Chemicals in foods are a concern in the United States for many reasons. We are allowed, even encouraged, by food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants to buy chemical foods for cheap. The sad part is that we may pay later with our health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged that chemicals currently allowed into our food supply need urgent reform for the safety of children’s health as well.
In this post, learn why we have so many chemicals in our food supply, which ones are banned across the world, and the possible short-term and long-term health effects these toxic ingredients may have on the body. Learn about foods to choose from instead of chemical-laden foods too.
Why so many chemicals?
If you were born before 1980, you probably remember buying a loaf of bread and would have to use it up quickly so it wouldn’t mold. Now, a loaf of bread strangely won’t mold at all- for weeks. Seems a little disturbing, no?
The change in the bread of today is new additives and preservatives. And it’s not just bread that has a new and hefty dose of chemicals.
To sum it up, the United States has very loose rules about what they allow in foods as both preservatives and additives. A perfect example of this is the recent approval of suspect ingredients like leghemoglobin in Beyond Meat. No safety testing was required before it was released into the food supply.
The FDA approved its use before safety testing. The loophole is that the FDA allowed 30 days after market introduction for any person to file adverse effects. So, it must be safe with no consumer objections….right?!?
Almost every country in the world has more rigorous standards for what they will and won’t allow in their food supply than ours because the chemical approval process is a breeze here. That is why it is important to be an informed consumer.
Who is helping to whistleblow?
Some organizations have long looked out for your safety. They continue to alert the public about the concerns of chemicals in foods.
The Center for Environmental Health is a public health watchdog that investigates chemicals for their safety. CEH keeps an eye on ingredients and has successfully been able to prove some as unsafe, such as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which was used in making Coca Cola and Pepsi, but found to be very toxic.
You now no longer find it in your drinks because of their work.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) also continue to fight for our health and both disclose the many concerns about our artificial food additives and natural, but adulterated additives with their updated chemical safety lists.
But the process of getting a chemical in foods off the market is long and arduous.
And consider this: common food additives can have toxic effects on the body, especially if eaten on a regular basis.
There are not enough hands on deck looking out for our health. The food industry is powerful and influential too, but one by one, we can change this by making an informed decision about what we buy.
The other challenge is that rarely are human health studies done before a chemical product gets to market. Who would sign up to be part of those studies anyway?
Chemicals banned in other countries
Another way to know what is safe and what is not is to look at what chemicals in foods are banned across the world. Good examples are GMOs and glyphosate, also known as RoundUp herbicide.
Learn more about these bans here:
1. GMO bans
GMO’s, or genetically modified ingredients, are largely banned across the world for many reasons. One big reason is that they often use a ton of chemicals in the farming practices that go along with them.
The news can be confusing about GMOs because there is a lot of bias involved in reports. But consider this:
GMOs are banned in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Russia, Poland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Belgium, among others.
Also banning GMOs are Algeria and Madagascar in Africa, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Saudi Arabia in Asia; and in South America: Belize, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Not surprisingly, GMOs are not banned in the United States.
2. Glyphosate bans
Another very concerning chemical that is found in most foods in the United States is glyphosate. Known as a probable carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, we still allow it to be sprayed all over our foods here.
Glyphosate is banned in Australia, Belgium, Austria, Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Qatar, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal.
It is also banned in Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, and Bahrain-and Canada starting in 2021.
Sadly, it is almost impossible to avoid glyphosate, especially in cereal and legume products, because it is so widely used in the United States.
Other chemicals and their risks
The main types of chemicals in foods are preservatives, artificial sweeteners, artificial food color, emulsifiers, hormones, flavorings, and plasticizers (plastics, cans, and can linings).
Here are their potential risks of each one backed by research.
- 3. BHT/BHA, also known as E320, is one of many preservatives in foods that may reduce liver function, kidney function, and increase cancer risk.
- 4. TBHQ-is likely a carcinogen or increases cancer risk.
- 5. Calcium propionate, a preservative in bread and many foods, may cause chronic stomach ulcers and behavioral problems in children according to Livestrong.com.
