When you eat processed foods, you can virtually guarantee that you're also consuming any number of questionable food additives. More than 10,000 such additives are allowed in food when you factor in those that are added directly to your food as well as those in the packaging (which can migrate to your food).
Additives are used in food processing to slow spoilage, prevent fats and oils from going rancid, prevent fruits from turning brown, and fortify or enrich the food with synthetic vitamins and minerals to replace the natural ones that were lost during processing.
They're also added to improve taste, texture, and appearance, as many processed foods would be as dull and bland as cardboard without some artificial help.
Unfortunately, many of these additives have been linked to health concerns, while others have been granted "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) status without pre-market review or approval. As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported:
"This system makes sense for benign additives such as pepper and basil, but there are enormous loopholes that allow additives of questionable safety to be listed as GRAS.
Manufacturers can decide whether these compounds are safe without any oversight by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] – and in some cases obtain GRAS status without telling the FDA at all."
To help you sort through the questionable compounds on food labels, EWG has released their Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives.1 It includes additives already linked to health concerns, those that have been banned or restricted in other countries, and substances that simply have no business being in food.
1. Nitrites and Nitrates
Sodium nitrite is a synthetic preservative added to meats like hot dogs and deli meat to help them maintain that nice pink color. The problem is, in the presence of heat—especially high heat—nitrites can combine with amines in processed meat to form nitrosamines, and these are carcinogenic.
Nitrosamines inflict cellular damage and have been linked to cancer, typically in your colon, bladder, stomach, or pancreas.2 The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is currently considering listing nitrite in combination with amines as a known carcinogen.
Nitrates are present in many vegetables, such as beets, celery, lettuce, spinach, and most other leafy green vegetables, and this has lead to some confusion. Nitrites and nitrates are not inherently bad for you—in fact, they are the precursor to nitric oxide (NO), which lowers your blood pressure and exerts mild anti-inflammatory effects.
Remember, it is the nitrosamine formation that is dangerous. Processed meats are far more prone to nitrosamine formation than vegetables, due to being higher in amines and intensively heat processed.3
2. Potassium Bromate
You might not be aware of this, but nearly every time you eat bread in a restaurant or consume a hamburger or hotdog bun you are consuming bromide, an endocrine-disrupting chemical commonly used in flours.
The use of potassium bromate as an additive in commercial breads and baked goods has been a huge contributor to bromide overload in Western cultures.
Bromated flour is "enriched" with potassium bromate. Commercial baking companies use it because it makes the dough more elastic and better able to stand up to bread hooks. However, Pepperidge Farm and other successful companies manage to use only unbromated flour without any of these so-called "structural problems."
Studies have linked potassium bromate to kidney and nervous system damage, thyroid problems, gastrointestinal discomfort, and cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies potassium bromate as a possible carcinogen. Potassium bromate is banned for food use in Canada, China, and the European Union (EU).
3. Propyl Paraben
Propyl paraben is an endocrine-disrupting chemical used as a food preservative. It's commonly found in tortillas, muffins, and food dyes and may also contaminate foods via packaging.
Research has shown that 91 percent of Americans have propyl paraben in their urine, and tests on beverages, dairy products, meat, and vegetables found the chemical in about half of the samples.4
Propyl paraben has weak estrogenic activity, which makes it relevant when it comes to estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer. This substance has been found to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells, impair fertility in women, and reduce sperm counts and testosterone levels.5
4. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a preservative that affects the neurological system of your brain, alters behavior, and has the potential to cause cancer. It can be found in breakfast cereal, nut mixes, chewing gum, butter spread, meat, dehydrated potatoes, popcorn, chips, and beer, just to name a few.
BHA is known to cause cancer in rats, and may be a cancer-causing agent in humans as well. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program's 2011 Report on Carcinogens, BHA "is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."
The international cancer agency categorizes it as a possible human carcinogen, and it's listed as a known carcinogen under California's Proposition 65.
BHA may also trigger allergic reactions and hyperactivity. BHA is banned from infant foods in the UK and is banned from use in all foods in certain parts of the EU and Japan. In the US, the FDA considers BHA to be a GRAS additive.
5. Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
BHT is chemically similar to BHA and the two preservatives are often used together. While BHT is not considered a carcinogen like BHA, it has been linked to tumor development in animals.
It's also been linked to developmental effects and thyroid changes in animal studies, which suggests it may be an endocrine-disrupting chemical. In the US, BHT is given GRAS status.
6. Propyl Gallate
Propyl gallate is a preservative used to prevent fats and oils from spoiling. It's often found in sausage, frozen pizza, and other processed foods that contain edible fats. The National Toxicology Program reported that propyl gallate is associated with tumors, including rare brain tumors, in rats. EWG also reported:6
"A 2014 opinion by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the available reproductive studies on propyl gallate are outdated and poorly described. In addition, there is incomplete data on whether propyl gallate is an endocrine disruptor; some evidence suggests it may have estrogenic activity."
Theobromine is an alkaloid found in chocolate. It has effects similar to caffeine, and is the reason why chocolate is so highly toxic to dogs. In 2010, a company (Theocorp) requested that the FDA grant theobromine GRAS status so it could be added to bread, cereal, sports drinks, and other foods. The FDA raised several important questions, including whether reproductive and developmental effects seen in animals exposed to theobromine would apply to humans.
They also estimated that human consumption could be up to five times higher than the company reported as safe. The company withdrew their GRAS request, but it was later granted GRAS status anyway, and now is used in foods "outside of FDA oversight." As EWG reported:7
"Theobromine is just one example of an enormous loophole in the FDA's voluntary GRAS notification process. The food additive industry is allowed to designate a substance as GRAS without even notifying the agency, relying instead on 'expert panels.' Theocorp's submission triggered important questions from FDA scientists about the additive's safety. Instead of addressing them, the company withdrew the request, and the GRAS designation was made later without FDA approval. In some cases, companies forego FDA's notification process altogether."
