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Food Additives: The Few Bad Apples in the Barrel.

Scanning the list of unpronounceable ingredients on some food labels can be as daunting as tackling a foreign language. Yet, knowing how quickly bread without preservatives morphs into an unrecognizable blue-green life form, you can appreciate the benefits some food additives provide. Still, many of us remain more than a little suspicious of what is permitted in the foods we eat. Is that concern justified?

What Government Oversees...and Overlooks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors additives for safety and requires that all new additives undergo testing prior to being approved for use. But the required studies are admittedly small in scale and conducted only on animals.

Some additives have escaped regulations altogether, because they were deemed safe prior to the 1958 Food Additives Amendment or have since been dubbed GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). But some of these historically safe additives may not be totally worry-free.

Additives That Worry Us

The following additives have a somewhat shady past. Though some intake may be unavoidable and not cause for undue concern, check labels for their presence and avoid them when you can.

Potassium Bromate. This is a dough conditioner and bleaching agent once widely used in bread baking. In 1993, the World Health Organization recommended its removal. It has since been banned in all countries except the U.S. and Japan, though most bakeries here no longer use it. Studies show the additive causes kidney tumors in rats, but industry groups claim potassium bromate changes to a harmless compound during baking.

Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate. Nitrites and nitrates are used in smoked, cured and processed meats to prevent the growth of C. botulinum, a deadly bacterium. However, potentially cancer-causing nitrosamines may form from these compounds when they are ingested. To counter this, manufacturers have lowered sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate levels and often add antioxidants like sodium ascorbate (a form of vitamin C) to help prevent nitrosamine formation.

BHA and BHT. These two preservatives are used to prevent the fats and oils in foods from becoming rancid. There is evidence that BHA causes cancer in animals, so the FDA specifies that BHA and BHT cannot exceed 0.02% of a product's fat content.

Propyl Gallate. This additive also helps preserve foods containing fats and oils. It is often used with BHA and citric acid to enhance their antioxidant action. Rodent studies with propyl gallate show tumor formation.

Sulfites. This group of additives poses serious concerns for about one in every 100 people (up to five in every 100 people with asthma). An allergic reaction can cause breathing difficulty, rashes, abdominal upset--even death. Sulfites prevent browning of fruits and vegetables (like golden raisins and dried apricots) and black spots on shrimp. They're also used in frozen French fries and pickled salads and relishes. Sulfites occur both as an additive and naturally during wine production. To avoid, check ingredient listings on labels for the various forms: sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfate, sodium metabisulfate, potassium bisulfate and potassium metabisulfate. Sulfites are no longer allowed on freshly prepared produce (e.g., at salad bars) or raw foods. But beware: Food service establishments do not have to disclose sulfites present in the ingredients of prepared foods, such as sundried tomatoes in a focaccia bread.

FD&C Yellow Dye No. 5 (Tartrazine). This artificial coloring is used in beverages, desserts and processed vegetables. It must be listed on the label, because certain people react to Yellow No. 5 with hives and itching.

Red Dye No. 3. The brilliant red of maraschino cherries comes from this artificial color, though it's not the infamous red dye banned years ago. This one has been found to cause thyroid tumors in male rats, though food manufacturers claim it's irreplaceable.

EN's Bottom Line. Although EN wonders about the necessity of questionably safe additives whose sole function is to color a food, most food additives pose no proven threat to health, and some actually protect against foodborne illnesses. The best bet for keeping your intake of additives to a minimum is to eat fewer processed foods, particularly candy and packaged snacks, as well as fatty and salt-laden processed meats. Coincidental or not, that's also good advice for healthful eating.

For more information, check out:

An FDA site that provides a comprehensive review of food additives. Or call (888) SAFEFOOD.
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Author:Golub, Catherine
Publication:Environmental Nutrition
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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