Food Additives to Avoid

Why Be Concerned?

There is reason to be concerned about food additives. Despite the fact that people have been living longer in the developed world, a number of diseases and ailments have become increasingly common, with no known cause. These include autism, Alzheimer's, prostate cancer, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, peanut allergy, celiac disease, low sperm count, and several others. It has been widely postulated that environmental factors must be at least partially responsible. In our daily activities we are exposed to a wide variety of chemicals, including cosmetics, cleansers, deodorants, gas-off from manufactured products, and industrial pollutants. However, chemicals in our food and drink are of the greatest concern because they are ingested directly into our bodies. We also have a large degree of control on what we consume. Therefore, making decisions on what food additives to avoid can have a big potential impact on our health.

A List of Food Additives to Avoid

Nitrates and Nitrites: These preservatives are most often found in bacon, sausage, franks and smoked foods, but may be present in other foods as well (e.g. fish, vegetables). In the stomach, they can form cancer-causing substances called nitrosamines. A 20-year long study of over of 60,000 Swedish women published in 2006 revealed that the risk of stomach cancer in the women who ate the most cured meat was twice the average. Meat isn't the only place you'll get nitrates, though. Researchers in Barcelona recently reported a link between stomach cancer and fish, vegetables and smoked foods preserved with sodium nitrite.

Potassium Bromate: This is used to process flour, but an FDA study showed that the substance can induce tumors by oxidative damage. While it is still legal in the U.S., both the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization find its use "unacceptable" because it can cause cancer in animals. It is important to check for either bromated flour or potassium bromate on the ingredient list of flour or any product made of it, such as bread, rolls, buns, or cake.

Most Artificial Sweeteners: While there is still controversy concerning the safety of sugar substitutes, there has been some evidence linking acesulfame potassium (also called acesulfame-K), aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet), and saccharin to cancer. These artificial sweeteners may occur alone or be blended with other others in baked goods, desserts, ice cream, iced tea, soft drinks, and other products. While the FDA considers these products safe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest does not, citing animal studies linking them to cancer. The best alternative seems to be to avoid artificial sweeteners, as they have not been shown to help people lose weight. Natural sugar (not high-fructose corn syrup) is a better alternative, but should be used in moderation. If you must use an artificial sweetener, sucralose (Splenda) appears to be the safest.

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils: These contain trans fats, which raise the blood level of LDL cholesterol, a recognized source of the fatty deposits in the arteries associated with heart disease, stroke and constricted blood vessels in the limbs. Trans fats also lower the kind of cholesterol (HDL) that protects against such diseases. The replacement of just two percent of trans fat in the diet with polyunsaturated vegetable oil purportedly could reduce heart disease by one-third. Also, trans fats can lead to an overactive immune system that inflames the cell lining of our blood vessels, contributing to various chronic conditions. Trans fats also appear related to risk of obesity and cell resistance to insulin, a step on the way to diabetes. Some U.S. cities have banned trans fats in restaurants, but many products still available in supermarkets contain them, especially margarine, cookies, crackers, snack foods, cakes, and frozen dinners. So avoid foods listing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, or shortening.

Artificial food colors: Many artificial food colorings have been banned for their negative health effects after they had been used for several years. This shows that the negative health effects of food additives can take many years to surface. Of the artificial food colorings that are still allowed, there are varying degrees of evidence concerning their health risks. Some have been linked to allergic reactions, various cancers, and attention deficit disorder in children. Thus, a good general rule is to avoid all artificial food colorings (those followed by a number). The strongest evidence exists against blue #2, green #3, red #3, yellow #5, and yellow #6. Another reason to avoid artificial colorings is that they are usually used in food that lack natural, healthy ingredients such as real fruit.

BHA: This antioxidant retards spoilage of fats and oils and is commonly found in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oil. It has caused cancer in lab animals and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says it is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Yet the Food and Drug Administration still permits its use in food.

Olestra: This is a synthetic fat that is not absorbed by the digestive system, so it has no calories. Yet it can cause diarrhea, cramps, and gas, which can sometimes be severe. It also reduces the body’s ability to absorb important fat-soluble nutrients from fruits and vegetables (e.g. alpha and beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein).

Propyl Gallate: This antioxidant preservative is found in vegetable oil, meat products, potato sticks, chicken soup base, and chewing gum. It slows spoilage of fats and oils but there is some evidence that it can cause cancer.

NOTE: If you wish to be even more careful about food additives than avoiding the items listed above, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a caution list of food additives that you might want to avoid, as well as a list of additives that may cause allergic reactions in those sensitive to them.

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