10 food additives you should avoid

Find out which food additives are under the most scientific scrutiny and what foods you’ll find them in

10 food additives you should avoid

Do you know what additives are in your food?

With more than 500 food additives permitted for use in Canada’many of which have been implicated for negative effects on human health’it can be difficult to keep track of which to eat and which to avoid. Though some researchers may feel certain additives are toxic, their studies may not be enough to get the products banned by the government, making it difficult for Canadians to know who to trust.

Used primarily to preserve shelf life and boost flavour, as well as to maintain colour, many synthetic additives are not harmful, and some, such as ascorbic acid, can even improve the nutritional value of our foods. However, other chemical agents have undergone inadequate, conflicting or inconclusive testing.

The following is a list of the top 10 food additives legal for use in Canada that have raised red flags within the scientific community. While none of them has been definitively proven to be harmful, they haven’t been proven to be safe, either; it’s ultimately the consumer’s choice whether to take the risk. (Note that some additives have different names in the U.S. and in Canada; we’ve given you both names in many cases.)

1. Acesulfame-potassium (aka acesulfame-K)

Where it’s found: Baked goods, chewing gum, gelatin desserts, soft drinks, energy drinks

What it is: An artificial sweetener about 200 times sweeter than sugar

Why avoid this additive: Two animal studies suggest that this additive could be cancer-causing, though other studies say it’s safe. It also breaks down into a substance’acetoacetamide’that in large quantities has been found to affect the thyroid in dogs, rabbits and rats. Watch for it in foods that use sucralose, an artificial sweetener’acesulfame-potassium is often used in conjunction with it.

2. Aspartame

Where it’s found: Several sugar substitute products; an array of diet foods including sodas, drink mixes and low-calorie frozen desserts; chewing gum

What it is: An artificial sweetener

Why avoid this additive: Controversy over aspartame’s safety has swirled since the ’70s, when studies done on rats suggested it may cause brain tumours. More recent animal studies have now linked aspartame to lymphomas, leukemia and breast cancer. As well, some people show an acute sensitivity to aspartame, suffering headaches and dizziness shortly after consuming it. And to top it all off, not only have "diet" products containing aspartame not been shown to aid in weight loss, they may even cause you to eat more.

3. Sodium nitrite, also known as sodium nitrate

Where it’s found: Bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats and other processed meats

What it is: It’s used as a preservative, as well as for flavouring and colouring (it stabilizes the red colour of cured meats, preventing them from turning grey). It also hinders the growth of bacteria that may cause botulism.

Why avoid this additive: Sodium nitrite can cause the formation of nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing chemicals; this reaction occurs especially in bacon. Look for bacon products that contain ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid; both are safe additives that help inhibit the potentially dangerous reaction.

4. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

Where it’s found: A wide variety of processed foods, especially shortening and some margarines, deep-fried foods, cookies, baked goods and snack foods. Many products have shifted to using alternatives; it’s important to read labels.

What it is: A processed type of fat that helps increase shelf life and improves the texture of some processed foods

Why avoid this additive: The process to make partially hydrogenated vegetable oil creates trans fats, which may contribute to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Many companies have removed or are in the process of removing trans fats, so there is almost always a trans-fat-free alternative.

5. Propyl gallate

Where it’s found: Some vegetable oils, meat products, potato sticks, chicken soup base and chewing gum

What it is: An antioxidant preservative that keeps fats and oils from spoiling (oxidation causes spoilage, changes flavours and leads to colour loss)

Why avoid this additive: Reputable mice and rat studies have shown a possible cancer link. Propyl gallate is often used with both BHA and BHT (below).

6. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

Where it’s found: Breakfast cereals, gum, vegetable oil, chips; may also be used in food packaging to maintain freshness

What it is: Like propyl gallate, these are antioxidants that prevent fats and oils from spoiling

Why avoid this additive: Some rat, mice and hamster studies suggest these agents can cause cancer, while others show they’re safe. But BHA and BHT are easily avoided, as many brands use safer packaging processes and/or safer chemicals (such as vitamin E), or don’t use an antioxidant agent at all.

7. Brilliant Blue FCFC (aka Artificial Blue 1)

Where it’s found: Drinks, candy, baked goods

What it is: An artificial colour (see below)

Why avoid this additive: General testing has been inadequate, there have been some suggestions of a slight cancer risk.

8. Indigotine (aka Artificial Blue 2)

Where it’s found: Pet food, beverages, candy

What it is: An artificial colour (see below)

Why avoid this additive: The largest study performed on this dye suggested it may cause brain tumours in male mice.

9. Erythrosine (aka Artificial Red 3)

Where it’s found: Cherries in fruit cocktail, candy, baked goods

What it is: An artificial colour (see below)

Why avoid this additive: In the ’80s, the FDA recommended the dye be banned after studies presented convincing evidence it caused thyroid tumours in rats. It’s still in use worldwide.

10. Sunset Yellow FCF (aka Artificial Yellow 6)

Where it’s found: Some beverages, sausage, baked goods, candy, gelatin desserts

What it is: An artificial colour (see below)

Why avoid this additive: Animal studies sponsored by the food industry have turned up evidence of tumours in the adrenal gland and kidney related to this, the third-most widely used dye. It may also cause some allergic reactions.

Note: Artificial colours are often used to make foods bright and vibrant, especially in products geared toward children. While natural dyes derived from plants (such as beets) are safe, artificial dyes, often derived from coal tar, are more cost-effective and therefore used more often. Though studies on artificial dyes have generally focused on cancers’which has led to a handful of bans’scientists are now also researching their effects (along with the preservative sodium benzoate) on children, such as disruptive behaviour and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, as well as learning disabilities. Those given above are four of the most questionable synthetic dyes still on the market’but note Canadian law does not require companies to list which dyes they use in their products; they only need to indicate "colour" as an ingredient.

This information is courtesy of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For the Center’s complete list of additives and their accompanying safety rating visit the food safety section of its website. Note that some of the additives they list, such as Olestra and potassium bromate, are banned in Canada. For the list of chemical additives legal for use in Canada, check out the food additive dictionary on Health Canada’s website.

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