While some of these are relatively benign, others contain ingredients that have disastrous effects on our health.
Some of these food additives have links to all sorts of health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
This article will summarize 11 of the most harmful food additives in our food supply.
1Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Trans Fat)
No surprises here.
Trans fatty acids are created by a process which uses hydrogen gas to make vegetable oils solid. This hydrogenation is useful for food manufacturers as it allows them to improve their product’s shelf life and texture (1).
This partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is one of the very worst things we can eat, and unfortunately, there are still many foods containing trans fat.
In fact, the only sure way to avoid it is by cutting out processed foods. Although a trans fat ban is in place, it doesn’t come into effect until 2018 and many manufacturers are still using it (2, 3).
Why is trans fat bad?
If you’re wondering precisely why we should avoid it, trans fat is bad because it:
- Raises LDL cholesterol but also lowers HDL (4)
- Causes significant inflammation in the body (5)
- Disrupts blood flow regulation and increases the risk of blood clots (6)
All these factors make trans fat one of the most deadly food additives around.
And yet avoiding it isn’t as straightforward as it should be. Manufacturers often claim a product is “trans fat-free” despite it containing these partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Confused? The food labeling laws allow manufacturers to list their product as free of trans fat if it contains less than 0.5g per serving (10).
In reality, this is quite deceptive as companies can just call a serving size 5g and say their food contains no trans fat.
If you want to avoid trans fat, then you should stay away from fast food, cakes, cookies, pies, and pastries.
Potassium bromate has been banned in Canada, China, India, and the EU since the 1990s because it’s a suspected carcinogen (13).
Despite this fact, potassium bromate lurks in many bread products in the US.
Bakers like using it because it strengthens the dough and gives the bread a more elastic texture. In short, it creates whiter, softer, and fluffier bread as well as allowing for faster and better rising.
However, it is illegal in many countries for a good reason. It’s been known to induce tumors in animal studies since the early 1980s, with studies showing that bromate causes cancer in the thyroid and kidneys (14).
Studies also suggest that it causes oxidative damage within the body (15).
Important to note is that baking should oxidize this additive, leaving none in the final product.
However, if the cooking time isn’t long enough — or the baker uses too much potassium bromate — then harmful amounts remain in the end product.
Unfortunately, a study analyzing commercial bread samples showed that 84% contain bromate in the end product (16).
If you’re looking for a healthier bread substitute, then cloud bread might be worth a try.
Sporting ever so creative names such as ‘yellow 5’ and ‘red 40’, it’s easy to find artificial colors in processed food.
You can even buy selection packs of ‘neon’ colors to use for home baking – ever wanted to make a bright neon purple cake? Well, you can.
From juice drinks to m&m’s, these artificial dyes are in almost everything in a packet.
Despite being fun for children, food coloring is far from natural, and the ingredients are petroleum by-products (17).
And these chemical food colors have a lot of unfavorable data against them.
- Many randomized, double-blind studies show that synthetic food coloring causes behavioral problems in children. These problems include hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children (18, 19).
- A report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) states that three common food colors — red 40, yellow 5, and yellow 6 — contain carcinogens and raise the risk of cancer (20).
Furthermore, governments across the EU have outlawed these chemicals to protect their citizens.
So, when Kellogg’s serves up food coloring in the UK, they’re using natural food additives from foods such as beetroot. In contrast, American children get red 40 and blue number 2.
4High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Otherwise known by its abbreviation HFCS, high-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener containing approximately 50% fructose and 50% glucose (21).
High fructose corn syrup has a complicated manufacturing process. This production process involves refining corn into starch, and then subjecting that starch to several bacterium and enzymes that break the corn molecules down into short-chain glucose.
This short-chain glucose is then treated further with enzymes to break the molecules down into fructose (22).
Put short; it’s extremely high in concentrated fructose, and this brings a range of adverse effects.
Also, there is a lot of speculation over the effects of HFCS vs. sugar. Some people believe that HFCS is much unhealthier, but they both have a similar structure and studies suggest they are probably just as bad as each other (23, 24).
The main negative about high fructose corn syrup is that it’s in almost everything. From soda to bread and many other packaged foods, it’s hard to avoid, and the number of foods that contain this additive is quite shocking.
5All Added Sugar (Refined and ‘Natural’)
One of the most important things to be aware of when it comes to health is that there’s no such thing as ‘healthy sugar.’
In other words, it’s not only refined sugars but natural sugars too. Even bingeing on fresh fruit can be bad for you due to excessive amounts of fructose.
And yes, coconut sugar and honey may have a natural production processed compared to other sweeteners like HFCS. However, cyanide also occurs naturally – does that make it healthy?
In truth, we are eating far too much sugar – from many different sources. When sugar enters the bloodstream, our body doesn’t recognize it as natural and decide not to let it spike blood sugar levels. It treats it in the same way as refined sugar.
So, whether it’s honey or supposedly healthy ‘corn syrup replacements’ such as agave, it’s best to avoid all sugar as much as you can.
As a society, the public is only just beginning to realize how bad sugar is. Diets high in added sugar increase the risk of many (possibly all) types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease (25, 26, 27, 28, 29).
As a result of greater public awareness, no sugar diets are everywhere.
However, reducing sugar in our diet is not straightforward. Sugar is one of the most addictive food additives and it’s hard to overcome sugar withdrawal symptoms for many people.
While natural (ish) sweeteners like stevia and erythritol can be a good stepping stone, it’s best to move away from sweet tasting foods.
If you haven’t heard of propyl gallate, you’re probably not alone.
This additive is a common ingredient in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, and it’s also in your food (32).
The primary usage in food is for its role as an antioxidant to stop fats from oxidizing in processed food (33).
