Where the worst food additives are hiding, how to avoid them and some better alternatives.
Grocery shopping can be tricky business. Especially when you have family members to shop for, all with different taste preferences, allergies and dietary needs. We’ve been well-trained to look at the basic nutrition information on a product – calories, fat, sugar, protein etc… – but one thing that we often overlook is additives.
Typically near the bottom of the ingredients label, additives show up as unpronounceable chemical names or seemingly innocuous words like flavor and color. But their relative stature on the ingredients list does not mean they should be ignored. Many food additives are linked to adverse health effects like cancer and hormonal imbalances.
To help people like us out, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) developed a dirty dozen guide to the worst food additives. Use it to make smarter food choices for you and your loved ones.
The Worst Food Additives – EWG’s Dirty Dozen
Nitrites and Nitrates
Preservatives found in cured meats like salami, bacon and ham that react to form cancer-causing nitrosamines.
Known carcinogen used to strengthen bread and cracker dough and help the rising process.
Endocrine disrupting chemical used as a preservative in tortillas, muffins and food dyes.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Classified as an endocrine disruptor by the European Union but used as a preservative in chips and other foods that contain fats and preserved meats.
Preservative that has been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption. Found in cereals, breads, crackers and snack foods.
Used to preserve products that contain fats like sausage, pepperoni and lard. Associated with tumors and estrogenic activity.
An alkaloid with similar effects to caffeine, found in bread, cereals and sports drinks. Never proven safe but made it through an FDA loophole.
An unregulated mixture of ingredients that can contain synthetic chemicals, solvents and preservatives. Found in anything labeled with the word flavor or flavoring. Even so-called “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals such as the solvent propylene glycol or the preservative BHA. Flavor extracts and ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled “natural”.
Includes synthetic FD&C colors (linked to hyperactivity and attention issues in kids) and Caramel colors III and IV (cancer concern). Found in many products to increase visual appeal.
Flavor chemical found in microwave popcorn and dairy products as well as “brown flavorings” like butterscotch and maple or “fruit flavorings” like strawberry and raspberry. Linked to respiratory disease, especially in factory workers.
Phosphate Food Additives
Used to leaven baked goods, reduce acid and improve moisture retention and tenderness in processed meats. Found in many fast food products. Association with cardiovascular problems.
Used as a stabilizer in many processed foods. Association with neurotoxicity and Alzheimer’s disease.
What you can do
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Use EWG’s Food Scores database – This is a great resource for researching food products you already buy or might buy. Products are rated by nutrition, ingredient and processing concerns. The Food Scores database is available online or use the app for iPhone or Android when you are on-the-go.
Buy safer foods – Avoid highly processed foods in general and cook whole, real foods as much as possible. Buy fresh bread and bakery products, nitrate-free meats, candy made with natural colors, breakfast cereal without artificial ingredients.
Petition food companies – Keep an eye out on Change.org and TakePart for petitions related to food additives and sign them. The Food Babe petitioned Kraft to take food dyes out of mac & cheese and they did it (on 3 products only). Better yet, start your own petition!
Donate to EWG – Help the EWG keep up the good work by giving them a tax-deductible donation.
Which of these worst food additives concern you most?
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