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The ten worst additives.

Additives permit longer shelf lives and cheaper ingredient costs, which mean increased profits for food manufacturers. The vast majority of them are safe. But some are not...and others haven't been adequately tested.

Here, in alphabetical order, are our "Ten Worst Additives."


The public is waiting for an artificial sweetener that is unquestionably safe. This one isn't it.

Acesulfame-K, which is sold under the brand names Sunette or Sweet One, was approved by the FDA in 1988 as a sugar substitute, primarily in packet or table form. The manufacturer, Hoechst Celanese, has asked the FDA to approve acesulfame-K for use in soft drinks and baked goods.

But the tests on which the FDA based its approval show that the additive causes cancer in animals. And that means it may increase the cancer risk to humans. In 1987, CSPI urged the FDA not to approve acesulfame-K, but we were ignored. After the FDA gave the chemical its blessing, we asked that it be banned. The FDA has yet to rule on our request.


The color of a soft drink--or any of hundreds of other foods--rarely comes from the food itself. Artificial colors, which may be naturally derived or synthetic, are much cheaper--and usually more stable--than the real thing.

Naturally-derived colorants like beta-carotene (which is used to color margarine) and beet-juice extract haven't generally been well tested, but we presume them to be safe (beta-carotene is actually good for you). Most food, though, is colored with combinations of synthetic dyes like Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 40, and Yellow No. 5.

For decades, scientists have suspected that synthetic dyes cause cancer. Over the years, many have been banned. And safety questions surround the eight that are still being used.

The FDA has banned Red No. 3 from many cosmetics and some foods because it causes thyroid tumors in rats. And although the dye may eventually be prohibited in all foods, 180,000 pounds of it were approved for use in 1990. (It's what makes maraschino cherries and pistachio nuts red.)

Several other artificial colors, including Blue No. 2 and Red No. 40, need to be studied more closely to see if they promote cancer.

Currently, only Yellow No. 5 (the second most popular artificial coloring--after Red No. 40) must be listed on ingredient labels. That's to warn the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Americans who are sensitive to it. (For some reason, most of them are also sensitive to aspirin.) When these people eat a food that contains Yellow No. 5, they suffer from hives, a runny or stuffy nose, and, occasionally, severe breathing difficulties.


When aspartame (which is sold commercially as Nutra-Sweet or Equal) was approved for use in soft drinks in 1983, it was hailed by dieters who had soured on saccharim's unpleasant aftertaste.

One problem is that one out of 20,000 babies is born with phenylketonuria (PKU), which means it is unable to safely tolerate phenylalanine--one of the two amino acids contained in aspartame. If too much phenylalanine accumulates in the blood of a baby with PKU (which can happen even before birth), it can result in mental retardation.

Because of the PKU problem, the FDA requires all packaged foods that contain aspartame to carry a warning.

Some scientists are concerned about a potentially broader problem--that aspartame might cause altered brain function and behavioral changes. Hundreds of people have said they suffer from dizziness, headaches, epileptic-like seizures, and menstrual problems after using the sweetener. These allegations deserve careful study. (If you think aspartame affects you adversely, avoid it.)

Another concern is a study that found an increased risk of brain tumors in rats that had been fed aspartame. Because the sweetener is so widely used, the FDA should have required the manufacturer to repeat the study years ago.

4. BHA & 5. BHT

BHA and BHT are two closely related chemicals that prevent oxidation and retard rancidity in foods that contain oil.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) to be possibly carcinogenic to humans, and the State of California has listed it as a carcinogen. The FDA is currently reviewing its approval. Meanwhile, the additive appears in hundreds of processed foods.

As for BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), some studies say that it causes cancer while others say that it prevents the disease.

The bottom line is that BHA and BHT are unnecessary. There are safer ways to prolong the shelf life of foods (but not with propyl gallate, which is closely related to BHA and BHT and which may also be a problem).

In some cases, something as simple as a dark bottle is all that is needed. With other packages, air can be replaced by nitrogen gas. With still others, vitamins C and E can be used to retard rancidity.

And many of the foods to which BHA or BHT are added need no preservative at all. Some brands of potato chips used to use them. Today, few do.


Caffeine is a stimulant and one of the only drugs that are added to foods.

Excessive intake can cause nervousness, nausea, and insomnia. In addition, it may cause or aggravate fibrocystic breast disease (benign breast lumps) in some women.

