You will often hear the blanket claim that food additives to avoid are dangerous, but the truth is that some are much worse than others. While there are additives that are benign, a wide range is proven to increase cancer risk or connected to a higher likelihood of developing kidney disease, obesity or serious allergic reactions.
Here are the top eight food additives to avoid you should try to avoid at all costs.
1. Nitrates and nitrites
Both nitrates and nitrates are highly likely to be carcinogenic. They are preservatives and coloring agents that are sometimes added to meats to keep them looking appetizing fresh after they have been around for days or weeks. Stomach and esophageal cancers are more common in those who frequently eat cured meats, and there is ongoing research into a potential link with brain tumors. These ingredients might appear on a label in the form of sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate, and you can reduce your exposure by cutting back on cured or processed meats.
As with “fragrance” in personal care products, there is no law requiring manufacturers to disclose the individual ingredients that create a food’s distinctive flavor. In many cases, seeing “flavoring” on a label can mean there are dozens or even hundreds of extra chemicals in your food—you have no way of knowing what these chemicals are and no means of assessing their safety. Even a product that says “natural flavor” on the label should be viewed with suspicion!
3. High fructose corn syrup
A popular artificial sweetener that can be found in sodas, candy, and canned goods, high fructose corn syrup is widely recognized as promoting obesity. There is some evidence that it stimulates appetite, making it hard to resist cravings. Meanwhile, further studies support a link between high fructose corn syrup and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, and fatty liver disease. Some still dispute the validity of the evidence against high fructose corn syrup, but it’s worth avoiding it while the jury is out.
4. Propyl paraben
Propylparaben is a common chemical that can often be found in muffins and food dyes, and it is used as a preservative that lengthens a food’s shelf life. However, it is also an endocrine disruptor, which means that it interferes with sex hormone production and has a proven link to an increased risk of breast cancer. Research conducted by a group of scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health also showed a probable connection between propylparaben and reduced fertility, and this preservative may even interfere with proper immune system function.
5. Sodium sulfite
Sodium sulfite (sometimes listed as simply “E221”) is a preservative that can be found in wine and dried fruit. While you may be able to consume this chemical without incident, the problem is that around one in 100 people will develop a sulfite sensitivity that can cause everything from skin rashes to respiratory distress and severe cases. You should be particularly keen to avoid sodium sulfite if you’re asthmatic, as those with asthma seem more prone to an extreme (or even fatal) allergic reactions.
6. Potassium bromate
Potassium bromate helps to ensure that dough-based products rise, but there is strong evidence that it causes malignant tumors in animals. Many researchers also suspect that it may be equally dangerous to humans. Meanwhile, potassium bromate is also connected to DNA damage and reduced kidney function, so it’s well worth avoiding if you have reason to suspect your renal function may already be compromised. In fact, it is no longer legal to add potassium bromate to foods in Canada and the UK, but the US has yet to catch up.
The chemical responsible for the enjoyable buttery taste of microwavable popcorn, diacetyl is also unfortunately responsible for causing respiratory problems in those who handle it. Specifically, it has led to bronchiolitis obliterans in workers, an irreversible disease that produces symptoms like lung inflammation and permanent lung scarring. Diacetyl is also found in dairy products and fruit flavorings. While consumers are unlikely to suffer major ill effects from diacetyl, boycotting foods and drinks that contain it promotes safe working conductions for those who work in the food production industry.
8. BHA and BHT
Finally, a report from the National Toxicology Program warns that BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are most likely to be carcinogenic. In particular, there are compelling studies linking BHT to the development of cancer in animals. It’s also worth noting that BHA is another endocrine disruptor and that is particularly prone to interfering with thyroid hormones, sperm quality and fertility in rats. In separate studies, BHT has been shown to cause cancers of the lungs and liver. Look out for these hazardous ingredients when you’re buying anything with a long shelf life, such as potato chips, preserved meats, chewing gums, and cereals.