Chemicals in foods are a concern for many reasons.
For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged that chemicals currently allowed into our food supply need urgent reform for the safety of children’s health.
In this post, learn why we have so many chemicals in food, which ones are banned across the world, and the possible short-term and long-term health effects of these toxic ingredients. Also, learn about foods to choose from instead of chemical-laden foods.
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Chemicals in Foods to Avoid Overview
Chemicals in our food are so widespread that it is difficult to describe them all. However, examples of chemicals you should avoid or limit are some types of emulsifiers, artificial food dyes, preservatives, plasticizers, and artificial sweeteners.
Here is an infographic showing common chemicals to avoid:
- Emulsifiers: Polysorbate, carboxymethylcellulose, and carrageenan. Widespread in packaged goods.
- Preservatives: BHT, BHA, TBHQ, calcium propionate, EDTA, phosphates, propyl gallate, sodium nitrite, and sodium benzoate. Very common in frozen meals and packaged foods.
- Plasticizers: Not labeled but found in most bottled or canned foods and drinks. Chemicals that leach into the foods are PFOAs, phthalates, and azodicarbonamide.
- Sweeteners: Saccharin, acesulfame K®, sucralose, Splenda®, aspartame, Nutrasweet®.
- Food dyes: Red 40 & 3, Yellow 5 & 6, Blue 1 & 2, Green 3. Found in candies, chips, crackers, cookies, and sodas.
- Chemical residues: present in many foods, but especially Canola, soy, wheat, and corn. This is because these foods are usually heavily sprayed with glyphosate unless they are organic.
Basically, if you can’t pronounce it or it is listed as an acronym, you should probably avoid or limit your exposure to these foods.
Let’s take a closer look at these chemicals and what their health risks are.
Chemicals in foods and their risks
The main types of chemicals in foods are preservatives, artificial sweeteners, artificial food color, emulsifiers, chemical residues, hormones, flavorings, and plasticizers (plastics, cans, and can linings).
Here are the potential risks of each one backed by research.
Preservatives extend the shelf life of packaged and processed foods.
Examples of chemical substances that act as preservatives are:
|Food Chemical Name||Health Risks|
|BHT/BHA||Also known as E320, BHT/BHA are similar and common food additives and preservatives in foods that may reduce liver function, and kidney function, and increase cancer risk. The health risk is significant too. While the FDA gives BHT and BHA “generally recognized as safe” status, the National Institutes of Health describes it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Found in processed meats and vegan meats, breakfast cereals, crackers, and more.|
|TBHQ||Likely a carcinogen that increases cancer risk. Commonly found in breakfast cereals.|
|Calcium propionate||A preservative in bread and many foods may cause chronic stomach ulcers and behavioral problems in children according to Livestrong.com. Found in bread.|
|EDTA||A chelating agent is used in foods, usually highly processed ones, to bind to minerals. According to WebMD, there is a long list of possible side effects of EDTA, including seizures, kidney problems, and low magnesium levels. These side effects likely occur at higher doses, however. Widespread in processed foods.|
|Phosphates||Many kinds of phosphates are used to help foods retain moisture and to preserve foods. Excess phosphate additives in the diet can cause bone and mineral abnormalities in the body, especially in people with chronic kidney disease. Added to countless packaged food types.|
|Propyl gallate||A food preservative that is also used in cosmetics and toiletries, and may cause birth defects and dermatitis. Found in candies and sodas.|
|Sodium nitrite||Processed meats containing nitrite may increase the risk of colon cancer. Not to be confused with natural nitrate found in foods, which is beneficial for health. Present in processed meats and vegan meats.|
|Sodium benzoate||A preservative in most sodas and often in bottled dressings, sodium benzoate increases harmful oxidation in the body and may also reduce memory and learning according to a study in mice. Human studies show that sodium benzoate may increase poor behavior in children. Widespread in packaged foods like soda, salad dressings, candies, cereal, and more.|
|Propylparapen||A preservative is linked to a host of health issues, such as disruption of hormones and increases in cancer risk. Found in baked goods, bread, and tortillas.|
Plasticizers and Can Linings
There are over 100 types of plasticizers according to the Journal of Food Protection. Here are some that are of top concern. Keep in mind, that these chemicals in foods won’t show up on the labels because they are used either in the production of foods or in the packaging.