Caffeine may also interfere with reproduction and affect the developing fetus. The FDA is concerned enough to have issued this warning: "Pregnant women should avoid caffeine-containing foods and drugs, if possible, or consume them only sparingly."

Caffeine is mildly addictive, which is why many people experience headaches when they stop drinking it. And that's probably one reason soft-drink manufacturers love to add it to their products. One good thing about caffeine: It doesn't appear to initiate or promote cancer.


Too much MSG (monosodium glutamate) can lead to headaches, tightness in the chest, and a burning sensation in the forearms and the back of the neck ("Chinese restaurant syndrome").

The MSG industry has frequently claimed that reactions to MSG are overrated -- or non-existent. But in 1972, Robert Kenney of George Washington University, in industry-sponsored research, proved that many people do react to MSG, and that the higher the dose, the greater the likelihood of reacting. (Kennedy also found that many people who thought they were sensitive to MSG in fact were not.)

(MSG must be listed on all packaged foods that contain it. The USDA has twice delayed a rule that HVP -- hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which contains MSG -- also be listed. HVP can appear simply as "flavoring.")


Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate have been used for centuries to preserve meat. They maintain the red color, contribute to the flavor, and inhibit the growth of botulism-causing bacteria.

Nitrate is harmless. But it is easily converted -- by bacteria in foods and in the body -- to nitrite. When nitrite combines with compounds called secondary amines, it forms powerful cancer-causing nitrosamines. Nitrosamine formation occurs most readily at the high temperatures of frying, but may also take place in the stomach.

Bacon is a special problem, since it is thinly sliced and fried at a high temperature. Hot dogs, bologna, ham, and other processed meats pose less of a risk.

In the 1970s, following pressure from CSPI and Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law, the USDA banned nitrate from most processed meats. It also lowered the permitted levels of nitrite.

And although research sponsored by the USDA has developed a method that eliminates the need for nitrite in bacon, the USDA has never required processors to adopt it. Instead, it requires bacon makers to cure their meat using ascorbic acid (or its safe relative, erythorbic acid), which inhibits the formation of nitrosamines.


This sugar substitute has been around for nearly a century. Until the early 1970s it seemed that saccharin's only drawback was its bitter aftertaste. But then several studies linked it with cancer in laboratory animals. After further studies, the FDA banned saccharin in 1977.

But public opposition was enormous. Diet-conscious consumers wanted to continue buying saccharin-sweetend foods, and (egged on by industry advertisements) they convinced Congress to override the FDA's decision and exempt saccharin from regular food-safety laws.


Sulfites are used to prevent discoloration in dried fruits and fresh-cut potatoes, to control "black spot" in freshly caught shirmp, and to prevent discoloration, bacterial growth, and fermentation of wine.

Sulfites, which have been used for centuries, were always considered safe. But in 1982, CSPI uncovered six studies that showed that they could provoke allergic reactions. We asked the FDA to ban sulfites.

Our request generated tremendous publicity. Ultimately, we and the FDA identified at least a dozen fatalities that were linked to sulfites. A typical reaction is difficulty breathing within minutes of consusming sulfites. Most of the reactions and all of the deaths occurred among asthmatics, although only 5 to 10 percent of asthmatics are sulfite-sensitive.

(If you are not sensitive to sulfites, whether or not you have asthma, you need not be concerned about eating foods that contain them.)


Not all food additives are bad. Ascorbic acid is safe. So are some others with strange-sounding names (EDTA, mono- and diglycerides, and calcium propionate, for example). Here are a few more:

* Simplesse, an additive developed by the NutraSweet Company, is made largely from milk or egg protein, and is being used in fat-free frozen ice-cream-like desserts. It can't be used in foods that must be cooked, though.

* Kraft General Foods is replacing the fat in many of its products with vegetable gums.

* McDonald's is using water and carrageenan, a carbohydrate made from sea-weed, in its new reduced-fat Maclean Deluxe.

Olestra, a synthetic fat substitute made by Procter & Gamble, is another story. It has caused worrisome liver changes, and possibly tumors, in rats. Olestra hasn't yet been approved, and CSPI has urged the FDA not to approve it until all safety questions have been resolved.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:adapted from a chapter in Safe Food: Eating Wisely in a Risky World
Author:Garland, Anne Witte
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Previous Article:What, meat worry?
Next Article:Pita the poor frozen sandwich.

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