The 12 Worst Food Additives (and Where You’ll Find Them)

EWG Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives via

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.

EWG’s Dirty Dozen Food Additives

Nitrites and Nitrates – Preservatives found in cured meats like salami, bacon and ham that react to form cancer-causing nitrosamines.

Potassium Bromate – Known carcinogen used to strengthen bread and cracker dough and help the rising process.

Propyl Paraben – 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.

donut by Mark H Anbinder via flickr ccButylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) – Preservative that has been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption. Found in cereals, breads, crackers and snack foods.

Propyl Gallate – Used to preserve products that contain fats like sausage, pepperoni and lard. Associated with tumors and estrogenic activity.

Theobromine – An alkaloid with similar effects to caffeine, found in bread, cereals and sports drinks. Never proven safe but made it through an FDA loophole.

Secret Flavor Ingredients – An unregulated mixture of ingredients that can contain synthetic chemicals, solvents and preservatives. Found in anything labeled with the word flavor or flavoring (even natural flavoring can be suspect).

hamburger by Robyn Lee via flickr ccArtificial Colors – 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.

Diacetyl – 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.

Aluminum Additives – Used as a stabilizer in many processed foods. Association with neurotoxicity and Alzheimer’s disease.

What you can do

EWG Food Scores App via mindfulmomma.comRead labels – Be diligent about label reading and avoid processed foods that contain these additives.

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.

Petition food companies – Keep an eye out on 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 food additives concern you most?

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(Food images by Mark Anbinder and Robyn Lee via flicker cc)

About Micaela

Micaela Preston is a marketing and communications consultant specializing in natural, organic and eco-friendly products and the health and wellness space. Micaela is available as a social media manager, green lifestyle writer, public speaker, brand ambassador and marketing manager.


  1. Great article. I wasn’t aware of EWG’s food additive guide. I spend most of my time in grocery stores just looking at the labels. Sometimes I wonder where the “food” is.

  2. Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green says:

    These are on my list of things I avoid even when I “cheat” on my normal whole food diet. I love EWG’s guides like these, they are great for people just switching to whole foods or those that can’t for whatever reason, buy all whole foods.

  3. It frustrates me to see so many chemicals and crap in our food! No wonder people are getting so sick 🙁


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