- 6. EDTA is a chelating agent used in foods, usually highly processed ones, to bind to minerals. According to WebMD, there is a long list of possible side effects of ETDA, including seizures, kidney problems, and low magnesium levels. These side effects likely occur at higher doses, however.
- 7. Phosphates: Many kinds of phosphates are used to help foods retain moisture and to preserve foods. Excess phosphate additives in the diet can cause bone and mineral abnormalities in the body, especially in people with chronic kidney disease.
- 8. Propyl gallate is a food preservative that is also used in cosmetics and toiletries, may cause birth defects and dermatitis.
- 9. Sodium nitrite: Processed meats containing nitrite may increase the risk of colon cancer. Not to be confused with natural nitrate founds in foods, which is beneficial for health.
- 10. Sodium benzoate: a preservative in most sodas and often in bottled dressings, sodium benzoate increases harmful oxidation in the body and may also reduce memory and learning according to a study in mice.
- Human studies show that sodium benzoate may increase poor behavior in children.
- 11. Propylparapen is a preservative linked to a host of health issues, such as disruption of hormones and increases in cancer risk.
Plasticizers and Can Linings
There are over 100 types of plasticizers according to the Journal of Food Protection. Here are some that are of top concern. Keep in mind, these chemicals in foods won’t show up on the labels because they are used either in the production of foods or in the packaging.
- 12. PFOAs-may cause cholesterol abnormalities, increase heart disease risk, and decreases testosterone and progesterone, and results in neonatal death and reduced baby body weight in mice. *Note that this chemical won’t be disclosed on the label because it is in the packaging, but can leach into foods.
- 13. Azodicarbonamide (AZO) is found in white flour and bread to promote a more elastic dough. Also known as the “yoga mat” chemical, AZO is somewhat unstable and causes oxidation and free radicals to form in the body. When heated, it forms toxic fumes.
- If your wheat flour is white or bread/buns are white, you can assume there is Azodicarbonamide in it.
- 14. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a plastic that most people have heard of by now because it has some pretty dangerous risks, including increased rates of cancer, harmful effects on the brain and nervous system, and hormone disruption.
- Used in linings of cans, BPA is of big concern in our food supply. It is also highly absorbable into the skin as well from household products like toiletries, packaging, grocery receipts, and dental fillings.
- 15. Acesulfame K: The newest artificial sweetener in diet sodas, gums, and candies, Acesulfame K may cause nerve damage and brain issues, including memory decline.
- 16. Saccharin remains on the market in fountain diet drinks despite clear risks. It increases body weight, diabetes risk, liver issues, and kidney issues in rats.
- 17. Sucralose (Splenda): disrupts the microbiome, or healthy bacteria, which may result in tissue inflammation.
- 18. Aspartame (Nutrasweet): may increase both cancer risk and neurological conditions like behavioral problems, headaches, seizures, migraines, irritability, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.
- 19. Polysorbate 80, an emulsifier in processed foods, alters the gut microbiome, may cause hypersensitivity and increase intestinal permeability, which allows harmful bacteria to enter the body
- 20. Polysorbate 60 and 65 are both similar to polysorbate 80, and these emulsifiers can cause digestive stress by reducing the breakdown of foods and creating imbalances in gut bacteria.
- 21. Carboxymethylcellulose is not digestible, so can create some digestive stress in susceptible individuals and create microbiome abnormalities.
- 22. Carrageenan, like other emulsifiers, may be harmful to the digestive tract. By increasing the risk of ulcers and even cancer, the FDA considered restricting this ingredient but ultimately did not.
These hormones won’t be listed on the ingredients, but are often used in factory farm animal production to promote growth.
- 23. rBGH: A growth hormone known to cause damage in cows remains a questionable concern in humans as no one is going to sign up for a human study using this. Cancer.org says that “data is inconclusive about cancer risk” and rBGH, yet we still get to enjoy this chemical in our food.
- 24. Estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone are natural hormones that are provided to animals prior to slaughter. While natural, amounts used of these may raise concern for health.