Propyl gallate is banned in some countries, but it’s ‘generally recognized as safe’ in the US (34).
To be honest, there is no evidence to suggest that propyl gallate is harmful in the normal amounts in food. However, there is also no evidence to indicate that it’s safe and I think it’s sometimes better to err on the side of caution.
As the Environmental Working Group say, there is no causal evidence between propyl gallate and cancer. But there is an association between the additive and brain tumors in animal studies at larger doses (35).
Studies also suggest that it functions as an endocrine disruptor in the body, meaning it can have an effect on our hormones (36).
7BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
Similar to many other additives in this list, EU countries restrict BHT as it’s a suspected carcinogen.
In contrast, the US FDA deem it ‘generally recognized as safe’, and it’s easy to find in many processed foods.
There have been many research studies investigating the safety profile of BHT. Some of these studies discovered side effects including liver and kidney toxicity, as well as toxic effects in the lungs, from only applying it to the skin (38).
While it’s true that there’s no evidence that regular doses in food are harmful, there’s also no way to know how it can affect us in the long-term. Additionally, data suggests that BHT can accumulate in our body over time (42).
For all these reasons, I view BHT as a food additive to keep away from. It’s easy to find in cereal products, bread, snacks and packaged meals.
While trans fat is much worse, standard vegetable oils also have some harmful effects on our health.
Many people mistakenly believe that the ‘smoke point’ of oil is all that matters, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
For optimal health, we should have a balance of these two fatty acids as close to 1:1 as possible.
Consuming vegetable oil makes this nigh on impossible. For example, soybean oil contains an approximate ratio of 7.5:1 in favor of omega-6 (45).
A vast amount of research shows that this imbalanced ratio contributes to a cluster of inflammatory diseases. Inflammation is a common link between Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and many other chronic illnesses (46, 47, 48, 49).
But that’s not all. Studies also show that vegetable oil can cause oxidative damage in the body and even oxidize LDL-cholesterol, significantly increasing heart disease risk (50).
Which cooking oils should I use?
First of all, there’s no such thing as ‘vegetable’ oil.
Vegetable oils refer to soybean (bean oil), rapeseed (seed oil), corn (grain oil).
The vast majority of these bean, grain, and seed oils are ultra-processed using hexane for extraction, in an industrial process that also uses bleach and deodorizers.
It’s probably better to avoid these industrial products as much as you can:
- Canola oil (also known as ‘rapeseed’)
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
They are all ultra-processed and, as with many things in nutrition, how processed a source of fat is has connotations for health.
Substitutes for vegetable oil
Thankfully, natural oils that are also health supportive exist.
We can class these as animal fats and fruit oils.
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil (technically a nut)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
In short, these healthier replacements for vegetable oil go through minimal processing and contain beneficial nutrients.
9BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
Very similar to its chemical twin BHT, BHA is also a food preservative that prevents spoilage and fats from oxidizing (51).
BHA is also surrounded by controversy, with the FDA stating that it’s safe in recommended doses, although “uncertainties exist.” At the same time, numerous studies link it to abnormal changes within the body (52, 53).
As a result of the studies showing these links to cancer, the National Toxicology Program states that butylated hydroxyanisole is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” (56).
Processed foods usually contain BHA such as bread, cakes, and packaged meals – usually in combination with BHT.
If you don’t trust the FDA’s insistence that it’s safe in standard doses, then the best way to avoid this food additive is to cut out refined foods.
Artificial flavors are chemical additives which have been designed to improve the taste of food.
While they are not typically dangerous in themselves (according to the available research), they do perhaps have an indirect danger: they make unhealthy food taste good.
For example, they are very useful in processed foods, as they give flavor to old food that will be on shelves for months or even years. Adding various artificial flavorings gives these foods a taste that people might actually like.
Through the artificial flavors these products contain, they can give bland, stale food a taste that people crave again and again.
Many people also claim that artificial flavors directly cause a broad range of health problems. But to be honest, there is not much in the way of science to support this.
What are artificial flavors made of?
The truth is that no-one knows exactly what they contain.
Generally speaking, artificial flavors come from inedible compounds which are then processed and modified in a lab to create flavors. Most of these come from petroleum (57).
A total of almost 700 artificial flavors are ‘generally recognized as safe’ by the FDA (58).
Artificial flavors are one of the most common food additives and lurk in almost all food in a packet.
Artificial flavors are supposedly rigorously tested for safety before approval for use in food.
TBHQ is a petroleum-derived by-product used as an antioxidant preservative in foods containing oil (59).
We can often see TBHQ in processed foods, specifically vegetable oils and things containing fat like refined biscuits and snacks.
It has a questionable safety profile and numerous side effects when consumed in large doses, which range from nausea to death (60).
However, the FDA generally recognize it as safe for humans at the regulated limit (0.02% of the oil in food) (61).
Despite this, many people feel that it is one of the more dangerous food additives. Although not considered a carcinogenic compound, high doses cause tumors in animal studies and also damage DNA (62).
That said, it’s important to note that statistics show a large number of people are consuming more than the recommended daily limit of TBHQ (59).
All in all, it’s a potentially dangerous food additive that causes cancer and death in high doses.
So, why eat it at all?
Avoiding Harmful Food Additives
It’s true; there are a lot of harmful — or potentially harmful — additives in our food.
But it’s also very easy to avoid all these bad ingredients, and we can do this easily by eating real food.
Rather than continuing to eat all these harmful things, we should go back to eating like our grandparents ate.
The kind of food that comes from the earth, from farms, and the oceans rather than a factory.
More meat, more vegetables, more fish – and a whole lot less of the processed stuff that comes in colorful boxes.