One glance at the back of a label and you’ll see the food industry has kidnapped real ingredients and replaced them with science experiments. And lots of them. Milkshakes with 78 ingredients? Bread with 27? Even more troubling is the fact that some of these additives have been linked to bad news, like cancer in mice or ADHD in children. Next time you’re scanning labels in the aisle, look out for these 11 downright frightening food additives. For the complete list, including the nutritious additives, check out our book, Eat This, Not That! Supermarket Survival Guide.
1. Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame-K)
A calorie-free artificial sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is often used with other artificial sweeteners to mask a bitter aftertaste.
FOUND IN More than 5,000 food products worldwide, including diet soft drinks and no-sugar-added ice cream.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Although the FDA has approved it for use in most foods, many health and industry insiders claim that the decision was based on flawed tests. Animal studies have linked the chemical to lung and breast tumors and thyroid problems.
2. Artificial Flavoring
Denotes any of hundreds of allowable chemicals such as butyl alcohol, isobutyric acid, and phenylacetaldehyde dimethyl acetal. The exact chemicals used in flavoring are the proprietary information of food processors, used to imitate specific fruits, butter, spices, and so on.
FOUND IN Thousands of highly processed foods such as cereals, fruit snacks, beverages, and cookies.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW The FDA has approved every item on the list of allowable chemicals, but because they are permitted to hide behind a blanket term, there is no way for consumers to pinpoint the cause of a reaction they might have had.
A near-zero-calorie artificial sweetener made by combining two amino acids with methanol. Most commonly used in diet soda, aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar.
FOUND IN More than 6,000 grocery items including diet sodas, yogurts, and the table-top sweeteners NutraSweet and Equal.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Over the past 30 years, the FDA has received thousands of consumer complaints due mostly to neurological symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, memory loss, and, in rare cases, epileptic seizures. Many studies have shown aspartame to be completely harmless, while others indicate that the additive might be responsible for a range of cancers.
4. BHA and BHT
AKA, Butylated HydroxyAnisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene are petroleum-derived antioxidants used to preserve fats and oils.
FOUND IN Beer, crackers, cereals, butter, and foods with added fats.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Of the two, BHA is considered the most dangerous. Studies have shown it to cause cancer in the forestomachs of rats, mice, and hamsters. The Department of Health and Human Services classifies the preservative as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
5. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
A corn-derived sweetener representing more than 40 percent of all caloric sweeteners in the supermarket. In 2005, there were 59 pounds produced per capita. The liquid sweetener is created by a complex process that involves breaking down cornstarch with enzymes, and the result is a roughly 50/50 mix of fructose and glucose.
FOUND IN Although about two-thirds of the HFCS consumed in the United States is in beverages, it can be found in every grocery aisle in products such as ice cream, chips, cookies, cereal, bread, ketchup, jam, canned fruits, yogurt, barbecue sauce, frozen dinners, and so on.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Since around 1980, the US obesity rate has risen proportionately to the increase in HFCS, and Americans are now consuming at least 200 calories of the sweetener each day. Some researchers argue that the body metabolizes HFCS differently, making it easier to store as fat, but this theory has not been proven.
6. Interesterified Fat
A semi-soft fat created by chemically blending fully hydrogenated and non-hydrogenated oils. It was developed in response to the public demand for an alternative to trans fats.
FOUND IN Pastries, pies, margarine, frozen dinners, and canned soups.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Testing on these fats has not been extensive, but the early evidence doesn’t look promising. A study by Malaysian researchers showed a 4-week diet of 12 percent interesterified fats increased the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol. Furthermore, this study showed an increase in blood glucose levels and a decrease in insulin response.
7. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
The salt of the amino acid glutamic acid, used to enhance the savory quality of foods, MSG alone has little flavor, and exactly how it enhances other foods is unknown.
FOUND IN Chili, soup, and foods with chicken or beef flavoring.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Studies have shown that MSG injected into mice causes brain-cell damage, but the FDA believes these results are not typical for humans. The FDA receives dozens of reaction complaints each year for nausea, headaches, chest pains, and weakness.
8. Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
A manufactured fat created by forcing hydrogen gas into vegetable fats under extremely high pressure, an unintended effect of which is the creation of trans fatty acids. Food processors like this fat because of its low cost and long shelf life.
FOUND IN Margarine, pastries, frozen foods, cakes, cookies, crackers, soups, and nondairy creamers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Trans fat has been shown to contribute to heart disease more so than saturated fats. While most health organizations recommend keeping trans-fat consumption as low as possible, a loophole in the FDA’s labeling requirements allows processors to add as much as 0.49 grams per serving and still claim zero in their nutrition facts. Progressive jurisdictions such as New York City, California, and Boston have approved legislation to phase trans fat out of restaurants, and pressure from watchdog groups might eventually lead to a full ban on the dangerous oil.
9. Red #3 (Erythrosine) and Red #40 (Allura Red)
Food dyes that are orange-red and cherry red, respectively. Red #40 is the most widely used food dye in America.
FOUND IN Fruit cocktail, candy, chocolate cake, cereal, beverages, pastries, maraschino cherries, and fruit snacks.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW The FDA has proposed a ban on Red #3 in the past, but so far the agency has been unsuccessful in implementing it. After the dye was inextricably linked to thyroid tumors in rat studies, the FDA managed to have the lake (or liquid) form of the dye removed from external drugs and cosmetics.
An artificial sweetener 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. Discovered in 1879, it’s the oldest of the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners.
FOUND IN Diet foods, chewing gum, toothpaste, beverages, sugar-free candy, and Sweet ‘N Low.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Rat studies in the early ‘70s showed saccharin to cause bladder cancer, and the FDA, reacting to these studies, enacted a mandatory warning label to be printed on every saccharin-containing product. The label was removed after 20 years, but the question over saccharin’s safety was never resolved. More recent studies show that rats on saccharin-rich diets gain more weight than those on high-sugar diets.
11. Yellow #5 (Tartrazine) and Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow)
The second and third most common food colorings, respectively.
FOUND IN Cereal, pudding, bread mix, beverages, chips, cookies, and condiments.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Several studies have linked both dyes to learning and concentration disorders in children, and there are piles of animal studies demonstrating potential risks such as kidney and intestinal tumors. One study found that mice fed high doses of sunset yellow had trouble swimming straight and righting themselves in water. The FDA does not view these as serious risks to humans.