- 25. Trenbolone acetate and Zeranol: supposedly found in “safe” levels in tissues of animals given these synthetic hormones, no one knows for sure long term effects of these. With puberty occurring earlier and earlier in humans, some experts caution against these compounds.
- 26. Artificial food dyes (blue 1, blue 2, red 40, red 3, yellow 5, yellow 6, green 3) increase bad behavior among kids according to clinical research.
- One of the biggest concerns with food dyes is that they are often contaminated with other benzenes and carcinogens, compounds that promote cancer.
- 27. MSG (monosodium glutamate), or E621, likely increases blood pressure and causes headaches and side effects in sensitive people.
- 28. Artificial flavorings are very sneaky. There are thought to be over 1300 artificial flavorings and companies are not required to disclose what they are. It’s just best overall to avoid these unknowns if at all possible, but they probably won’t kill you.
Where to find these chemicals
Aside from glyphosate (which you can’t entirely avoid) and GMOs, the following chemical additives in foods may have long-term damaging health effects.
Note that additives that are banned in other countries are in bold, including the GMO ingredients.
Organic foods won’t include any known harmful additives, so the bold ingredients are only for conventionally grown foods in these groups.
Meats and alternatives
Food additives to avoid in processed meats and vegan meat alternatives include nitrites, sodium nitrite, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), monosodium glutamate (MSG),
Other GMO ingredients or additives to avoid include hydrolyzed protein, phosphates, soy leghemoglobin, soybean, canola oil, soy protein isolate, and soy protein concentrate (Impossible Burger).
Feed additives for animals that may pass along to you in their meat: ractopamine and chlorine washes. Note that these won’t be listed on the labels, just possibly passed along to you, according to the Center for Food Safety.
Processed foods, like most breakfast cereals, have one or more additives that may raise an eyebrow about health concerns. They include: BHT, TBHQ, synthetic vitamins, can have copious iron, and enriched flour.
They often have artificial food dyes like yellow 5, yellow 6, red 40, blue 1, and artificial flavor. To appeal to children, they can have staggering amounts of chemical dyes.
If they are made of enriched wheat flour, they will likely contain Azodicarbonamide.
Ingredients that are either highly processed or GMO in cereals include trans fats as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, EDTA, corn, and soybean.
Canned foods-including sodas
Processed foods in cans are susceptible not only to ingredients in the foods, but toxic ingredients that can be present in the cans themselves. These compounds in the can leach into the food.
Cans are often lined with bisphenol A (BPA) or polyethylene, polypropylene, vinyl, and acrylic. Safer can linings are being developed, but the current use of BPA in cans is exceedingly high according to Science Mag.
Ingredients that may increase rates of cancer or digestive issues in canned foods and drinks include sodium benzoate, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame K.
They also can contain brominated vegetable oil, caramel color, high fructose corn syrup, and propyl gallate.
Frozen meals and boxed meals
Frozen dinners contain similar dangerous plastics like BPA and phthalates, and also contain almost every known chemical additive out there if you aren’t careful.
These include: TBHQ, phosphates, nitrites, food dyes, MSG, BHA, BHT, soybean oil, corn oil, polysorbate 60, 65 or 80, and propylene glycol.
*Other names for TBHQ are tert-butylhydroquinone, tertiary butylhydroquinone, and butylated hydroxyanisol.
Cookies and baked goods
Baked goods on the shelves, as well as packaged cookies and cake mixes, also have ingredients to look out for:
- sodium benzoate
- high fructose corn syrup
- artificial flavor
- palm oil
- soybean oil
- canola oil
- palm kernel oil
- food dyes
- caramel color
These seem like a high price to pay for convenience.
Ice cream is not immune to chemicals. Common ice cream additives with some health concerns include carrageenan, propylene glycol, disodium phosphates, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, polysorbate 80, and dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (a laxative).
Ice creams can also contain artificial food dyes and artificial sweeteners with harmful effects like sucralose and acesulfame K.
Dressings and sauces
Salad dressings and sauces can have a lot of preservatives and additives too, including MSG, carrageenan, propylene glycol, soybean oil, corn oil, EDTA, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, artificial colors, polysorbate 60, “natural” and artificial flavors.
