By Dr. Mercola
Americans spend about 90 percent of their food budget on processed foods, which contain a wide array of artificial food additives, preservatives, colors, and flavor enhancers.
More than 10,000additives are allowed in food when you factor in those that are added directly to your food as well as those in the packaging—such as bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), and phthalates—which can migrate to your food.
That your health can suffer as a consequence of this chemical assault should come as no surprise. After all, your body is not a machine designed to run on synthetic chemicals.
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.
Safety Testing Is Grossly Lacking
Despite widespread use, many food additives have questionable safety profiles, or none at all, since only a small percentage has ever been properly tested.
Many do not realize that food additives are not automatically required to get premarket approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).1,2,3 Certain items that fall under the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation are exempt from the approval process altogether, as explained in the featured video.
A company can simply hire an industry insider to evaluate the chemical, and if that individual determines that the chemical meets federal safety standards, it can be deemed GRAS without any involvement from the FDA. No independent third party objective evaluation is required.
As reported by the Washington Post:4
“The FDA said that although the law allows for food manufacturers to make their own safety determinations, the agency ‘encourages companies to consult with the agency when developing new ingredients.’ Ultimately, the FDA said, manufacturers ‘are responsible for ensuring that their food products are safe and lawful.’”
When Used in Combination, Food Additive Hazards Are Amplified
What little risk assessment is done is typically done on individual chemicals in isolation, and mounting research now suggests that when you consume multiple additives in combination, the health effects may be more serious than previously imagined.
A recent assessment5 done 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.
As reported by the Institute:
“A recently completed, four-year research project on cocktail effects in foods... has established that when two or more chemicals appear together, they often have an additive effect.
This means that cocktail effects can be predicted based on information from single chemicals, but also that small amounts of chemicals when present together can have significant negative effects.
‘Our research shows that indeed, little strokes fell great oaks also when it comes to chemical exposure. Going forward this insight has a profound impact on the way we should assess the risk posed by chemicals we are exposed to through the foods we eat,’ Professor Anne Marie Vinggaard from the National Food Institute says.”
Environmental Working Group Calls for Ban on Propyl Paraben
Propyl paraben is an endocrine-disrupting chemical used as a food preservative. It’s found in about 50 brand name foods6 sold in the US, including tortillas, muffins, cakes, and food dyes.
The European Union (EU) removed propyl paraben from its list of safe food additives in 2006, due to its potential health hazards.
Meanwhile, previous research has shown that 91 percent of Americans have propyl paraben in their urine, and tests7 on beverages, dairy products, meat, and vegetables sold in the US found the chemical in about half of all samples.
Propyl paraben has weak estrogenic activity, which makes it relevant when it comes to estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer. It’s also been shown to impair fertility in women, and reduce sperm counts and testosterone levels.8
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has now launched a social media campaign and petition aimed at getting the chemical out of the US food supply. According to Johanna Congleton, a senior scientist at EWG:9
“Despite mounting evidence that propyl paraben disrupts the endocrine system, the FDA has failed to take action to eliminate its use in food or reassess its safety.
In 2002, researchers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public health discovered that propyl paraben decreased sperm counts in young rats at and below the concentration which the FDA considers safe for human consumption in food.”
Avoiding Food Additives Is Particularly Important for Children
Food additives can be particularly hazardous for young children. This is certainly true for endocrine disrupting chemicals like propyl paraben, which has been shown to alter hormone signaling and gene expression. When exposure occurs during critical times of development, both before and after birth, it can affect development of your child’s reproductive, neurological, and immune systems, and this may have far-reaching effects over the course of their life.
Propyl paraben certainly isn’t the only endocrine-disrupting food additive you have to contend with. A 2009 analysis10 published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology found 31 potential estrogen-mimicking food additives during their research, including propyl gallate, used to prevent fats and oils from spoiling, and 4-hexylresorcinol, used to prevent discoloration in shrimp and other shellfish.
Sodium Benzoate Linked to Hyperactivity and Behavioral Difficulties
Another study11 on food additives worth mentioning was published in The Lancet in 2007. This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study concluded that a number of common food dyes, and the preservative sodium benzoate, can cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible.
