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  • Since the 1950s, the number of food additives allowed in U.S. food has grown from about 800 to more than 10,000
  • GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe,” is a loophole created in 1958; food companies are tasked with determining such status for their own ingredients
  • Once an additive is granted GRAS status by an industry-hired panel, the company doesn't need to inform the FDA that the ingredient is used, and no independent third-party objective evaluation is required

What Chemical Cocktail Is in Your Food?

February 24, 2016 | 47,505 views

By Dr. Mercola

One of the simplest choices you can make in support of your health is to eat real food. Real food refers to vegetables, meats and wild-caught seafood, nuts, seeds, eggs, fruits and raw grass-fed dairy; foods that are in their whole, primarily unaltered form.

Such foods will not only reHydrozyttoluward you with rich concentrations of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, but they’re also beneficial for what they do not contain — food additives.

If you eat processed foods, you’re consuming a chemical cocktail with each bite. Even seemingly simple foods like bread, processed cheese, salad dressing or pasta sauce are typically loaded with preservatives, emulsifiers, flavorings, colorings and other “enhancers.”

9 Top Food Additives to Avoid

Since the 1950s, the number of food additives allowed in U.S. food has grown from about 800 to more than 10,000. We’re not talking only about simple natural ingredients like vinegar and table salt anymore, but countless chemical concoctions that are putting Americans’ health at risk.

What little risk assessment done on such chemicals is typically done on individual chemicals in isolation, but mounting research suggests that when you consume multiple additives in combination, the health effects may be more serious than previously imagined.

One assessment by the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark found that even small amounts of chemicals can amplify each other’s adverse effects when combined.1

Really, the only way to avoid this chemical cocktail is to avoid processed foods. But at the very least, you’ll want to read food labels carefully and avoid those that follow.

1. High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

It’s often claimed that HFCS is no worse for you than sugar, but this is not the case.

Because high-fructose corn syrup contains free-form monosaccharides of fructose and glucose, it cannot be considered biologically equivalent to sucrose (sugar), which has a glycosidic bond that links the fructose and glucose together, and which slows its breakdown in your body.

Fructose is primarily metabolized by your liver, because your liver is the only organ that has the transporter for it.

Since all fructose gets shuttled to your liver, and, if you eat a typical Western-style diet, you consume high amounts of it, fructose ends up taxing and damaging your liver in the same way alcohol and other toxins do.

And just like alcohol, fructose is metabolized directly into fat — it just gets stored in your fat cells, which leads to mitochondrial malfunction, obesity and obesity-related diseases.

The more fructose or HFCS a food contains, and the more total fructose you consume, the worse it is for your health.

For example, female mice fed a diet that contained 25 percent of calories from corn syrup had nearly twice the death rate and 26 percent fewer offspring compared to those fed a diet in which 25 percent of calories came from table sugar.2

As a standard recommendation, I advise keeping your TOTAL fructose consumption below 25 grams per day, which is very difficult to do if you eat processed foods.

For most people it would also be wise to limit your fructose from fruit to 15 grams or less, as you're virtually guaranteed to consume "hidden" sources of fructose if you drink beverages other than water and eat processed food.

Fifteen grams of fructose is not much — it represents two bananas, one-third cup of raisins, or two Medjool dates. The average 12-ounce can of soda contains 40 grams of sugar, at least half of which is fructose, so one can of soda alone would exceed your daily allotment.

2. Artificial Sweeteners

Experiments have found that sweet taste, regardless of its caloric content, enhances your appetite, and consuming artificial sweeteners has been shown to lead to even greater weight gain than consuming sugar.

Aspartame has been found to have the most pronounced effect, but the same applies for other artificial sweeteners, such as acesulfame potassium, sucralose and saccharin. Yet, weight gain is only the beginning of why artificial sweeteners should generally be avoided.

Aspartame, for instance, is a sweet-tasting neurotoxin. As a result of its unnatural structure, your body processes the amino acids found in aspartame very differently from a steak or a piece of fish.

The amino acids in aspartame literally attack your cells, even crossing the blood-brain barrier to attack your brain cells, creating a toxic cellular overstimulation, called excitotoxicity, similar to monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Further, inflammatory bowel disease may be caused or exacerbated by the regular consumption of the popular artificial sweetener Splenda (sucralose), as it inactivates digestive enzymes and alters gut barrier function.3

Previous research also found that sucralose can destroy up to 50 percent of your beneficial gut flora.4 While you certainly don’t want to overdo it on sugar, there's little doubt in my mind that artificial sweeteners can be even worse for your health than sugar and even fructose.

3. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

This flavor enhancer is most often associated with Chinese food, but it's actually in countless processed food products ranging from frozen dinners and salad dressing to snack chips and meats.

MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain dysfunction and damage to varying degrees — and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and more.

Part of the problem is that free glutamic acid (MSG is approximately 78 percent free glutamic acid) is the same neurotransmitter that your brain, nervous system, eyes, pancreas and other organs use to initiate certain processes in your body.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to claim that consuming MSG in food does not cause these ill effects, many other experts say otherwise.

4. Synthetic Trans Fats

Synthetic trans fats, found in margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, are known to promote inflammation, which is a hallmark of most chronic and/or serious diseases.

These synthetic fats have been linked to stroke, cancer, diabetes, decreased immune function, reproductive problems, heart disease and more.