Bread and tortillas
Surprisingly, the list of chemicals in bread and starchy foods is perhaps the longest and most extensive. These chemicals in bread can include:
Azodicarbonamide, calcium propionate, sorbic acid, benzoyl peroxide, calcium peroxide, chlorine, propylparaben, chlorine dioxide gas, All bleaching agents, potassium bromate Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Caramel Coloring, soy, corn, aluminum, sodium stearoyl lactylate, mono- and di-glycerols, and ammonium phosphatide.
Watch out for microwave popcorn too.
Many of the chemicals aren’t listed on the ingredients because they are in the packaging including Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA).
PFCs are substances that break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Microwave popcorn also contains:
- hydrogenated fats
- palm oil (a concern because of sourcing)
- soybean oil
Knowing this, popping popcorn in an air popper or on the stove seems the logical choice.
Candies are fraught with artificial food coloring and preservatives.
Look out for: Propyl gallate, glycerol triacetate, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and Corn Syrup, sodium benzoate, sulfites (sulfur dioxide), polysorbate 60, 65 or 80, TBHQ, and BHT/BHA.
Artificial food coloring is common in candies and can include Blue 1, blue 2, red 2, red 3, red 40, green 3, yellow 5, and yellow 6.
Candies also can have Partially Hydrogenated Oils, Soy, Artificial Flavors, processed sweeteners, and preservatives including sodium benzoate.
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is not listed on the candy label because it can be in the wrapper or food packaging.
Dairy products can contain the compound Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and can also contain carrageenan and artificial sweeteners like sucralose and acesulfame K, especially in yogurts and ice creams.
Best to go all-natural when indicated on labels and even organic when you can.
Chips and crackers
Chips and crackers are no stranger to chemicals.
These chemicals are linked to heart disease and overall risk of poor health, including Olestra, polysorbate 60, 65, or 80, nitrites, artificial food dyes, TBHQ, and BHT/BHA.
Crackers especially can contain highly processed additives like corn syrup, phosphates, palm oil, caramel color, canola oil, soy lecithin, soybean oil, corn oil, and MSG.
You also may ingest some Phthalates from the packaging.
Produce, luckily for us, is pretty free from harmful chemicals (except for the ones sprayed on the crops).
One concerning chemical used, however, is Citrus red # 1. This is only used on some brands of Florida oranges but holds a similar cancer risk to other food dyes. Citrus red #1 is sprayed on oranges to make them look brighter.
Fast foods, gas stations, and restaurants
When you dine out or grab food at the gas station, consider all the additives discussed above as possible ingredients in your foods.
Additional concerns include Saccharin (in fountain diet sodas), and Phthalates from plastic bottles.
What’s left to eat?
What happens when you eat a lot of these chemicals all the time? It’s anyone’s guess. But, as chronic disease and illnesses continue to rise, it’s best to take the guesswork out and avoid a chemical-laden diet. These chemicals can create a leaky gut, systemic inflammation increases cancer and neurological disease risks, and anyone’s guess in terms of health issues.
With all these chemicals in foods, though, is there anything left that is safe to eat?
The biggest thing you can do to help get chemicals out of your food is by cooking and preparing foods that are as close to nature as possible. This means buying fresh foods without packages and labels, buying fresh grass-fed meats and eggs from local sources, and fresh produce.
Production of some ancient grains, like Kamut, don’t allow chemicals in their production, so they are a good bet for pasta or bread too.
For grains, cereals, and bread, choosing organic is the only way to go. This is because these banned chemicals in other countries are not allowed in organic chips, crackers, or bread.
By choosing organic dairy products, you also forgo any risk of BGH.
I realize these are sometimes more expensive choices for many, so just do the best you can when you can. These days, organic prices are very competitive in most markets.
Awareness of chemicals in foods is the first step to making informed decisions about what you put in your body. Avoid chemicals when you can, especially the ones highlighted in bold above.
By choosing less processed foods, USDA organic foods, and eating foods close to nature, we are, one by one, taking back the power of our food supply and our health.