Did you know there are 10 ingredients in McDonald’s® French fries? 10! You would think there would only be three: potatoes, oil and salt. But with advances in food chemistry, various substances are added to processed food products like McDonald’s fries to make them “better” in some way—better tasting, better looking or longer lasting.
With more and more artificial substances being added to our food, the question is, how do we know if they’re safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) keeps a list of food additives that are “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS). As of 1998, there have been 937 substances submitted for GRAS approval. ₁ These substances, however, are tested and deemed safe for human consumption by the manufacturer, not the FDA. In other words, the fox is in the henhouse. The FDA does review each ingredient before accepting it, but many watchdog groups have criticized them for being too relaxed with their admission criteria.
Many substances on the GRAS list are safe for human consumption, such as various vitamins, gasses (carbon dioxide in soda water), as well as certain fruit and vegetable extracts. On the other hand, some approved substances appear harmful to human health, with many being banned by the European Union.
Commonly used food additives that raise red flags:
1 | Trans Fats
Trans fats are a type of fat found in small amounts in meat and dairy products. They can also be manufactured. These are referred to as partially hydrogenated oils and they are the main source of trans fat in the American diet. Trans fats were removed from the GRAS list in 2015 due to a growing amount of research showing how unhealthy they are for us. ₂ Despite being taken off this list, they are still allowed as a food additive in the U.S. Foods that contain trans fats include deep-fried foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines and other processed junk food. Be sure to check ingredient lists — if a food contains “partially hydrogenated oil,” put it back on the shelf.
2 | Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite
Sodium nitrate is added to processed meats where it breaks down into sodium nitrite, which stabilizes the red color of cured meat. Without sodium nitrite, hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats would turn gray. These nitrites also form carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds called nitrosamines, which is why the World Health Organization considers processed meat “carcinogenic to humans.” ₃
3 | Artificial Food Colors
There are many different artificial food colorings used in food. You’ve probably seen them on ingredient lists—Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2, etc. These substances are often used in colored beverages, candy, baked goods, desserts and sugary breakfast cereal. Think of any processed food that comes in bright colors (Gatorade®, Froot Loops®, Skittles®, cupcake frosting, popsicles). Various human and animal studies suggest that these artificial food colorings are linked to certain types of cancer, as well as hyperactivity in children. ₄ Food colored with natural fruit/vegetable extracts are preferred over these artificial food dyes.
4 | Artificial Sweeteners
Common artificial sweeteners include Aspartame, Acesulfame-K (ace-K), Saccharin and Sucralose. As an alternative to added sugar, many people use these sweeteners thinking they’re healthier. But the jury is still out on whether artificial sweeteners are better or worse than added sugar. ₅₋₆ There is, however, a growing concern that artificial sweeteners may negatively alter our gut bacteria. ₇ They may also desensitize our taste for sweetness, which may cause naturally sweet foods like fruit to not taste as good. Until we have more research, one thing is for sure—we’re better off avoiding, or at least minimizing, both added sugars and artificial sweeteners in our diet.
The Bottom Line
These four food additives were highlighted because they are some of the most common and have the most evidence suggesting they are harmful. But this short list is by no means all-inclusive. There are many other “honorable mention” substances that we’re also better off avoiding. These include brominated vegetable oil, caramel coloring, carrageenan, MSG, BHA/BHT, polysorbate and more. Although there is no robust research suggesting these substances are harmful, most are found in highly processed junk food that we should avoid or limit anyway. And until we have more data, we should use the precautionary principle, which states that until a substance is proven safe, we should err on the side of caution and avoid it. The best way to do this is to eat real food that comes from nature, not ultra-processed, glow-in-the-dark food that comes from a gas station. Or to paraphrase journalist Michael Pollan, “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
- S. Food and Drug Administration GRAS Notices https://www.cfsanappsexternal.fda.gov/scripts/fdcc/index.cfm?set=GRASNotices&sort=GRN_No&order=DESC&startrow=1&type=basic&search
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- International Agency for Research on Cancer. Volume 114: Consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC Working Group. Lyon; 6–13 September, 2015.IARC Monogr Eval Carcinog Risks Hum (in press).
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