My neighbor popped by the other day. We started chatting, and he told me he just read an article about all the different ingredients in processed foods linked to disease, and it blew his mind, as it should. So, I was inspired to share with you the following. However, in order to explain food additives in the US, I need to explain what GRAS is. GRAS is an acronym created by the FDA that stands for Generally Regarded As Safe. A GRAS is an additive that is NOT subject to pre-market approval by the FDA. Yes, you read that right, it’s an additive that can be put into your food without the FDAs approval. Instead the company that wants to include the additive self-approves it as a GRAS and then notifies the FDA it has done so. It’s more of a, “Yeah we had our guys take a look at it and feel it’s generally safe,” and the FDA replies, “Okay thanks.”
What’s are some examples of some GRAS additives? Propyl Paraben is one and is used as a preservative in foods such as tortillas, muffins, and food dyes. It’s also an endocrine disturbing chemical. In fact, when rats were fed the FDAs maximum limit of prophyl paraben in food, they had decreased sperm counts and small decreases in testosterone. Moreover, it’s said to alter gene expression, accelerate breast cancer cell growth, and impair women’s fertility. Another GRAS is butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) which is found in cereals, nut mixes, chewing gum, and butter spreads to name a few. This GRAS is BANNED in the EU, UK, and Japan. The National Toxicology Program classifies it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It’s listed as a known carcinogen in California, and a possible human carcinogen by the International Cancer Agency. Never-the-less it’s Generally Regarded As Safe by the FDA. It usually hangs out with butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which is also in the GRAS family of additives that help preserve food. It’s not listed (yet) as a carcinogen; however, rats fed BHT developed lung and liver tumors. Then there is Diacetyl, which you may know best as giving your microwave popcorn it’s butter flavor, but it’s also used to flavor yogurts, cheese, create butterscotch, maple, and fruit flavors. Diacetyl is also associated with an irreversible respiratory condition. This is known because flavor-related respiratory disease clusters have been identified. In one instance, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found comprised lung function in 11 out of 41 production workers exposed to diacetyle, some where in their 30’s who ended up requiring lung transplants! Then there are artificial colors and flavors. To give you some context as to the magnitude of this additive, manufacturers put 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes alone into US foods. I specify US foods, because most foods in the EU don’t contain artificial dyes and if they do they have to come with a warning label. This is because the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has reported that most commonly used food dyes may be linked to numerous forms of cancer and hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children, although this is hotly debated.
These examples represent a fraction of problem, as the list of GRAS and non-GRAS additives is extensive. The basic message is processed food could be harming your health. So, what do you do about it? How do you protect yourself and your family? Eating a whole foods diet filled with colorful fruits and veggies is a good base, but for those processed food staples that you might keep in the cupboard (crackers, cereal, cookies, mac & cheese etc.) or in your frig (bacon, lunch meat, sausage) run them through EWGs food rating database (https://www.ewg.org/foodscores). This tool looks at nutrition, ingredient, and processing concerns. Warning, this just might make your favorite breakfast cereal a friend you decide to part ways with. To give you an example of how it works I randomly chose Annie’s Organic Pretzel Bunnies, which have limited ingredients (organic wheat flour, sea salt, organic expeller-pressed vegetable oil – canola and/or soy, organic barley malt). Despite the limited ingredients it was still rated at a 4.0 on a 10-point scale (1 being good, 10 being bad). The reasons are noted in the screen-grab.
Since Halloween is just around the corner, I randomly selected Skittles and Butterfinger and searched them in the aforementioned database. Not surprising, both scored a 10 (which remember is bad). They have ingredients/additives or quantities of ingredients that are not helping anyone be healthy. Honestly, seeing the details definitely reinforced why I still have mini candies in my desk drawer that good intentioned co-workers gifted me last Halloween and why I don’t let my kiddo indulge in the barrage of candy that’s about to come.
For a quick reference on 50 food additives you should avoid I’ve included a list and link.
Sodium nitrate: Added to processed meats to stop bacterial growth. Linked to cancer in humans. (Worst Offender)
Sulfites: Used to keep prepared foods fresh. Can cause breathing difficulties in those sensitive to the ingredient.
Azodicarbonamide: Used in bagels and buns. Can cause asthma.
Potassium bromate: Added to breads to increase volume. Linked to cancer in humans.
Propyl gallate: Added to fat-containing products. Linked to cancer in humans
BHA/BHT: A fat preservative, used in foods to extend shelf life. Linked to cancerous tumor growth.
Propylene glycol: Better known as antifreeze. Thickens dairy products and salad dressing. Deemed ‘generally’ safe by FDA.
