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5 Most Toxic Food Additives to Avoid

Packaged foods are full of unnecessary and potentially dangerous chemical additives. By shopping smart, you can avoid the worst ones and improve your family's health—our handy guide makes it easy.

| November/December 2012

  • Ice cream often contains chemical stabilizers such as gums, which can cause severe allergic reactions.
    Photo By Loupe
  • Many processed food products are made with partially hydrogenated oil, a food additive that creates trans fats, which can raise cholesterol and increase your risk for obesity and heart disease.
    Photo By Shutterstock
  • Scientists have linked artificial colors to allergic reactions and a variety of tumors, as well as hyperactivity in children.
    Photo By Shutterstock
  • The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day—for women, that's four times the recommended amount.
    Photo By StockFood
  • Many cereals contain butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), chemical preservatives that prevent fats and oils from turning rancid, but which are also potential carcinogens.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • Chemical stabilizers, which can cause severe allergic reactions, are often found in candy.
    Photo By Shutterstock
  • Many “light” chips contain the food additive olestra, or olean, an artificial fat substitute that can cause gastrointestinal problems.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • Many children’s cereals contain an assortment of food additives, from artificial coloring to chemical preservatives.
    Photo By iStockphoto

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.

Acesulfame Potassium/Acesulfame-K

What’s It In? Sugar-free desserts, gum and diet soda; sugar substitute Sunett

10/29/2013 3:00:30 PM

I found your article interesting but misleading inasmuch as you did not include the worst offender which is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). I kept going back and forth in the article to try to locate autolyzed yeast and other related compounds that hide MSG. I find this curious . . . I would like to inquire as to why these were omitted.

10/24/2013 3:59:12 PM

Your info about "gums" is misleading. 'derived from natural sources'? 'may cause allergic reactions in some people'? Name me ONE food does not share both these. The sources for gums have been used for centuries in many parts of the world. Also allergic reactions don't mean the substance is *toxic* ... unless powdered milk, peanut butter, shellfish, dates and wheat are *toxic*.

10/24/2013 10:48:38 AM

VERY informative. Been baking my own bread, canning my fruits and veggies, raising my own chickens for meat and eggs. I seem to have dropped the ball with the artificial sweeteners though...been using Splenda. Will be giving that up now also. I quit cooking on pots and pans with non-stick coatings years ago. Only use the cast iron and stainless steel ones handed down to me by mom. If the fumes from an overheated non-stick lining can kill birds, what does that do to food?? Just saying. Again, thanks for a great article, fore warned is fore armed.

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