Food Companies You Can Trust”), many more are not—and are instead filled with chemical additives, preservatives and sweeteners that have been linked to health and behavioral problems ranging from obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to cancer and heart disease. Spending just a few extra minutes to scan the ingredients list of products you buy could eventually save you and your family a lot of heartache. For a handy quick-reference guide, check out our “20 Food Additives to Avoid” further along in this article. What follows are the five categories of worst offenders. Ban them from your shopping cart!
1. Artificial Sweeteners
It’s smart to reduce our sugar intake. The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day—for women, that’s more than four times the recommended amount. But rather than attempt to curtail our penchant for sweets, we often think we can beat sugar by replacing it. The bad news is we replace sugar with even less healthy artificial sweeteners. Plus, too often we seem to equate “diet,” “sugar-free” and “no sugar added” with a license to eat more.
Rather than turning to fake sweeteners for comfort, it’s healthier to stick to real sweeteners—but aim to limit your intake. The American Heart Association suggests we consume far less than 22 teaspoons per day to maintain good health: 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men, 5 teaspoons (20 grams) for women and just 3 teaspoons (12 grams) for children. And while getting those grams from real sugar is preferable to choosing toxic artificial options, we can also make healthier options by turning to other natural sweeteners such as antioxidant-rich honey, plant-derived stevia and slow-metabolizing agave nectar. (For more on natural sweeteners, see “Smarter Sweets”.) Or satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet foods such as fruit. However you consume real sweeteners, be sure to check ingredient labels for the artificial sweeteners at right, and rid your diet of them.
What’s It In? Sugar-free desserts, gum and diet soda; sugar substitute Sunett
Why Avoid? You may reduce the amount of sugar you consume by substituting an increased risk for cancer.
What’s It In? Frozen desserts, diet soda; sugar substitutes Equal and Nutrasweet
Why Avoid? Animal research has found links to leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer. Some people complain of dizziness and headaches after consumption.
What’s It In? Sugar-free foods; sugar substitutes Necta Sweet and Sweet’N Low
Why Avoid? Researchers have linked saccharin to cancers of the bladder, reproductive organs and skin in animal studies, and weight gain in humans. It may increase the strength of other carcinogens, as well.
What’s It In? No-sugar-added foods such as candy and ice cream (Most sugar alcohols end in –tol, such as sorbitol, xylitol and maltitol.)
Why Avoid? Sugar alchohols, which are derivatives of sugar, can cause digestive problems.
2. Chemical Preservatives
The best advantage science has given the food industry is the ability to preserve food. And many of the methods for making food last can actually retain inherent nutrient content, as well. (Check out 6 Simple Food Preservation Methods for some good food preservation techniques.) Keeping food shelf-stable without the time-tested methods of canning, freezing, drying, pickling and fermenting, however, is another story. In order for a Twinkie to last for years on a shelf, it must contain a host of chemicals that prevent rancidity. It’s advisable to avoid many of those preservative chemicals altogether, in particular those that follow.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
What’s It In? Cereal, gum, oil, potato chips
Why Avoid? Though they prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid, both are potential carcinogens.
What’s It In? Gum, soup, meats, potato chips, oil
Why Avoid? Frequently used along with BHA and BHT to prevent fats from spoiling, this too is a potential carcinogen.
What’s It In? Cured meat products such as bacon, corned beef, hot dogs, lunch meat and smoked fish
Why Avoid? Along with preserving these meats—which are usually high in sodium and calories to begin with—sodium nitrate and nitrite also preserve the meats’ color. They carry a small risk of creating carcinogenic compounds, especially if the meats are subjected to high heat. Eating processed meat in large quantities has been linked to pancreatic and stomach cancers.
3. Unnatural Flavor Enhancers
After they’ve been chemically altered or sat on shelves for weeks, foods often don’t end up tasting that great. This is where artificial flavor enhancers come in. As with artificial versus real sweeteners, it’s best to eat food with real flavors. Stick to real fats and oils, and cut back on quantity rather than substituting low-fat or sugar-free foods. The following flavor enhancers should be avoided.
Artificial and Natural Flavors
What’s It In? Almost everything!
Why Avoid? The necessity to add flavor means the manufacturer wasn’t relying on good food ingredients for flavor in the first place. While most of these additives are safe from a health standpoint, overconsumption of non-nutritive food certainly is not.
Partially Hydrogenated Oil
What’s It In? Many food products including shortening, margarine, baked goods, crackers, bread and frosting
Why Avoid? To create partially hydrogenated oil, hydrogen is added to oils to help them form into semisolid substances. This creates trans fats, which raise cholesterol and increase your risk for obesity and heart disease.
What’s It In? “Light” chips
Why Avoid? This artificial fat substitute passes right through your digestive tract without being absorbed, making it calorie-free. Meanwhile, it can cause gastrointestinal problems ranging from gas and loose stools to cramping and severe diarrhea.
4. Artificial Colors
Infamous artificial colors have been making negative headlines for years, and it’s still a good idea to avoid them. Scientists have linked some of them to allergic reactions and a variety of tumors, as well as hyperactivity in children. Besides being potentially carcinogenic and behavior-altering, these artificial additives are most often found in foods with little nutritional value to begin with. The presence of an artificial dye often indicates the absence of healthful ingredients, so it’s best to skip them entirely, especially those listed here. One easy way to do that is to shop for packaged foods at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods; both grocery chains have promised not to carry any products containing artificial colors.
Blue No. 2, Citrus Red No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6
Stabilizers and thickeners allow foods to remain shelf-stable and sometimes give them a more palatable texture. These are often found in food mixes, such as add-milk-only pudding mix. (Forget those mixes: It’s just as easy to make pudding from scratch.) The stabilizers that follow may be among the most innocuous of the worst-offenders list, but like many other additives listed here, they indicate that a food isn’t quite whole enough without first adding something to it.
What’s It In? Candy, cheeses, dough, drinks, pudding, ice cream, salad dressing
Why Avoid? These stabilizers and thickeners (including arabic, furcelleran, ghatti, guar, karaya, locust bean, tragacanth and xanthan gums) may be derived from natural sources, but some cause severe allergic reactions.
What’s It In? Bread doughs
Why Avoid? While only small amounts of bromate remain in breads once the bromate breaks down into innocuous bromides during baking, this dough stabilizer, which has
been banned in other countries, has been linked to cancer in animal studies.
20 Food Additives To Avoid
Check labels for the following bad guys, and skip over the products that contain them!
Acesulfame Potassium, Artificial and Natural Flavors, Aspartame, Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), Citrus Red No. 2, Green No. 3, Gums, Olestra (Olean), Partially Hydrogenated Oil, Potassium Bromate, Propyl Gallate, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Saccharin, Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6
CSPI Chemical Cuisine
cspinet.org/itunes or cspinet.org/android
free app for iPhone or Android from the Center for Science in the Public Interest
Hard to Swallow: The Truth About Food Additives by Doris Sarjeant and Karen Evans
Read It Before You Eat It by Bonnie Taub-Dix
Unjunk Your Junk Food: Healthy Alternatives to Conventional Snacks by Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer
What to Eat by Marion Nestle
TABITHA ALTERMAN is the food and garden editor for Mother Earth Living. She’d like to challenge you to replace just one packaged food that contains any of the toxic offenders listed here with one real, whole, unprocessed food this month.