If you’ve ever looked at packaged food ingredients, they sometimes read like a foreign language. Are food product chemicals and additives bad for you? If so, which ones are the most harmful? Let’s take a look at sulfites and other food additives you might want to avoid.
Now, you might not think of salt as a food additive, but it was one of the first additives ever used by humans. Salt was used to preserve food before refrigeration existed. Now, salt continues to be added to many packaged foods and, sometimes, the quantities are very high. This could be a health risk, especially if you have high blood pressure or heart disease.
If you can, avoid foods that have added salt. Don’t forget about soups and sauces that have notoriously high levels of salt. Any ingredient that includes the word “salt” or “sodium” means the food has added salt.
Sulfites and Sulfite Sensitivity
Sulfites can be a chemical additive, but they can also be found naturally in some foods. As an additive, sulfites are used to preserve food, prevent bacterial growth or stop vegetables from browning. Other names for sulfites found on food labels are sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite. These ingredients are also sometimes identified by an alphanumeric code, such as E220, E221, E223, E224, E226, and E227.
People with sensitivity to sulfites may have symptoms, such as:
- Difficulty breathing
In rare cases, sulfite allergy can even be life-threatening. If you know you have sulfite sensitivity, make sure you ask about it when eating out. Some restaurants might not be 100% certain, so it pays to call ahead and ask.
There’s no evidence that sulfites cause cancer. However, some data shows that sulfites may lead to free radical damage in your body. Although free radical damage may be part of a carcinogenic process, sulfites have not yet been linked to cancer.
Sulfites in Food, Beer & Wine
Sulfites can be found in a wide variety of foods such as:
- Baked goods
- Soup Mixes
- Canned vegetables
- Pickled foods
- Dried fruit trail mix
- Potato chips
- Beer and wine
- Vegetable juices
- Fruit juices
- Apple cider
- Many condiments
- Fresh or frozen shrimp
- Packaged guacamole
- Maraschino cherries
- Dehydrated, precut or peeled potatoes
Some foods might not have a detailed ingredients label like wine. However, the words “contains sulfites” might be found somewhere on the label. Even some medications may contain sulfites like inhalers. Even though sulfites are found in most wines, the substance probably does not cause headaches despite this popular belief.
This additive is used to preserve food and enhance flavor. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is found in soups, salad dressing, chips, frozen entrees and restaurant dishes. Soy sauce, seasonings, powdered milk, stock or broth, malt, maltodextrin, pectin and any protein additive may also contain MSG.
This substance has been called an excitotoxin, which means it may overstimulate cells resulting in early cell death. Some studies have shown that MSG may cause neurotoxicity leading to headaches and muscle sensitivity.
This additive may cause a variety of symptoms, such as:
- Neck pain
- Heart palpitations
This artificial sweetener, also known as acesulfame K or Ace K, is found in many diets and sugar-free drinks and foods. Acesulfame potassium is added to soft drinks, drink powders, baked goods, packaged desserts, frozen desserts, flavored yogurt, candy, chewing gum and other sweeteners.
Animal studies suggest that this additive may cause cancer and thyroid disease. Also, acesulfame potassium passes easily into the breast milk of nursing women.
Many packaged foods like cereals, candies, desserts, and drinks add color to make the food more attractive or appear fresh. Most of these colorings are made from petroleum, and research shows that these chemicals may cause hyperactivity in children.
Some artificial colorings to beware of are:
- Blue #1: Possible cancer risk and may affect nerve cells; may cause an allergic reaction
- Blue #2: Causes brain cancer in animal studies
- Green #3: Causes bladder and testicular tumors in rats
- Orange B: Might be found in sausage casings and can harm the liver and bile tract
- Red #3: Leads to thyroid tumors in rats; found in maraschino cherries, cake icing, fruit roll-ups and some candies
- Red #40: May cause allergic reactions
- Yellow #5: Associated with allergies
- Yellow #6: Animal tests led to the adrenal gland and kidney tumors
You might not think of this as an additive, but trans fats don’t occur naturally in foods. On the label, trans fats may be called hydrogenated vegetable oil or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. You can find it in margarine, crackers, fried foods, baked goods, cake icing and microwave popcorn. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is added to maximize the shelf life of foods.
Trans fats do double damage to your blood vessels by lowering good HDL cholesterol and by increasing bad LDL cholesterol. The Harvard School of Public Health research estimates that trans fat caused about 50,000 premature heart attack deaths annually. This makes trans fats the most deadly food additive on the market.
After the data about trans fats came out, many food manufacturers began to remove this ingredient from their products. Instead, they used saturated fat ingredients. Even though saturated fats are healthier than trans fats, the food still contains fat. So, if you see a label that says “0 percent trans fats” or trans “fat-free,” it doesn’t mean it’s fat-free.
This ingredient is found in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips and vegetable oil. Animal studies have shown this preservative to cause cancers in animals. Even the United States Department of Health and Human Services classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as a “reasonably anticipated human carcinogen.” Still, BHA remains legal to be used as a food additive.
This popular sweetener can be found in all kinds of diet, low-calorie, zero sugar and sugar-free products. Trade names for aspartame include Equal, NutraSweet and AminoSweet. Rats exposed to aspartame developed lymphomas, leukemia, breast cancer and kidney tumors. Mouse studies show the sweetener causes cancer in the liver and lung.
A Harvard study suggested that in humans, aspartame may increase the risk of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Other studies have linked artificial sweeteners to preterm infant delivery.
This compound is found widely in colas, precooked meats, sauces, soy sauce, beer and chocolate-flavored products. It’s used to make the color of foods darker or more attractive, for example, in dark beers.
Caramel coloring is produced with ammonia which may contain contaminants such as 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole. These substances cause cancer in mice and may be carcinogenic to humans according to the World Health Organization.
Potassium Bromate/Calcium Bromate
This additive — shown to cause cancer in animals — is found in flour, bread, baked goods, and rolls. It helps give bread more body and facilities fine crust formation. Bromate has been banned in every country except the U.S. and Japan. In California, foods that contain bromate require a cancer warning on the label.
This substance improves the consistency of the dough and rolls making them more resilient. The problem is that this additive may be cancerous and can contribute to iodine toxicity. This could be an issue for people with thyroid disease.
Brominated Vegetable Oil
This additive was used to make citrus-flavored drinks appear cloudy. Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) has been removed from the majority of soft drinks except for Mountain Dew. BVO is believed to leave residue in your body fat, brain, liver and other organs. Animal studies indicate that BVO may contribute to heart problems, fatty liver, impaired growth and cognitive delay.
While it may be difficult to avoid these additives 100 percent of the time, there are some simple ways to minimize your intake. For starters, if the food does not come in a package, there’s nearly zero chance it has these additives. One exception may be fruit sprayed with coloring. If you purchase from verified organic sources, however, this risk also approaches zero.
So, if you’re tired of reading labels looking for dangerous chemicals — stop. Instead, consume food that comes from fresh, organic sources.
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Baad-Hansen L, et al. (n.d.). Effect of systemic monosodium glutamate (MSG) on headache and pericranial muscle sensitivity. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19438927
Chemical Cuisine | Center for Science in the Public Interest. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://cspinet.org/eating-healthy/chemical-cuisine#msg
This Ingredient Causes 50,000 Heart Attacks a Year. (2017, November 4). Retrieved from https://draxe.com/worst-ingredients/
What Is Sulfite Sensitivity? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/allergies/sulfite-sensitivity