We’re always on the lookout for interesting, informative or useful resources for our patients and one we’d like to share with you this month is the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives. The EWG (or Environmental Working Group) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the health of both humans and the environment around us. The EWG has a number of fantastic resources on their website, some of which we’ve shared before (such as their Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen, as well as their Skin Deep database, where you can read the safety profile on the ingredients found in your personal care products). Whilst the EWG is an American resource, much of the information is still highly relevant and useful to Australian consumers, and can help guide purchasing decisions when it comes to things like organic foods, cosmetics, sunscreens, water filters and more.
Today’s resource is the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives. This informative resource outlines some of the common additives found in foods, and the ones we should be most concerned about. Not only this, but the guide lists common food sources of these additives, as well as potential health concerns associated with their use. As consumers, it is so important to be able to make informed choices around the foods we eat and the ingredients or additives we wish to avoid, and guides such as this can help inform these choices!
Whilst I really encourage you to have a look around the EWG’s website and read a bit further about each of these ingredients, we’ve included a summary of some of the key ones below:
Nitrates and Nitrites
Often found in processed and cured meats like salami and ham, nitrates and nitrites bind with a type of protein called amines, forming compounds called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines have been linked to increased risk of stomach cancer, with other studies suggesting potential links to oesophageal and thyroid cancers as well. In 2010, they were declared possible human carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) by the World Health Organisation, so until we know more, they’re definitely best avoided!
Potassium bromate is often used in breads and doughs overseas, and yet it has been identified as a human carcinogen. Fortunately, its use has been banned in Australia (and the European Union), but it’s one to remember if travelling to the USA and other countries where its use is permitted.
Propyl paraben is an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in various foods and personal care products. It is referred to as an endocrine disrupter because it acts as a weak, synthetic oestrogen. Studies have linked propyl paraben to adverse effects of female fertility, as well as reduced sperm counts in male rats. Our advice is to avoid parabens where possible, in both food items and personal care products. Propylparaben has the additive number ‘216’, so look out for this one on ingredients lists.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
BHA is another food additive that has been identified as having endocrine-disrupting effects. It is often used as an antioxidant and preservative, and is commonly found in chips, lard, dessert mixes, baked goods and preserved meats – as an antioxidant, it’s used to prevent oxidation of the fats in these foods. In America, BHA is “generally recognised as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, but is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program – at this stage, there is still plenty of debate as to the safety of this food additive, so we recommend avoiding it until more is known. Interestingly, many manufacturers are starting to use vitamin E as an alternative where possible, however BHA is still widely used as it is more stable at higher temperatures!
Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
BHT is a preservative chemically similar to BHA, and is also “generally recognised as safe”. They’re often used in conjunction with each other in food manufacturing. Whilst there is limited research on the effects of BHT, animal studies suggest it may have endocrine-disrupting effects, as well as potentially detrimental effects on thyroid function. At this stage, further research is warranted.
Propyl gallate is another antioxidant commonly found in processed meats and other refined, high fat foods, such as sausages and lard. It is approved for use in the USA, EU and Australia, and is often denoted by the additive number ‘310’. Research suggests it may be linked to tumour growth and may exert endocrine-disrupting and oestrogenic effects. Again, we don’t have much information on the long-term or cumulative effect of all these different food additives on human health, so minimising your exposure is often a good idea.
Secret Flavour Ingredients
Artificial flavours are flavouring agents that are made in a lab – they’re found in a wide variety of food products, including lollies, biscuits, drinks, sauces, condiments, marinades and more. By using terms such as “flavouring agent” or “natural flavour”, manufacturers don’t have to disclose the actual makeup of the food additive, which can be a concern particularly for individuals with food sensitivities or dietary restrictions. You can read more on this topic here.
As the EWG states, artificial colours add little purpose to foods, other than to enhance, improve or change the colour of the food item – really, they have little more than superficial value, and yet they can have some less than ideal side effects. Not only have certain artificial colours been linked to tumour growth, but they’ve also been associated with behavioural issues, hyperactivity and allergies in children. Artificial colours may be identified by their name (e.g. sunset yellow) or additive number (e.g. 110). Many products in Australia also contain ‘caramel’, which sounds like a food ingredient but is actually a colouring agent. Overall, these additives have little-to-no nutritional value, and little purpose beyond improving the appearance of the food. Despite this, they bear potentially detrimental effects on human health, so are best avoided.
Various food additives contain aluminium, such as some raising agents and stabilisers (e.g. sodium aluminium phosphate and sodium aluminium sulfate, or ‘521’). Aluminium is a heavy metal that has been linked to neurological and developmental issues – Whilst the amounts found in food additives are quite small, aluminium can accumulate in the body, meaning it’s important we minimise exposure where possible.
The Take Home
We hope you find this resource helpful and we hope you can take some time to explore the EWG’s website. If you have any resources of your own you think are worth sharing, we’d love to see them as well!