|Chemical Name||Health Risks|
|PFOAs||May cause cholesterol abnormalities, increase heart disease risk, decrease testosterone and progesterone, and result in neonatal death and reduced baby body weight in mice. *Note that this chemical won’t be disclosed on the label because it is in the packaging, but can leach into foods.|
|Azodicarbonamide||Found in white flour and bread to promote a more elastic dough. Also known as the “yoga mat” chemical, AZO is somewhat unstable and causes oxidation and free radicals to form in the body. When heated, it forms toxic fumes. If your wheat flour is white or bread/buns are white, you can assume there is Azodicarbonamide in it.|
|Bisphenol A (BPA)||A plastic that most people have heard of by now because it has some pretty dangerous risks, including increased rates of cancer, harmful effects on the brain and nervous system, and hormone disruption. Used in linings of cans, BPA is of big concern in our food supply. It is also highly absorbable into the skin as well from household products like toiletries, packaging, grocery receipts, and dental fillings.|
|Chemical Name||Health Risks|
|Acesulfame K||The newest artificial sweetener in diet sodas, gums, and candies, Acesulfame K® may cause nerve damage and brain issues, including memory decline.|
|Saccharin||Remains on the market in fountain diet drinks despite clear risks. It increases body weight, diabetes risk, liver issues, and kidney issues in rats. Found in fountain diet sodas.|
|Sucralose (Splenda®)||Disrupts the microbiome, or healthy bacteria, which may result in tissue inflammation. Research even shows it may contribute to weight gain. Found in many sweet diet products and microwave popcorn.|
|Aspartame (Nutrasweet®)||May increase both cancer risk and neurological conditions like behavioral problems, headaches, seizures, migraines, irritability, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep. Found in sodas, candies, and gums.|
|Chemical Name||Health Risks|
|Polysorbate 80||An emulsifier in processed foods, alters the gut microbiome, may cause hypersensitivity, and increase intestinal permeability, which allows harmful bacteria to enter the body. Found in chips, crackers, candies, and more.|
|Polysorbate 60 and 65||Both are similar to polysorbate 80, and these emulsifiers can cause digestive stress by reducing the breakdown of foods and creating imbalances in gut bacteria. Widespread in processed foods.|
|Carboxymethylcellulose||Not digestible, so can create some digestive stress in susceptible individuals and create microbiome abnormalities. Found in ice creams, infant formula, salad dressings, grated cheese, gelatin, and candy.|
|Carrageenan||Like other emulsifiers, may be harmful to the digestive tract. By increasing the risk of ulcers and even cancer, the FDA considered restricting this ingredient but ultimately did not. Found in ice cream, salad dressings, and processed dairy products.|
These hormones won’t be listed on the ingredients, but are often used in factory farm animal production to promote growth.
|Chemical name||Health risks|
|rBGH||A growth hormone known to cause damage in cows remains a questionable concern in humans as no one is going to sign up for a human study using this. Cancer.org says that “data is inconclusive about cancer risk” and rBGH, yet we still get to enjoy this chemical in our food.|
|Estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone||Natural hormones are provided to animals prior to slaughter. While natural, amounts used of these may raise concerns for health.|
|Trenbolone acetate and Zeranol||Supposedly found in “safe” levels in tissues of animals given these synthetic hormones, no one knows for sure the long-term effects of these. With puberty occurring earlier and earlier in humans, some experts caution against these compounds.|
- Artificial food dyes (blue 1, blue 2, red 40, red 3, yellow 5, yellow 6, green 3) increase bad behavior among kids according to clinical research. One of the biggest concerns with food dyes is that they are often contaminated with other benzenes and carcinogens, compounds that promote cancer. Found in lots of processed foods like crackers, cookies, chips, candies, sodas, and more.
- MSG (monosodium glutamate), or E621, likely increases blood pressure and causes headaches and side effects in sensitive people. Found in most savory snacks and frozen dinners. Can be disguised as many other names.
- Artificial flavorings are very sneaky. There are thought to be over 1300 artificial flavorings and companies are not required to disclose what they are. It’s just best overall to avoid these unknowns if at all possible, but they probably won’t kill you.
Why are there so many chemicals in foods?
If you were born before 1980, you probably remember buying a loaf of bread and would have to use it up quickly so it wouldn’t mold.
Now, a loaf of bread strangely won’t mold at all for weeks. Seems a little disturbing.
This is because food additives and preservatives make the shelf life of bread and other foods much longer than without them.
Additives and preservatives are not limited to bread. They are found in most packaged foods these days if you live in the United States.
To sum it up quickly, the United States has very loose rules about what they allow in foods as both preservatives and additives.
A perfect example of this is the recent approval of suspect ingredients like leghemoglobin in Beyond Meat. No safety testing was required before it was released into the food supply.
The FDA approved its use before safety testing. The loophole is that the FDA allows 30 days after the market introduction of any product for any person to file adverse effects.
So, it must be safe with no consumer objections….right?!?
Why does the FDA allow chemicals in food?
This is because of a loophole in the system. A company can deem its additive to be “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS with no FDA oversight.
Almost every country in the world has more rigorous standards for what they will and won’t allow in their food supply than ours.
This is because the chemical approval process is a breeze here.
In other words, you need to be an informed food consumer if you want the best health.
The food industry is powerful and influential too, but one by one, we can change this by making an informed decision about what we buy.
The other challenge is that rarely are human health studies done before a chemical product gets to market.
Who would sign up to be part of those studies anyway?
Who is helping with chemicals in food awareness?
Some organizations have long looked out for your safety. They continue to alert the public about the concerns of chemicals in foods.
The Center for Environmental Health is a public health watchdog that investigates food chemicals for their safety. CEH keeps an eye on chemical compounds in food and has successfully been able to prove some as unsafe, such as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which was used in making Coca-Cola and Pepsi, but found to be very toxic.
You no longer find it in your drinks because of their work.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) also continue to fight for our health and both disclose the many concerns about our artificial food additives and natural, but adulterated additives with their updated chemical safety lists.
