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While Americans count on the United States Food and Drug Administration to protect our food system by regularly inspecting products and prohibiting companies from including dangerous adulterants in their products, the federal agency actually allows a number of chemicals that are banned in other countries.
Products like breads (yes, even whole wheat varieties), sodas, baked goods, coffee drinks, and other popular processed foods are often made with potentially carcinogenic ingredients that have been linked in studies to a variety of adverse health effects.
International food manufacturers reformulate many of these products and menu items for distribution in other countries, but keep the potentially hazardous (but legal) additives in our food.
For example, if you go to a McDonald's in Britain, your fries will contain potatoes, vegetable oil, combo, dextrose and salt. And the ingredients listed will note "Prepared in the restaurants using a non-hydrogenated vegetable oil." However, the ingredients for fries on the American McDonald's website contains a few extra things, including hydrogenated soybean oil, a "natural beef flavor" made of wheat and milk derivatives, as well as a coloring agent called sodium acid pyrophosphate (which is associated with a lack of physical activity). Do you really want fries with that?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research-based consumer advocacy organization advises avoiding artificial sweeteners, food dyes, and partially hydrogenated oils, as well as dozens of other ingredients in our food supply you may have not heard of. Their Chemical Cuisine webpage has a list of all the additives going into our food and just how safe they are (or aren't) for consumption. We consulted Lisa Leffert, senior scientist at CSPI, to help give us a better understanding of why these non-food additives are being allowed into our food supply.
"The U.S. system for ensuring that ingredients added to food are safe is broken," Leffert says. "The FDA is not effectively overseeing the safety of the food supply. These days, food and chemical companies, rather than the FDA, are deciding whether substances are safe to be used in food. That's an obvious conflict of interest, and we think it violates the law. Once a substance is in the food supply, FDA rarely takes further action, even when evidence comes to light that it isn't safe."
Based on Leffert's and the CSPI's research, here are four additives the US allows that other countries have warnings against (or have outright banned) that are especially worth watching out for:
The CSPI lists Blue 1 and 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3 and 40, Yellow 5 and 6, and Caramel Coloring as legal food additives you want to steer clear of. These aren't just found in the food dyes you use to color icings and cakes, but they are also found in condiments, pickles, coffee and soda drinks and hundreds of other food and beverage products. And they are one of Leffert's greatest concerns.
While there are plenty of natural coloring options out there—like ones made from beets—these synthetic varieties are cheaper and therefore more commonly used by the food industry. Research has linked these artificial colorings to serious problems in children such as hyperactivity, aggressiveness, allergies, learning impairment and irritability. Others, like Yellow 5 and 6, as well as Red 40, contain several compounds thought to be carcinogenic—and these three are used 90% of the time when adding dyes to food.
The CSPI called for a petition, "Seeing Red" back in 2016, urging the FDA to require warning labels on food products containing artificial colors—something European countries have required since 2010. While artificial colors aren't totally banned in the EU, food products warning labels say the ingredients "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." The UK, however, bans the use of these colors outright, requiring producers to use natural extracts like pumpkin and carrot instead.
Also called ADA, this additive is used as a bleaching agent in grains and a dough conditioner in baked goods. It has been banned in Europe since 2005. ADA is used by many fast food chains in sandwich bread and buns. ADA is also commonly found in pastries, doughs and bread products of a variety of major food companies. You will even find this ingredient in yoga mats and rubber sole shoes. ADA has been shown to cause cancer and adverse kidney effects in lab animals, but the FDA declares it safe in "limited amounts."
The Environmental Working Group found ADA in almost 500 different food products back in 2014. In the same year, Vani Hari, a food advocate and founder of FoodBabe.com, petitioned fast food chains to remove ADA from their products. Hari's petition led several massive chains like Subway, McDonald's, Wendy's and White Castle to agree to ditch the additive, and more than 300 products in our food system no longer carry it. But there are still 200 ADA-containing products lurking on grocery store shelves and in fast food paper bags, according to a recent article in The Guardian.
Brominated Vegetable Oil
Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) has been used in a variety of sports drinks and sodas to prevent citrus flavors from separating, and is banned in Europe, India and Japan. BVO is a health concern as one of its main ingredients, bromine, is linked to headaches, memory loss, skin irritation and other adverse health effects. Funnily, BVO has also been patented as a flame retardant.
The FDA once listed BVO as GRAS—"Generally Recognized as Safe"—but the organization has since changed its view. It is currently performing toxicology studies and, while it's still legal to use is restricting its use to small amounts. After a 2012 online petition, PepsiCo announced it would remove BVO from Gatorade, but you can still find it in some of their other products—especially other citrus-flavored beverages.
Potassium bromate is another outlaw additive that can be lurking in your baked goods. It's often added to doughs to help them rise and give a shiny white color. However, potassium bromate is more than just a leavening agent—it's also considered a human carcinogen by groups such as the New Jersey Department of Health. Potassium bromate is associated with respiratory issues, kidney damage and a host of neurological problems. It has been banned in virtually every country except for Japan and the U.S.
The CSPI petitioned the FDA to ban potassium bromate several decades ago, but the FDA said the additive was excluded from carcinogenic food regulation, as it was sanctioned before the regulation was passed in 1958. This Delaney Clause only applies to 400 of the 2,700 various ingredients going into our nation's food products. To learn more, check out this explainer.
The Bottom Line
While not all processed foods are bad—in fact, some are actually healthy parts of our diets—we should be vigilant in knowing what ingredients are in packaged foods before we purchase them—and not simply trust that they are safe. Leffert says to remember refined sugars, artificial sugars and salt are additives too, and since we consume them in such high quantities, they can be even more harmful to our health than chemical additives.
"I avoid quite a bit of the grocery store," Leffert says. "You can eat more nutritiously and avoid questionable additives at the same time by eating lots of vegetables and whole fruits, making sure you choose whole grains over processed grains, and avoiding processed meats and soda."
Opting for whole foods like produce, nuts and seeds, sustainably raised meats and dairy and whole grains is ultimately your best bet in avoiding food additives. If you're interested in cleaning up your diet, try our 30-Day Clean Eating Challenge to help you get started!