Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives?”
— Meredith LaGarde, New Orleans, LA
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health and the environment through research, education and advocacy, launched its “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives” in November 2014 to educate consumers about which food additives are associated with health concerns, which are restricted in other countries, and/or which just shouldn’t be in our foods to begin with. EWG hopes the new guide will help consumers avoid unhealthy foods and also influence policymakers to develop more stringent rules for food producers moving forward.
According to EWG, more than 10,000 food additives are approved for use in the U.S., despite potential health implications. Some are “direct additives” deliberately formulated into processed food; others are “indirect,” that is, finding their way into food during processing, storage or packaging. Either way, some have been linked to endocrine disruption, heart disease, cancer and a wide range of other health issues.
Topping EWG’s list are nitrates and nitrites, both typically added to cured meats (like bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs) to prolong shelf-life and prevent discoloration. “Nitrites, which can form from nitrates, react with naturally occurring components of protein called amines,” reports EWG. “This reaction can form nitrosamines, which are known cancer-causing compounds.” The group reports links between nitrite and nitrate consumption and cancers of the stomach, esophagus, brain and thyroid.
The World Health Organization considers nitrites and nitrates to be probable human carcinogens; California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is now considering a similar designation. Interestingly, some nutritious foods like spinach and other leafy vegetables contain nitrates naturally, but EWG says that “human studies on nitrate intake from vegetables have found either no association with stomach cancer or a decreased risk.”
Another troubling but nevertheless common food additive is potassium bromate, used to strengthen bread and cracker dough and help such items rise during baking. But potassium bromate is listed as a known human carcinogen by the state of California and a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Animal studies have shown that regular exposure to potassium bromate can cause a variety of tumors, is toxic to the kidneys and can even cause permanent DNA damage.
Most of the potassium bromate added to foods converts to non-carcinogenic potassium bromide during the process of baking, but small but still significant unconverted amounts can remain, putting eaters everywhere at risk. EWG would like to see the U.S. government follow Canada’s and the European Union’s lead in banning the use of potassium bromate in foods altogether.
Other additives on the Dirty Dozen list include propyl parabens, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, theobromine, diacetyl, phosphates and aluminum. Many artificial colors can also cause health issues, reports EWG, as can thousands of “secret flavor ingredients” that food makers add to foods without oversight in the name of protecting trade secrets. For more information on these foods and how to avoid them, check out EWG’s free “Dirty Dozen Guide” online.