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What You Need to Know about the Dirty Dozen Food Additives

by Barbara Minton
See all TBYIL articles by Barbara Minton

(The Best Years in Life) With thousands of questionable ingredients lurking in our food, which are the most dangerous and need to be scrupulously avoided? Environmental Working Group (EWG), the watchdog organization with your welfare in mind, has gone a long way to answer that question by publishing a new Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives, designed to help you figure out which additives to look out for and why.

This guide provides coverage of food additives linked to serious health problems, ingredients banned or restricted in other counties, and substances that clearly don’t belong in food. It highlights the worst failures of the FDA’s regulatory process for food additives and signals the need for improved oversight of the food system.

“With thousands of ingredients lurking in food, EWG wanted to bring attention to additives that may have implications for human health, and we wanted to expose how the food regulatory system has failed us,” Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist says. “Not all additives are cause for concern, but EWG’s Dirty Dozen list is a good place to start to identify which ones to avoid or minimize in your diet.”

Here is EWG’s Dirty Dozen food additives:

Nitrites and nitrates - Preservatives found in cured and processed meats such as hot dogs, bologna, sausage and bacon. Associated with headaches, irritable bowel symptoms, itchy rashes, asthma, behavior problems in children and insomnia. Can combine with amines in food to create cancer causing nitrosamines.

Potassium bromate - Although banned from use in food by many countries, this is used in the U.S. in baking to strengthen dough so it can rise higher. Classified as a category 2B carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer.

Propyl paraben - A preservative typically found in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos and bath products. Can irritate eyes, skin, intestinal and respiratory tract. Can lead to infertility by killing sperm.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) - A preservative added to edible fats and fat-containing foods to prevent rancidity. The National Institutes of Health has reported BHT to be a probable carcinogen. It caused papillomas and squamous cell carcinomas of the forestomach in rats.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) -Used to preserve color and flavor in cereal and other processed foods. Also found in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Can cause cancer in animals and suspected of causing metabolic problems leading to behavior change, birth defects, and liver and kidney damage.

Propyl gallate - Another preservative often used with BHA and BHT. Found in vegetable oil, processed meats, cereals, chewing gum and candy. Can cause allergic reactions, stomach and skin irritation, liver and kidney damage, and may increase risk of cancer

Theobromine - An alkaloid found in chocolate that is chemically related to caffeine. Acts as a diuretic, stimulant and bronchodilator. It is extremely dangerous to pets, and the reason dogs and cats should never be given chocolate. It is on this list as an example of an enormous loophole in the FDA’s voluntary GRAS (generally regarded as safe) notification process.

In 2010, a company known as Theocorp Holdings wanted to use theobromine in a variety of foods, including bread, cereal and sport drinks, and asked the FDA for GRAS status. FDA scientists questioned this because their estimated average human consumption was five times higher than the level the company reported as safe, and the reproductive and developmental effects of theobromine in animals had not been explained. In response, Theocorp withdrew its request, but theobromine was later declared GRAS and is being used in food without FDA oversight. EWG believes the FDA should have access to safety information and assert jurisdiction over the approval of all GRAS listed additives.


Secret flavor ingredients - In EWG’s roster of 80,000 foods, only salt, water and sugar are mentioned more frequently than ‘natural flavors’. ‘Artificial flavors’ are also common, appearing on one of every seven food labels. When you see this designation, you have no way to know what chemicals have been added to your food under the umbrella of this vague term. This can be a big concern for people with food allergies. In fact, there can be almost anything under that umbrella along with the flavor chemical, and it does not have to be disclosed on the label. EWG thinks consumers have a right to know what is in their food.

Artificial colors - These are used to increase the appeal of foods having little or no nutritional value. Some caramel colors such as those used in colas caused tumors in a National Toxicology Program study. There is ongoing debate about the effects of the synthetic FD&C colors on children’s behavior and hyperactivity level.

Diacetyl - This chemical is used in the fake butter flavoring on microwave popcorn. It is linked to a life threatening and irreversible respiratory condition that can cause the lungs to fill with scar tissue from inhaling diacetyl while the corn is cooking. This disease is known as popcorn lung.

Phosphate-based food additives - These last two are on EWG’s watch list because scientists have not determined whether they are linked to human health problems. High phosphorous content is extremely corrosive and may lead to osteoporosis, ruined teeth and loss of kidney function. Items high in phosphate include all soft drinks but particularly cola, anything containing citric acid, processed cheese, hot dogs and other processed meats, cookies and cakes from the supermarket, and tomato ketchup.

Aluminum based additives - Aluminum additives are found in dry cake mixes, pastries and croissants made from frozen dough, processed cheese, some brands of baking powder, and baked goods bought from the store. There is suspicion that aluminum may be behind Alzheimer’s disease, although this has not yet been proven. Aluminum is also suspected of being a neurotoxin (substance that kills brain cells), and may be as toxic as lead under some circumstances.

It is increasingly frustrating knowing that there are natural products that could be used in foods that are without detrimental effects and in many instances can be had for just a few cents more. Many food manufacturers show little but contempt for their consumers. Your best defense when shopping is to read labels carefully and buy only from manufacturers you believe have your best interest at heart.

See also:

Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Produce List for 2014

Additives in Bread Linked to a Host of Health Problems

Are Food Additives Behind Your Weight Gain and Nagging Health Problems?

Tired of Intestinal Uproar? Blame These Food Additives

For more information:

About the Author:

Barbara is a school psychologist and the author of Dividend Capture, a book on personal finance. She is a breast cancer survivor using bioidentical hormone therapy, and a passionate advocate of natural health with hundreds of articles on many aspects of health and wellness. She is the editor and publisher of AlignLife's Health Secrets Newsletter.

See other articles by the Barbara Minton here:

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