Don’t be alarmed, sustainable lifestyle fans, but chemicals in food are inescapable – no matter what you choose at mealtime. To a scientist, food is really just a way to deliver vital proteins, carbohydrates, minerals and other compounds to our body. We break all of that down and turn it into fuel for our day, or we repurpose the building blocks and turn them into new tissue. So while the first thing we think of when we hear about “chemicals in food” is something horrible, it’s important to remember that most of those chemicals are necessary for everything we do.
Some Chemicals in Food Can Cause Major Problems
That said, some of the ingredients in our food are much less necessary than others. A few might even be downright deadly. And even though more and more people are choosing to eat organic produce instead of processed foods in hopes of avoiding harmful compounds, some of these dangerous chemicals in food occur naturally. In an ironic twist, others are added to improve food safety at home. Some of the biggest threats to your family’s health are even used solely for aesthetic purposes.
We’ve gathered info on 10 of the most common chemical dangers in your diet, substances that could have dramatic long-term health consequences for you and your family. But to stay safe, your job is easy. Just double-check your labels, switch brands if you have to and ask your restaurant server just what’s in that pasta dinner. Basically? Just do whatever you have to in order to avoid these compounds.
10 Most Harmful Chemicals in Food
1. Food coloring. The synthetic dyes that draw kids towards colorful cereals, candies and soda are sourced from coal tar and serve no nutritional purpose. That much is clear. Food industry watchdog groups, however, claim that these blue, green, red and yellow dyes have been linked to hyperactivity and allergic responses. The FDA even recognized Red #3 as a carcinogen in 1990, but it’s still available for food use in the U.S. marketplace. The European Union recently passed severe restrictions on most of the synthetic dyes used in America, and pressure is mounting for companies to switch to natural dyes.
2. Canthaxanthin. Unfortunately, some of those natural dyes can cause problems, too. Canthaxanthin is a deep yellow pigment similar to the chemicals that give carrots their distinct color. It was first discovered in mushrooms and has since been found to occur naturally in carp, algae, Pacific salmon and other sea creatures. It’s used frequently in animal feed, and occasionally as a food additive. It’s also found in tanning pills. The bad news: in excess, possible effects include aplastic anemia (a condition where no new blood cells are made), liver toxicity, a dry skin rash, discolored skin secretions, diarrhea and crystal deposits in the retina.
3. Artificial sugars. Those non-sugar sweeteners that go in your diet soda might be doing a lot more harm than good. One recent study suggests that each can of diet soda consumed in a day can increase the risk of being overweight by 41%. As if that weren’t bad enough, aspartame (also known as NutraSweet or Equal) is converted to formaldehyde in the liver before being expunged from the body. It has been linked to an increased risk of blood cancers, as formaldehyde is a potent carcinogen.
Of course, an excess of real sugars in the diet isn’t all that compatible with a healthy, sustainable lifestyle either. Controlling your sweet tooth is still the best food tip out there. Try to eat organic fruits when a sugar craving overpowers you.
4. Zearalenone. Manufacturers don’t always add dangerous chemicals to food. Some of them just occur naturally. Take the mycotoxin known as zearalenone, for example. Mycotoxins are poisons produced by fungi living on grain crops like corn, oats and wheat. Zearalenone can enter the body via infected grain (including popcorn and beer), and if dairy cows or chickens eat it, it can travel right up the food chain to your dinner plate. It acts as an endocrine disruptor – a 2011 study found that 78.5% of girls in New Jersey who were tested had traces in their body, and data suggested that it was delaying the onset of puberty in these girls.
5. Acrylamide. Sometimes there’s nobody to blame for dangerous chemicals in food – acrylamide isn’t even formed until we bake, broil or fry our meals. When specific amino acids found in starchy foods are heated in combination with sugars, a chemical reaction creates acrylamide, which is a carcinogen that can also cause neurological damage. Breads and potatoes are common sources, so if you spend a lot of time thinking about food safety at home, you’ll want to cut down on chips and prepare boiled potatoes instead of French fries.
6. Benzene. Here’s another dangerous compound that forms when two relatively innocuous ingredients combine on the shelf. In fruit juices, energy drinks and sodas, vitamin C can combine with sodium benzoate (an additive for preventing spoilage) to form benzene. This chemical also occurs naturally in forest fires as well as in industrial manufacture of plastics and rubbers. Although benzene sources in the diet are thought to be much less plentiful than contamination in the air (levels in food are more than a thousand-fold less per day than what results from cigarette smoking), it is a carcinogen associated with multiple leukemias.
7. BPA. We only use it in our food packaging, but because bisphenol-A (BPA) can leach out of plastics (and especially from the epoxy coatings found inside food or beverage cans) it often becomes another of the dangerous chemicals in food. BPA acts as an endocrine disruptor and has been linked to a variety of cancers and developmental disorders. Despite those dangers, it’s incredibly pervasive – a CDC report has estimated that 90% of Americans have elevated blood levels of the compound.
8. Propyl gallate. There are at least 31 food additives that can mimic the effects of estrogen, and propyl gallate is one of the more common ones. That seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but bypassing the body’s ability to regulate hormones can have dangerous effects, and propyl gallate has been linked to cancer and assorted health problems in rats. It’s used as a stabilizer in foods that contain fats, like dried milk, baked snack foods and chicken soup, as well as in cosmetics and packaging.
9. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. Sure, bacon tastes good simply because it’s bacon. However, it is getting a little extra help, often in the form of two closely related compounds: sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. These additives help enhance the taste of deli meats and hot dogs as well. They also extend shelf life and help fight botulism. Sounds like a great deal all around, right? Unfortunately, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite break down in the body to form nitrosamines, which are thought to contribute to an increased risk of cancer and respiratory disease. We knew there had to be a catch.
10. Brominated vegetable oil. There’s a potentially dangerous compound lurking in your favorite citrus-flavored sodas and sports beverages. The oils that manufacturers use to add a hint of orange or lime don’t mix well with water, so a compound called brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is added to allow for complete mixing. BVO is related to a class of flame retardants, and like those chemicals it can build up in your system and poison you – think weeping sores on your skin, loss of muscle use and organ damage. Seems like a fair price to pay for a refreshing glass of Mountain Dew, right?
Is the government doing anything to help? Well, when these facts came to light in 1970, the FDA moved BVO off the list of chemical additives recognized as “safe.” They called for further research, but in the meantime manufacturers are legally allowed to use the stuff in limited amounts. More than 40 years have gone by and we’re still waiting on those studies. BVO is already banned in the EU and Japan, so at least somebody is paying attention.
Pushing Back on Dangerous Chemicals in Food
The good news, then, is that by drawing attention to their cause, sustainable lifestyle advocates overseas have been able to place restrictions on some of the most dangerous chemicals in food. The science on BVO and artificial dyes continues to roll in, and the European Union has been forced to act. Unfortunately, while American food manufacturers have been known to voluntarily remove chemicals from food sent to foreign markets, they sometimes leave their U.S. products alone. Kraft, for example, recently removed artificial yellow dyes from the European version of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Over here, we still get the dyes.
If we want to eliminate or cut back on the use of these potentially dangerous chemicals and increase food safety at home, we’ll have to make our demands heard here in the States. Speaking up, loudly and en masse, is the only way to challenge the world’s biggest and strongest multinational food corporations, so let your elected officials know that you expect better from the FDA. Adding your voice to the chorus of other concerned Americans, as represented by consumer advocacy organizations like the Environmental Working Group, can give your words even more weight.
With hard work and a focus on safety, we’ll ensure that our children won’t have to worry about dangerous chemicals in food. Until then, the best bet for you and your family is to eat organic and local produce whenever possible and to shun processed foods most of the time.