A few weeks ago I shared an article called What NOT to Eat about processed foods. Today, I want to talk to you about additives.
How much of what we eat doesn’t even qualify as food? More than is good for us. There are 3,000 food additives on the market. The average American eats 5 pounds of additives a year. There are over 15,000 chemicals in our food supply and many don’t have to be listed on the label. And many have never been tested. It’s a scary thought: By the time we’re adults, our bodies have been infiltrated by thousands of non-food or food-like substances, things never consumed before by human beings. Pounds and pounds of them. So, who knows what the long-term effects will be?
Chemical formulations where the scientific evidence is still questionable. Newly invented substances that have been added to our food to make it easier to process, or keep it seemingly fresh longer, or give it a color or taste or consistency that the manufacturer believes we want. The Food and Drug Administration’s job is to protect us, but that doesn’t always work so well. Scientists began questioning the safety of trans fats a good 50 years before they were banished by the FDA—a half-century’s worth of damage done to us, who unknowingly ate them. Even the containers that hold our food pose a danger, because they contain phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which we learn about only years after we’ve been using them. What’s the solution? Eat food, not food-like substances. It may not always be possible, but be sure to avoid the bad ones. Make it a point to know every single thing that we’re putting into our bodies? A nice goal, but probably unrealistic—at some point we’re going to eat something, somewhere, that contains non-food.
Luckily, we have organizations looking out for us.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has compiled a detailed report on food additives, including a “Dirty Dozen” list—the ones that pose the greatest danger to our health. They are as follows:
- Nitrates and nitrites – Used to color, preserve, and flavor processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and salami; a “probable” carcinogen according to the World Health Organization.
- Potassium Bromate – Found in bread and other baked goods; linked to various cancers; not allowed in food in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the European Union.
- Propylparaben – Used in baked goods; believed to be an endocrine disruptor; also may be carcinogenic.
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) – Used as a preservative in cereal and other foods; caused cancer in animal tests.
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) – Similar to the above; listed by California as a carcinogen.
- Propyl gallate – Used in food with animal fats, like lard and sausage; may be carcinogenic.
- Theobromine – In chocolate, bread and sports drinks; in animal testing had possible effects on reproduction and development.
- Flavorings, natural or artificial – Even when these say “natural,” they may be extracted using other chemicals that aren’t listed. Any time you see words like “flavors” or “spices,” it’s cause for concern.
- Artificial colorings – Have been associated with everything from cancer to hyperactivity in children.
- Diacetyl – Flavoring, like the “butter” taste in microwave popcorn, hazardous for workers in factories where it’s used.
- Phosphates – In thousands of foods; linked to cardiovascular disease risk.
- Aluminum additives – Such as sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium aluminum sulfate; used as stabilizers; linked to neurotoxicity.
Another watchdog organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also compiles a list of additives, which it categorizes as either “Safe,” “Cut Back,” “Caution,” “Certain People Should Avoid,” and “Avoid”. Here’s that last group:
*This is a brand name of foods that use mycoprotein—a meat substitute made from fungus, which has reportedly caused extreme allergic reactions in some people.
There are many more compounds that are concerning. Almost all commercial bread products contain the additive calcium propionate. This has been shown to cause autistic behavior in rats and in kids. It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s a link between the 133 pounds of flour consumed by each American each year and the rising rate of brain disorders such as ADHD, autism, depression, and more.
Now, not every additive is equally harmful. There’s a long list of them rated by the FDA as GRAS “generally recognized as safe,” but notice the wiggle room in that term. It doesn’t state, categorically, that these substances are harmless. It just means that as of right now the consensus is that they’re okay. But that can always change, so why take unnecessary risks? If you don’t know whether you should eat something, you probably shouldn’t.
I always say, I don’t need the fillers, additives, excessive amounts of sugars, fats, salts and other measures taken to taint the natural goodness of real food.
Mark Hyman, MD