Fortunately, in June 2015 the FDA announced partially hydrogenated oils (a primary source of trans fat) will no longer be allowed in food due to their health risks, unless authorized by the agency.

According to the FDA, this change may help prevent around 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 heart disease deaths each year.

The new regulation won’t take effect until 2018. In the interim, food companies have to either reformulate their products to remove partially hydrogenated oils or file a limited use petition with the FDA to continue using them.

5. Artificial Colors

Fifteen million pounds of artificial food dyes are added into U.S. foods every year — and that amount only factors in eight different varieties.3 As of July 2010, most foods in the European Union (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 U.S. 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.5

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.

Some U.S. companies are moving ahead of regulatory agencies to get these controversial additives out of their products. Mars, Inc., for instance, announced in February 2016 that it will be removing synthetic food dyes from its entire line of food products, including M&Ms candies.6

6. Sodium Sulphite

This is a widely used food preservative. People who are sulfite sensitive can experience headaches, breathing problems and rashes. In severe cases, sulfites can actually cause death.

7. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

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 U.S. 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 U.K. and is banned from use in all foods in certain parts of the EU and Japan. In the U.S., the FDA considers BHA to be a GRAS additive. 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 U.S., BHA is given GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status.

8. Sulphur Dioxide

Sulphur additives are toxic, and in the U.S. they have been prohibited in raw fruit and vegetables. Adverse reactions include bronchial problems, low blood pressure and anaphylactic shock.

9. Potassium Bromate

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 EU.

GRAS Loophole Makes Processed Foods a Chemical Minefield

GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, is a loophole created in 1958. At the time, the first law regulating food additives had just been put into place, which required food companies to submit new ingredients to the FDA for review.

Congress didn’t want the FDA to waste time reviewing common staple ingredients like table salt and vinegar, so they added the loophole that companies could prove certain ingredients to be GRAS, with no FDA review required. One of the most alarming problems with the GRAS loophole is that food companies are tasked with determining such status for their own ingredients.

So a company can simply hire an industry insider to evaluate the chemical, and if that individual determines the chemical meets federal safety standards, it can be deemed GRAS. Once an additive is granted GRAS status by the hired panel, the company doesn't even need to inform the FDA that the ingredient is used, and no independent third-party objective evaluation is ever required.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), at least 1,000 ingredients are added to U.S. foods that the FDA has no knowledge of.7 Many of these additives may be imported from overseas, making their actual contents and safety profiles largely unknown. As reported by the Epoch Times:8

“Many of the companies making the additives are headquartered overseas, like the China-based Hanzhong TRG Biotech which makes at least 40 of the chemicals NRDC [National Resources Defense Council] says have undisclosed GRAS safety determinations.

… Such imported additives are triply difficult for the FDA when the companies self-declare them as safe, said Erik Olsen, Ph.D. senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The FDA does not realize the additive is being used, has not evaluated the additive itself, and lacks a mechanism for assessing the safety of imported products. Buyer beware.”

Chemical and Drug Companies Are Making Many Food Additives

You might expect that food additives are at least being made by food companies like Kraft. But some of the major players in the industry are not food companies at all but rather are more well-known as chemical and drug makers; Merck and BASF Cognis Nutrition and Health are among them.9

The bottom line is that it’s not safe to assume that anyone is looking out for the safety of additives in your food. Hundreds of food chemicals have been simply declared safe by their manufacturers, and in many instances the FDA doesn’t even know they’re added to your food, let along what their health effects may be — and neither do you. NRDC published an eye-opening report on this subject in 2014, which revealed:10

  • “275 chemicals used by 56 companies appear to be marketed as GRAS and used in many food products based on companies’ safety determinations that, pursuant to current regulations, did not need to be reported to the FDA or the public. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
  • “Information obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act shows that when FDA does learn of a chemical proposed to be used in food, the agency often asks tough questions, but because of the GRAS loophole a company is not bound to answer them and not prohibited from continuing to sell the chemical for use in food.”
  • “Based on information from notices submitted to the FDA, but later withdrawn, companies have sometimes certified their chemicals as safe for use in food despite potentially serious allergic reactions, or adverse reactions in combination with common drugs, or have proposed using amounts of the chemicals in food at much higher levels than company-established safe levels.”
  • “When companies seek FDA’s voluntary review of their GRAS safety determination, the agency rejects or triggers withdrawal of that determination in one out of every 5 cases. At least in some instances, companies may have withdrawn their notices in order to avoid having an FDA rejection made public.”
  • “The public and FDA are in the dark about hundreds of chemicals found in our food because companies aren’t required to submit the safety determination to FDA for its review.”

Are You Ready to Ditch Processed Foods?

Download Interview Transcript

Scottish author Joanna Blythman has written a behind-the-scenes book, “Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets,”that delves into the details of what makes processed food the antithesis of a healthy diet. If you have any concerns about the food you're eating, this is a must-read book. It will radically increase your appreciation of just how processed your food really is and enlighten you to many of the deceptive tricks the industry uses to fool you.

Even aside from the additives, a processed food diet sets the stage for obesity and any number of chronic health issues. In fact, many of the top diseases plaguing the U.S. are diet-related, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The answer to these health problems lies not in a pill but in the food choices you make each and every day.

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.

I believe you 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.

Try to 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). Processed foods are addictive, so 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 junk food cravings are linked to an emotional challenge, a psychological acupressure technique called the Emotional Freedom Techniques (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.

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