6 Harmful Additives Still on U.S. Shelves

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It feels like there’s a new headline every week about toxic ingredients. These headlines blame harmful food additives for everything from hyperactivity in kids to cancer. But if these additives so bad, why are they still on U.S. shelves?

6 harmful additives still on U.S. shelves bowl of colorful cereal with food dye codes

It turns out there is a ton of disagreement on which additives are safe, and which ones are dangerous. The disagreements occur between people, countries, companies, and scientists.

Other countries have banned many additives you can easily find on American shelves.

Let’s have a look at the additives (and the actual, unbiased research behind their dangers).

Don’t care to read the research-based overview and background of each? Scroll down for a table summary.

6 Harmful Additives Still on U.S. Shelves (Evidence-based)

1. Trans (hydrogenated) fats

Donuts with sprinkles trans hydrogenated fats harmful additive

While trans fats do occur in small amounts in nature (animal products), the ones on the shelves are not natural. Instead, manufacturers create trans fats through drowning liquid vegetable oil in hydrogen gas until it becomes solid.

Think of it this way: normally, some fats are liquid at room temperature and some fats are solid. Trans fats are liquid fats that undergo a harsh chemical process (hydrogenation) to turn them into solids.

While the FDA and other regulatory bodies know about the harms associated with trans fats, they continue to populate U.S. shelves (though they are being phased out).

Increased risk of:

  • Stroke: This study found that with every additional 2 grams of trans fats consumed per day, men experienced a 14% increase in risk of stroke.
  • Heart Disease: Studies 123, and found consumption of trans fats to led to a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Diabetes: Animal studies consistently show that high intake of trans fats is associated with poorly functioning insulin and glucose. Not sure how these normally function? Check out this blog. Human studies have mixed results, though its important to note that one study of 80,000 women found high trans fat intake increased diabetes risk by 40%.
  • Bad cholesterol: When trans fats replace other fats already present in the diet, “bad” cholesterol (LDL) goes up, and “good” cholesterol (HDL) goes down (according to this meta-analysis).

2. BHT & BHA (Butylated hydroxytoluene, hydroxianisole)

fries preservatives and additives fried BHT BHA harmful additive

Manufacturers use BHT & BHA to prevent oils and other packaged ingredients from oxidizing or spoiling. This makes these synthesized compounds antioxidants, which you’d think would be a good thing. Unfortunately, any beneficial antioxidant effects these compounds may have are overshadowed by their cancer-promoting effects.

Increased risk of:

  • Impaired blood clotting: While this effect may only occur at higher doses, it’s still a potentially dangerous side effect that occurs in animals in multiple studies.
  • Tumor growth: The vast majority of research shows both BHT & BHA to be tumor promoters (BHT report here and BHA report here).

3. Artificial food dyes

skittles harmful artificial dyes

Manufacturers generally synthesize artificial food dyes (AFDs) from toxic substances (like petroleum). Exactly how harmful they are is dependent on the specific dye, its contaminants, and an individual’s allergies. Some studies have identified certain dyes (Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5 & 6) as being safe. Researchers have found other specific dyes to be unsafe (Red 3). Because these dyes are an entirely unnecessary component of processed foods (and because it’s too hard to remember which color and number pairings “safe”) it’s best to avoid them entirely.

Increased risk of:

  • Cancer: Animal studies suggest that increased tumor risk occurs with AFD consumption. However, many commonly-found contaminants are known carcinogens for humans, including benzidine. 
  • Hyperactivity (in kids): While the relationship between AFDs and ADHD/hyperactivity has been studied for more than 40 years, exactly how much of an effect AFD ingestion has on hyperactivity in kids still hasn’t been figured out. Instead it seems to differ on a case-by-case basis. However, the evidence that does exist is too substantial to ignore, a full summary can be found here.

4. Artificial sweeteners

artificial sweeteners harmful additive aspartame chemical structure
Chemical structure of aspartame

Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame-potassium) are tricky. If they assist people in facing the challenges of diabetes management or weight loss, they can be beneficial. However, in most cases, ingesting artificial sweeteners has no benefit, and instead can lead to other problems.

Increased risk of: 

  • Cardiovascular & metabolic problems: When researchers compared the results of 37 trials and cohort studies through a meta-analysis, artificial sweetener intake was associated with multiple issues. Researchers observed weight gain, increased waist circumference, and higher rates of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular issues.

5. Olestra (Olean)

olestra olean potato chips fat-replacer harmful additive

As a zero-calorie fat-replacer, Olestra rose to popularity in the ’90s, and is most commonly found in chips. 

Increased risk of:

6. Potassium bromate (bromated flour)

bromated flour potassium bromate found in baked goods is a harmful additive

A frequently-found additive in baked goods, bromated flour speeds up and generally “improves” the baking process. While the substance is recognized as harmful, defenders claim that it changes during the baking process and becomes harmless. Because this claim is false, a whole lot of places (from China to Canada) have banned the use of bromated flour in food. Yet, it’s perfectly legal here in the U.S.

Increased risk of:

  • Kidney failure: According to this review, potassium bromate is nephrotoxic to animals and humans, meaning it causes kidney damage.
  • Cancer: Potassium bromate has a documented ability to damage DNA, leading to cancerous tumors (review here).
Fitness formulary table of harmful additives to avoid including their uses, dangers, and where they are banned

Avoiding these ingredients is an important step in any healthy diet. For more guidance on what to look for on the labels of packaged foods, check out this blog post.For clean-label staff picks, check out this one!

Which of these harmful additives and their dangers surprised you? Why do you think the U.S. can be so slow to outlaw harmful additives? Drop a comment below.
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