Butane: Put in chicken nuggets to keep them tasting fresh. A known carcinogen.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG): Flavor enhancer that can cause headaches. Linked in animal studies to nerve damage, heart problems and seizures.
Disodium inosinate: In snack foods. Contains MSG.
Disodium guanylate: Also used in snack foods, and contains MSG.
Enriched flour: Used in many snack foods. A refined starch that is made from toxic ingredients.
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH): Geneticially-engineered version of natural growth hormone in cows. Boosts milk production in cows. Contains high levels of IGF-1, which is thought cause various types of cancer.
Refined vegetable oil: Includes soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, canola oil, and peanut oil. High in omega-6 fats, which are thought to cause heart disease and cancer.
Sodium benzoate: Used as a preservative in salad dressing and carbonated beverages. A known carcinogen and may cause damage our DNA.
Brominated vegetable oil: Keeps flavor oils in soft drinks suspended. Bromate is a poison and can cause organ damage and birth defects. Not required to be listed on food labels.
Propyl gallate: Found in meats, popcorn, soup mixes and frozen dinners. Shown to cause cancer in rats. Banned in some countries. Deemed safe by FDA.
Olestra: Fat-like substance that is unabsorbed by the body. Used in place of natural fats in some snack foods. Can cause digestive problems, and also not healthy for the heart.
Carrageenan: Stabilizer and thickening agent used in many prepared foods. Can cause ulcers and cancer.
Polysorbate 60: A thickener that is used in baked goods. Can cause cancer in laboratory animals.
Camauba wax: Used in chewing gums and to glaze certain foods. Can cause cancer and tumors.
Magnesium sulphate: Used in tofu, and can cause cancer in laboratory animals.
Chlorine dioxide: Used in bleaching flour. Can cause tumors and hyperactivity in children.
Paraben: Used to stop mold and yeast forming in foods. Can disrupt hormones in the body, and could be linked to breast cancer.
Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose: Used as a thickener in salad dressings. Could cause cancer in high quantities.
Aluminum: A preservative in some packaged foods that can cause cancer.
Saccharin: Carcinogen found to cause bladder cancer in rats. (Worst Offender)
Aspartame: An excitotoxin and thought to be a carcinogen. Can cause dizziness, headaches, blurred vision and stomach problems.
High fructose corn syrup: Sweetener made from corn starch. Made from genetically-modified corn. Causes obesity, diabetes, heart problems, arthritis and insulin resistance.
Acesulfame potassium: Used with other artificial sweeteners in diet sodas and ice cream. Linked to lung and breast tumors in rats.
Sucralose: Splenda. Can cause swelling of liver and kidneys and a shrinkage of the thymus gland.
Agave nectar: Sweetener derived from a cactus. Contains high levels of fructose, which causes insulin resistance, liver disease and inflammation of body tissues.
Bleached starch: Can be used in many dairy products. Thought to be related to asthma and skin irritations.
Tert butylhydroquinone: Used to preserve fish products. Could cause stomach tumors at high doses.
Red #40: Found in many foods to alter color. All modern food dyes are derived from petroleum. A carcinogen that is linked to cancer in some studies. Also can cause hyperactivity in children. Banned in some European countries. (Worst Offender)
Blue #1: Used in bakery products, candy and soft drinks. Can damage chromosomes and lead to cancer.
Blue #2: Used in candy and pet food beverages. Can cause brain tumors
Citrus red #1: Sprayed on oranges to make them look ripe. Can damage chromosomes and lead to cancer.
Citrus red #2: Used to color oranges. Can cause cancer if you eat the peel.
Green #3: Used in candy and beverages. May cause bladder tumors.
Yellow #5: Used in desserts, candy and baked goods. Thought to cause kidney tumors, according to some studies.
Yellow #6: A carcinogen used in sausage, beverages and baked goods. Thought to cause kidney tumors, according to some studies.
Red #2: A food coloring that may cause both asthma and cancer.
Red #3: A carcinogen. that is added to cherry pie filling, ice cream and baked goods. May cause nerve damage and thyroid cancer.
Caramel coloring: In soft drinks, sauces, pastries and breads. When made with ammonia, it can cause cancer in mice. Food companies not required to disclose if this ingredient is made with ammonia.
Brown HT: Used in many packaged foods. Can cause hyperactivity in children, asthma and cancer.
Orange B: A food dye that is used in hot dog and sausage casings. High doses are bad for the liver and bile duct.
Bixin: Food coloring that can cause hyperactivity in children and asthma.
Norbixin: Food coloring that can cause hyperactivity in children and asthma.
Annatto: Food coloring that can cause hyperactivity in children and asthma.
How might you become a more educated consumer?
How would you change your dietary choices based on the information you’ve learned?
What motivates you to make nutritional or dietary changes?