About Those Food Additives: The ‘Dirty Dozen’ Goes Beyond Produce

A new report from the Environmental Working Group looks at chemicals commonly found in food products.

Salami containing nitrates and nitrites. (Photo: Glow Cuisine/Getty Images)

Nov 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

The Environmental Working Group thinks you should take a second look at that lunch meat. According to a new report it released today, the chemical that makes your cold cuts glow that signature violent shade of pink isn’t exactly healthy to consume (although some would disagree). Condolences go out to mortadella enthusiasts everywhere.

The Environmental Working Group’s new version of its “Dirty Dozen” list is now counting down the 12 most hazardous food additives—and by association, some of the food regulatory system’s most egregious failures.

The FDA defines a food additive as “any substance that is reasonably expected to become a component of food.” This vague definition makes the lucrative food-additive industry, which will be worth a reported $36.1 billion by 2018, susceptible to loopholes and other questionable behavior.

The FDA’s laundry list of negligent blunders is most often attributed to The Food Additives Amendment of 1958, which is responsible for launching the loosely defined blanket designation Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). According to the FDA, if an additive “is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use,” then it will not be subject to any further testing. One-third of the additives in the “Dirty Dozen” carry the GRAS distinction and are not subject to FDA testing.

But who exactly are these qualified experts? In 2012, researchers from the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed 451 different GRAS claims submitted to the FDA and found that financially objective third parties executed none of the safety assessments. Even worse, the company who manufactured the food additive in the first place carried out more than 20 percent of the tests.

Here’s a rundown of all 12 suspect additives:

Nitrates and Nitrites Primarily used to preserve flavor and color in cured meats, products treated with nitrates and nitrites are a breeding ground for nitrosamines, a known cancer-causing compound.

Potassium bromate Used to fortify bread and other foods made from wheat flour, this additive is more poignantly recognized as a carcinogen by both the state of California and the International Cancer Agency.

Propylparaben A common preservative in tortillas and muffins, it has also been linked with decreased sperm count and testosterone levels in lab rats.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) The European Union classifies this potato chip and beef jerky preservative as a known endocrine disruptor.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) Often used in concert with BHA as a preservative in convenience foods, it has been associated with the development of lung and liver cancer in lab rats.

Propyl gallate This chemical is used to preserve edible fats in sausage and lard and also has links to estrogenic activity and endocrine disruption.

Theobromine An alkaloid found in chocolate, this additive used in breads, cereals, and sport drinks is deemed safe by the FDA—but only at a level 5 times less than the average person consumes it.

“Secret flavor” ingredients FDA loopholes allow companies to hide the specifics of their “natural flavors,” making this a grab bag of potential health concerns.

Artificial colors Food dyes are typically used to increase the visual appeal of nutrient-deficient food. Caramel color III and IV contain a chemical that was linked to tumors in a National Toxicology Program study.

Diacetyl Used as butter flavoring in microwavable popcorn, this compound is associated with severe respiratory diseases.

Phosphates Found in more than 20,000 foods, this is the most common additive. High phosphate levels in the blood lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Aluminum additives Used as a stabilizer in many processed foods, it is linked with developmental difficulties during pregnancy as well as neurodegenerative disorders.