Sodium benzoate (E211) is most widely used in acidic foods such as salad dressings, soda, fruit juices, pickles, and other condiments. The results of this study prompted the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) to issue an immediate advisory to parents, warning them to limit their children's intake of additives if they notice an effect on behavior.
The US did not follow suit however. The worst behavioral responses from the additives were seen in the three-year-olds, compared to the older children in the study. But even within each age group, some children responded very strongly, and others not at all, indicating there are individual differences in how well your body can tolerate the assault of artificial additives. One theory is that the additives may trigger a release of histamines in certain individuals.
10 Other Food Additives to Avoid
There are thousands of food additives, and from my perspective, all of them are best avoided as much as possible, regardless of whether they have a marked effect or not, as they clearly have no redeeming nutritional value and can carry major long-term health risks. The easiest way to avoid them all is to cook from scratch, using whole, ideally organic ingredients.
That said, if you’re unwilling to do that, at least consider reading the food labels and avoiding some of the most well-known hazards. Research has linked the following food additives to a number of different health concerns, and many have been banned in other countries besides the US.
Sodium nitrite is added to meats like hot dogs and deli meat to help them maintain color. However, in the presence of heat, nitrites can combine with amines in processed meat to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. A 2007 analysis found that eating just one sausage a day can significantly raise your risk of bowel cancer. Artificial colors. 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.12 Potassium bromate is an endocrine-disrupting chemical commonly used in flour (bromated flour). Studies have linked it to kidney and nervous system damage, thyroid problems, cancer, and gastrointestinal discomfort. 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). Butylated Hydroxytoluene (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. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a preservative that affects the neurological system of your brain and can alter behavior. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, BHA "is reasonably anticipated to be a 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 use in foods in certain parts of the EU and Japan. Phosphates are added to more than 20,000 products, including fast food, baked goods, and processed meats. Phosphates have been linked to health conditions like 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. Propyl gallateis associated with tumors, including rare brain tumors, in rats. Diacetyl is anartificial flavoring often used to create butter, maple, strawberry, and raspberry flavors. Research shows diacetyl may have adverse effects on brain health and may trigger Alzheimer’s disease “Natural and Artificial Flavors” could mean that one unnatural additive is included, or it could be a blend of hundreds of additives. Some natural flavors even contain propylene glycol, a solvent, or the preservative BHA. Genetically engineered flavor enhancers can also be listed under either the artificial 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. 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.
Avoiding Processed Foods Will Let You Sidestep Many Health Hazards
The food industry has dramatically altered our diet, and these changes directly affect your weight and overall health. A large part of the problem stems from the processes used to manufacture the food, as food processing destroys valuable nutrients. It also removes much of the food’s original flavor, and to address these shortcomings, synthetic nutrients, flavors, colors, and other additives are added back in.
It’s also important to realize that when you consume pasteurized and irradiated foods, you’re eating a sterile diet that will likely alter your gut flora, allowing potentially pathogenic microorganisms to take over. This in turn can have wide-ranging health consequences.
Many of these added chemicals can wreak metabolic havoc, as your body doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Another factor that makes processed foods the antithesis of a healthy diet is the excessive use of refined sugar and/or processed fructose from corn. Virtually all processed foods contain added sugar—including commercial infant formula and baby food.
One 2009 survey of more than 100 foods for babies and toddlers found examples that contained as much as 29 percent sugar! Others contained trans fat, which has been linked to heart disease, and may soon lose its GRAS status due to its scientifically validated health hazards. Most processed foods are also loaded with GMOs and glyphosate which will decimate your gut bacteria and the health of your “second brain.”
Buying a good cook book and cooking from scratch using whole, organic ingredients is one of the best investments you could possibly make. After all, if you don’t have your health, little else matters. For a step-by-step guide to making wiser food choices for yourself and your family, please refer to my free optimized nutrition plan.
Remember, 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 United States are diet-related, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The answer to these health problems lies not in a pill, but in what you eat every day.