You’ve probably heard that food additives and preservatives are bad for you, but if you’re like most people, you only have a vague notion of what these substances are, what they are used for, and what foods contain them. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the dangers of food additives and preservatives, and which ones in particular are especially dangerous for your health.
What is a Food Additive?
A food additive is almost exactly what it sounds like: it is a substance that is added to food in order to preserve its flavour, enhance its taste, or improve its appearance. Simple, natural food additives include salt and vinegar, such as salting meats to preserve them or pickling peppers with vinegar.
However, starting in the second half of the 20th century, food additives became more complicated. Instead of natural additives that had been used for centuries, laboratories began creating synthetic additives – some an off-shoot of natural products, some completely artificial. These new additives include food dyes and artificial sweeteners, along with a host of other additives and preservatives.
What is a Preservative?
A preservative is anything added to food to keep it from spoiling, getting mouldy, or losing flavour. Other food additives are not technically preservatives, but nonetheless prevent foods from drying out, getting stale, or otherwise aging. These preservative-like additives include:
- Humectants – prevent foods from getting dry
- Glazing agents – give foods a shiny coating
- Color retention agents – added to help a food keep its colour
- Emulsifiers – prevent water and oil from separating in mayonaises, ice creams, homogenized milk, etc.
All these food additives and preservatives might not be so bad if we were consuming them in small quantities. However, our consumption of fast foods, frozen foods, and processed foods has increased exponentially since they were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s, and so too has our intake of food additives. Consider that in the late 1950s, the average American consumed about 11 mg of food dye per day. Today, the average American consumes six times that amount. Furthermore, many of the food additives that are legal in the United States have been banned in many other western countries, including some of our most commonly consumed food dyes and food preservatives.
Which Food Additives are the Most Dangerous?
The following list details the additives, other than preservatives, that you and your family should definitely avoid:
Food dyes: In the United Kingdom, eight food dyes were recently banned due to a study that showed a strong correlation between the dyes hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children. For whatever reason – no doubt outcry by the food industry played a part – the FDA decided not to follow suit. These extremely common dyes are:
- Yellow 5 and 6
- Red 3 and 40
- Blue 1 and 2
- Green 3
- Orange B
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils: Also known as “trans fats”, hydrogen atoms are added to regular vegetable oil to increase their saturation. As a result, they are easier to bake with and have a longer shelf life. Trans fats are known to increase the risk of heart disease and raise cholesterol levels, but many products still contain them.
Saccharin: Saccharin is one of many artificial sweeteners with a questionable safety record that is nonetheless approved by the FDA. There are numerous studies linking saccharin, which is used in Sweet ‘n Low, with cancer.
Potassium bromate: Added to breads and rolls to increase volume, potassium bromate has been banned everywhere in the world except for the United States and Japan because it has been shown to cause cancer in animals.
Monosodium glutamate or MSG: MSG triggers severe headaches, nausea, and/or vomiting in sensitive individuals. There’s also some evidence to suggest that long-term consumption of MSG and similar additives may be responsible for rare incidences of sudden cardiac deaths. MSG is often disguised on food ingredient lists, because it is always contained within:
- Calcium caseinate
- Autolyzed yeast and other yeast products
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Glutamic acid
- Textured protein
- Sodium caseinate
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS): Corn syrup isn’t good for you, but high fructose corn syrup is particularly harmful. In 2010, Princeton University researchers proved an unambiguous link between obesity and HFCS. Rats whose diets included HFCS gained more weight than rats who did not ingest the sweetener, even though their caloric intake was the same.
Which Preservatives are the Most Dangerous?
The following preservatives are the worst of the worst:
Sodium benzoate: Sodium benzoate prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi, but it is one of the most dangerous preservatives there is – so dangerous that even food industry giant Coca Cola has pledged to gradually phase out its use. When sodium benzoate is mixed with vitamin C or ascorbic acid, it forms a compound called chemical benzene, a known carcinogen.
Sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate: Used as a preservative in meats, sodium nitrite is known to increase the risk of cancer.
Olestra or olean: Olestra, also known as olean, is used by Frito Lay in its fat-free potato chips. Olestra is known to cause abdominal cramps, gastrointestinal problems, and it inhibits the absorption of important vitamins.
Sulfites: Some wines and fruits contain sulfites to prevent bacterial growth and fermentation. Unfortunately, sulfites lead to allergic reactions in many people, and upon rare occasion this reaction can be fatal. Starting in the 1980s, Congress began urging the FDA to ban sulfites in raw fruits and vegetables. Since that time, the FDA has slowly been broadening its sulfite ban, but sulfites have not been completely eliminated from the food supply.
BHA and BHT: BHA and BHT are chemicals that slow food decay, but some studies show that BHA, in particular, may be a carcinogen. As for BHT, which is very similar in its molecular structure, the research is inconclusive. The best bet is to avoid both of these chemicals. Propyl gallate is often used with BHA and BHT, and is another questionable preservative.
These long lists of ingredients to avoid may seem overwhelming, but there is a simple way to eliminate them all from your diet: stop eating processed foods. Instead, concentrate your diet on fresh fruits and vegetables, organic whole grains, and local eggs, meat, and dairy products. If it comes in a vacuum-sealed package, in a bag, or in a can, the chances are that it contains one or more of the ingredients listed above, and you and your family don’t need to be eating it.