8. Natural and Artificial Flavors
What's particularly alarming when you see a word like "artificial flavor" or even "natural flavor" on an ingredients label is that there's no way to know what it actually means. It could mean that one unnatural additive is included, or it could be a blend of hundreds of additives. Strawberry artificial flavor can contain nearly 50 chemical ingredients, for example.8
Most people assume that a natural flavor describes something like strawberries, garlic, or chili pepper used to naturally season food. In reality, most natural flavors are created in a laboratory, just like artificial flavors. The only difference is that natural flavors must be sourced from a natural product, whereas artificial flavors do not. According to the Code of Federal Regulations:9
"The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis. These contain the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."
In the end, natural flavors often bear little resemblance to the natural product from which they came. Many times, the resulting chemical may even be identical to those created synthetically to make artificial flavors, yet it will likely be more expensive. Some natural flavors even contain propylene glycol, a solvent, or the preservative BHA! Genetically engineered flavor enhancers can also be listed under the artificial flavor (or natural flavor) label. One exception is certified organic natural flavors, which must meet more stringent guidelines and cannot contain synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients.
9. Artificial Colors
Every year, food manufacturers pour 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes into US foods -- and that amount only factors in eight different varieties.10 As of July 2010, most foods in the EU that contain artificial food dyes were labeled with warning labels stating the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." The British government also asked that food manufacturers remove most artificial colors from foods back in 2009 due to health concerns.
Nine of the food dyes currently approved for use in the US are linked to health issues ranging from cancer and hyperactivity to allergy-like reactions -- and these results were from studies conducted by the chemical industry itself.11 For instance, Red # 40, which is the most widely used dye, may accelerate the appearance of immune system tumors in mice, while also triggering hyperactivity in children.
Blue # 2, used in candies, beverages, pet foods and more, was linked to brain tumors. And Yellow 5, used in baked goods, candies, cereal, and more, may not only be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals, but it's also linked to hyperactivity, hypersensitivity, and other behavioral effects in children. Even the innocuous-sounding caramel color, which is widely used in brown soft drinks, may cause cancer due to 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), a chemical byproduct formed when certain types of caramel coloring are manufactured.
The artificial flavoring called diacetyl is often used as a butter flavoring in microwave popcorn. It's also used to flavor dairy products, including yogurt and cheese, and exists in some "brown flavorings," including maple, strawberry, and raspberry flavors. Research shows diacetyl has several concerning properties for brain health and may trigger Alzheimer's disease. Diacetyl has also been linked to respiratory damage, including inflammation and permanent scarring of the airways, in workers at a microwave popcorn plant.12
Phosphates are added to more than 20,000 products, including fast food, baked goods, and processed meats. They're used to reduce acid, improve moisture retention, and facilitate leavening. Phosphates have been linked to some concerning health conditions, including heart disease. The European Food Safety Authority is currently reevaluating adding phosphates to food, but the results of their study aren't expected until the end of 2018.
12. Aluminum Additives
Sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate, and many other aluminum additives are found in processed foods as stabilizers. This metal can accumulate and persist in your body, especially in your bones, and animal studies show aluminum may cause neurological effects, including changes in behavior, learning, and motor response. A link between Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders and aluminum exposure may also exist.
Processing modifies or removes important components of food, like fiber, water, and nutrients, changing the way they are digested and assimilated in your body. Unlike whole foods, which contain a mix of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fiber, and water to help you feel satisfied, processed foods stimulate dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, making you feel good even though the food lacks nutrients and fiber. This artificial dopamine stimulation can lead to excessive food cravings and, ultimately, food addiction.
Mood swings, memory problems and even depression are often the result of a heavily processed-food diet. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression, and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! Many scientists believe that your gut is your second brain and they work in tandem, each influencing the other. Your intestinal health can have a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa – and why eating processed foods that can harm your gut flora can have a profoundly negative impact on your mood, psychological health and behavior.
Plus, refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, bagels, waffles, pretzels, and most other processed foods quickly break down to sugar. This increases your insulin and leptin levels, and contributes to insulin and leptin resistance, which are the primary underlying factors of nearly every chronic disease and condition known to man, including weight gain. And, because processed foods are stripped of nutrients your body needs, you could be eating a large number of calories but still become malnourished. In just three generations, a nutrient-deficient diet can lead to infertility, which is on the rise in the US.13 Plus, processed foods often contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, which are also linked to reproductive problems and additional health concerns.
When it comes to staying healthy, avoiding processed foods and replacing them with fresh, whole foods is the "secret" you've been looking for. This might sound daunting, but if you take it step-by-step as described in my nutrition plan it's quite possible, and manageable, to painlessly remove processed foods from your diet. Remember, people have thrived on vegetables, meats, eggs, fruits, and other whole foods for centuries, while processed foods were only recently invented. Many of the top executives and scientists at leading processed-food companies actually avoid their own foods for a variety of health reasons!
I believe you, too, should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods (unfortunately most Americans currently do the opposite). This requires that you plan your meals in advance. Ideally, this will involve scouting out your local farmer's markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales. You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you're short on time in the evenings (and you can use leftovers for lunches the next day).
If cravings are a problem for you, please see my article on how to eliminate junk-food cravings. One of the most effective strategies to eliminate sugar cravings is intermittent fasting, along with diet modifications that effectively help reset your body's metabolism to burn fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel. If your carb cravings are linked to an emotional challenge, a psychological acupressure technique called the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can rapidly help you control your emotional food cravings. If you're currently sustaining yourself on fast food and processed foods, cutting them from your diet is one of the most positive life changes you could ever make.