Not long ago, families grew gardens, canned fruits and vegetables, and spent significant time cooking food. Today, our fast-paced society compels many of us to seek out meals and snacks that are easy, tasty, and require little time to prepare. Manufacturers have responded, giving us microwave dinners, boxed meals, sealed lunchables, and even plain water wrapped up and delivered in suitable packages.
Unfortunately, all this convenience comes with a price. Food isn’t made to sit on a shelf for six months. To create options that can be shipped across the nation, stored, and stacked for your buying pleasure, chemicals are added to keep the food from going bad. Sadly, many of these chemicals have been linked to health effects.
For optimal well-being, try to limit or avoid things in packages, wrappers, and cans, and eat most of your food in its natural state. For packaged options without the health risk, read labels, use those that are made without preservatives and avoid the following:
- Artificial Colorings like Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, and Yellow 6 create color in foods like candy, soda pop, baked goods, fruit snacks, and many others. These are synthetic, man-made chemicals, and all four have been linked to cancer in various animal studies. Results are inconclusive, but further tests have yet to be completed. Some artificial colorings are also known to cause allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, and to trigger hypersensitivity in some children.
- Artificial Sweeteners like acesulfame-K, aspartame, and saccharine are found in all sorts of sweetened foods and beverages. Acesulfame-K is found in baked goods, chewing gum, diet soda, and gelatin desserts. Animal studies have suggested it may cause cancer. Aspartame (NutraSweet) is a chemical combination of two amino acids and methanol, and has been linked to brain tumors in animals. Saccharine is 350 times sweeter than sugar and used in diet foods or as a tabletop sugar substitute. Many animal studies have shown saccharin to cause cancer of the urinary bladder, and an epidemiology study done by the National Cancer Institute found that the use of artificial sweeteners like saccharin was associated with a higher incidence of bladder cancer.
- BHA and BHT are antioxidant compounds that retard rancidity in fats, oils, and oil-containing foods. Results are inconclusive, but some studies show that they cause cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters.
- BPA is a chemical used to make plastics, as well as an ingredient in the material used to line metal food and drink cans. It’s been linked to breast cancer because of its ability to mimic female hormones, as well as to prostate cancer, and has been shown to have adverse effects on childhood development. A recent study found that levels of BPA in many good-for-you foods like vegetables and fruits are as high as those found to cause harm in animal studies.1
- Carmine (Cochineal Extract) is an artificial coloring obtained from the cochineal insect, which lives in Peru, the Canary Islands, and other locations. Carmine is a more purified coloring made from cochineal. These colorings appear to be safe, but can cause allergic reactions in some people, including hives and even anaphylactic shock. Some products hide the actual preservative on the ingredient label as “artificial coloring” or “color added,” but the FDA has ordered that by 2011, products are supposed to list the source to help people identify this potential allergen.
- Caramel Coloring in dark-colored colas like Coca-Cola and Pepsi has recently come under scrutiny because of its possible connection to a very rare type of cancer. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a petition with the FDA early in 2011 stating that this coloring should be banned because it’s made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfates under high pressure and temperatures.2 Chemical reactions in the process produce 2-methylimidazole and r-methylimidazole, which in government conducted animal studies, caused cancer. More studies need to be done, but for those who drink a lot of dark-colored soda, it’s good to know about the possible risk.
- Enriched (or Bleached) Flour is flour that has been stripped of many of the nutrients and fiber found in natural wheat and other grains, making it a low-nutritional-value food that’s little more than empty carbohydrates and calories.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a manmade sweetener made from corn and enzymes. Because it extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper than sugar, HFCS became the sweetener of choice starting in the 1980s. Today, it’s present in so many of our foods that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates our consumption increased by 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990. The evidence against HFCS is inconclusive. Some studies say the real danger is that fructose is not metabolized by the body the same as regular sugar (sucrose). It fails to signal hormones that help us feel full, so it’s converted to fat, and we keep eating it.3 Other studies have failed to duplicate these results. In addition, one study found mercury in almost half the tested samples of commercial high-fructose syrup, and in nearly a third of tested beverage products.4 Until we know more, the main issue now is that HFCS is in so many of our food products—breads, soft drinks, desserts, processed foods, fruit-flavored drinks, baked goods, ketchups, soups, yogurts, granola bars, cereals, and much more—that we ingest far too much of it, contributing to our obesity epidemic.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer used in many soups, salad dressings, chips, frozen foods, and restaurant foods. Studies have shown that some people are sensitive to large amounts, and can have reactions like headaches, nausea, weakness, and wheezing.
- Olestra is a fat substitute used in potato chips. It can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, flatulence, and other adverse effects.
- Partially Hydrogenated Oil (Trans Fat) is an altered vegetable oil found in frozen foods and bakery items, margarine, crackers, and microwave popcorn. It contains trans fats, which promote heart disease. Harvard School of Public Health researchers confirmed in their study that intake of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils may contribute to the risk of heart attack.5
- Potassium Bromate is an additive long used in
bread to produce a find-crumb structure. Most rapidly breaks down into innocuous forms, but bromate itself has shown in studies to cause cancer in animals. Bromate has been banned in most countries except Japan and the U.S.
- Preservatives are added to foods to help them stay fresh while on store shelves. They help prevent the food from spoiling during shipment while killing microbes like bacteria and fungi. Several preservatives, however, are linked to health effects like allergies, digestive problems, headaches, and birth defects, and others—like BHA, BHT, and mono- and di-glycerides—have been linked to cancer in animal studies. More research needs to be done, but buying fresh and frozen foods without preservatives can help safeguard your health.
- Propyl Gallate is a preservative added to meat products, chicken soups, vegetable oils, and chewing gum. Results are inconclusive, but some animal studies have suggested it may cause cancer.
- Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite are preservatives, colorings, and flavorings that enhance meat products like hot dogs, bacon, sausages, and lunchmeats. They help cured meat show a consistent healthy-looking red color while giving it a characteristic flavor. Nitrites can break down into cancer-causing nitrosamines in the stomach, so many manufacturers now add ascorbic acid to bacon to inhibit this reaction. The use of these preservatives has decreased over the decades, but it’s still found in fatty, salty foods.
- No Silver Lining: An Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods. National Workgroup for Safe Markets. 2010. www.contaminatedwithoutconsent.org.
- FDA Urged to Prohibit Carcinogenic “Caramel Coloring.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. February 16, 2011. http://www.cspinet.org/new/201102161.html.
- Mattes RD. Physiol Behav 1996;59:179-87.
- “Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury,” The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2009, Washingtonpost.com.
- Ascherio A, et al. Trans-fatty acids intake and risk of myocardial infarction. Circulation 1994 Jan;89(1):94-101.
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm.