By Beth Lipton
As a savvy, healthy shopper, no doubt you’re already scanning labels at the supermarket for high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats. But there are other insidious ingredients hiding in many popular packaged foods, even organic or “healthy” ones. Some of these additives are banned in other countries and have been linked directly to a variety of health issues. Read on to find out what to avoid when choosing what to eat, and be sure to check out our very funny What’s In Your Food video series.
Shopping for cereal? Check the label for: Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
The FDA considers this preservative “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), but the National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program says it’s likely a human carcinogen, and it’s listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65.
Also found in: Chips, baked goods, chewing gum
Shopping for tortillas? Check the label for: Propyl paraben
You look for paraben-free shampoo and cosmetics, but this preservative is also found in some foods. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that it may be linked to decreased fertility.
Also found in: Muffins, baked desserts
Shopping for bread? Check the label for: Potassium bromate
This additive, which helps strengthen bread dough, is banned in the UK, the European Union, Canada and Brazil. Researchers in Japan published a study showing that potassium bromate causes cancer in the thyroids, kidneys and other body parts of rats. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t banned potassium bromate, but it does advise moderate use.
Also found in: Crackers, premade frozen breakfast sandwiches, frozen pizza
Shopping for cottage cheese? Check the label for: Carboxymethyl cellulose
Last year, the NIH found that this thickener/stabilizer affects gut bacteria and triggers symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. Since it isn’t absorbed by the body, the FDA allows it to be included with “dietary fiber” on food labels, though it does warn that it may “exert a laxative effect.”
Also found in: Baby formula, gelatin desserts, bottled salad dressings
Shopping for non-dairy milk? Check the label for: Carrageenan
This thickener/stabilizer, derived from seaweed, can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, and is a possible carcinogen, according to The Cornucopia Institute. Prolonged inflammation is associated with more than 100 diseases in humans, including inflammatory bowel disease.
Also found in: Ice cream, salad dressings, cream cheese spread, toothpaste
Shopping for flavored seltzer? Check the label for: “Natural flavors”
Though natural flavors technically have to be derived from natural sources according to FDA standards, they’re usually a large collection of compounds taken from natural sources, then heavily processed before being added back to food to enhance its flavor. Companies are not required to disclose the origin of the natural flavors, so people with allergies should be cautious (e.g., something that’s raspberry-flavored may have natural flavors added, but that doesn’t mean the flavor is derived from raspberries). Most are not concentrated in foods enough to directly cause harm, but when you bump up the flavor in foods, it can cause an increase in cravings, and a desire for enhanced foods instead of truly natural ones.
Also found in: Energy bars, other snack foods, juice
Shopping for baked goods? Check the label for: Caramel color
This ingredient is made from a process in which a sugar compound is processed with ammonia under high pressure. The chemical reactions that take place result in the formation of 4- Methylimidazole, which the U.S. National Toxicology Program found to be carcinogenic in animals, and it’s listed as a carcinogen in California’s Proposition 65.
Also found in: Soft drinks, gravy and other packaged and jarred sauces
Shopping for jam? Check the label for: Red dye 40
One of the most common artificial food colorings, this additive can cause allergic reactions as well as hyperactivity in children. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has collected more than 2,000 testimonials from parents whose children have had bad reactions to artificial food dyes. It contains benzidene, a compound found to be carcinogenic in animals and humans.
Also found in: Fruit leathers, frozen meals, cereal bars
Shopping for chicken broth? Check the label for: Yellow dye 5
Research links this widely used food coloring to hyperactivity in children. It’s also a possible carcinogen and has been linked to allergic reactions. Europe has eliminated several artificial dyes still in foods in the U.S.; those that still contain artificial dyes there come with a warning label.
Also found in: Jarred pickles, chips, frozen waffles, sports drinks
Shopping for milk? Check the label for: Hormones (rBST, rBGH)
To increase milk production in cows, many U.S. dairy farmers have turned to recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) and recombinant bovine somatropin (rBST). The use of these synthetic hormones is not permitted in the EU, Canada, and some other countries, due to human and animal health risks. According to the American Cancer Society, cows treated with rBGH develop udder infections (mastitis) more than cows not given the hormone. As a result, these cows are given more antibiotics, and this increased use of antibiotics might lead to more antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Also found in: Other conventional dairy products, such as yogurt
For more, check out our funny and thought-provoking What’s In Your Food videos.