However the process of getting a chemical in foods off the market is long and arduous.
Consider this: common food additives can have toxic effects on the body, especially if eaten on a regular basis.
But, there are not enough hands on deck looking out for our health.
Chemicals in foods that are banned in other countries
Another way to know what is safe and what is not is to look at what chemicals in foods are banned across the world. Good examples are GMOs and glyphosate, also known as RoundUp herbicide.
Learn more about these bans here:
1. GMO bans
GMOs, or genetically modified ingredients, are largely banned across the world for many reasons. One big reason is that they often use a ton of chemicals in the farming practices that go along with them.
Good examples of foods that are commonly GMO are corn, canola, and soy.
The news can be confusing about GMOs because there is a lot of bias involved in reports. But consider this:
GMOs are banned in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Russia, Poland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Belgium, among others.
Also banning GMOs are Algeria and Madagascar in Africa, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Saudi Arabia in Asia; and in South America: Belize, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Not surprisingly, GMOs are not banned in the United States. They are almost always rife with pesticides and herbicides, yet generally recognized as safe.
2. Glyphosate bans
Another very concerning chemical that is found in most foods in the United States is glyphosate. Known as a probable carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, we still allow it to be sprayed all over our foods here.
Glyphosate is banned in Australia, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Qatar, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, and Portugal.
It is also banned in Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Bahrain, and Canada starting in 2021.
Sadly, it is almost impossible to avoid glyphosate, especially in cereal and legume products, because it is so widely used in the United States.
Glyphosate is one of the most common chemicals in food added today.
And it doesn’t wash off, cook-off, or bake off the foods you eat.
Where to find these chemicals
Aside from glyphosate (which you can’t entirely avoid) and GMOs, the following chemical additives in foods may have long-term damaging health effects. glyphosate in food
Note that additives that are banned in other countries are in bold, including GMO ingredients.
Organic foods won’t include any known harmful additives, so the bold ingredients are only for conventionally grown foods in these groups.
Meats and alternatives
Food additives to avoid in processed meats and vegan meat alternatives include nitrites, sodium nitrite, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), monosodium glutamate (MSG),
Other GMO ingredients or additives to avoid include hydrolyzed protein, phosphates, soy leghemoglobin, soybean, canola oil, soy protein isolate, and soy protein concentrate (Impossible Burger).
Feed additives for animals that may pass along to you in their meat: ractopamine and chlorine washes. Note that these won’t be listed on the labels, just possibly passed along to you, according to the Center for Food Safety.
They often have artificial food dyes like yellow 5, yellow 6, red 40, blue 1, and artificial flavors. To appeal to children, they can have staggering amounts of chemical dyes.
If they are made of enriched wheat flour, they will likely contain Azodicarbonamide.
Ingredients that are either highly processed or GMO in cereals include trans fats such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, EDTA, corn, and soybean.
Canned foods-including sodas
Processed foods in cans are susceptible not only to ingredients in the foods but toxic ingredients that can be present in the cans themselves. These compounds can leach into the food.
Cans are often lined with bisphenol A (BPA) or polyethylene, polypropylene, vinyl, and acrylic. Safer can linings are being developed, but the current use of BPA in cans is exceedingly high according to Science Mag.
Ingredients that may increase rates of cancer or digestive issues in canned foods and drinks include sodium benzoate, and artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame K.
They also can contain brominated vegetable oil, caramel color, high fructose corn syrup, and propyl gallate.
Frozen meals and boxed meals
Frozen dinners contain similar dangerous plastics like BPA and phthalates, and also contain almost every known chemical additive out there if you aren’t careful. food preservatives
These include TBHQ, phosphates, nitrites, food dyes, MSG, BHA, BHT, soybean oil, corn oil, polysorbate 60, 65, or 80, and propylene glycol.
*Other names for TBHQ are tert-butylhydroquinone, tertiary butylhydroquinone, and butylated hydroxyanisole.
Cookies and baked goods
Baked goods on the shelves, as well as packaged cookies and cake mixes, also have ingredients to look out for:
- sodium benzoate
- high fructose corn syrup
- artificial flavor
- palm oil
- soybean oil
- canola oil
- palm kernel oil
- food dyes
- caramel color
These seem like a high price to pay for convenience.
Ice cream is not immune to chemicals. Common ice cream additives with some health concerns include carrageenan, propylene glycol, disodium phosphates, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, polysorbate 80, and dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (a laxative).
Ice creams can also contain artificial food dyes and artificial sweeteners with harmful effects like sucralose and acesulfame K.
Dressings and sauces
Salad dressings and sauces can have a lot of preservatives and additives too, including MSG, carrageenan, propylene glycol, soybean oil, corn oil, EDTA, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, artificial colors, polysorbate 60, “natural” and artificial flavors.
Bread and tortillas
Surprisingly, the list of chemicals in bread and starchy foods is perhaps the longest and most extensive. These chemicals in bread can include:
Azodicarbonamide, calcium propionate, sorbic acid, benzoyl peroxide, calcium peroxide, chlorine, propylparaben, chlorine dioxide gas, All bleaching agents, potassium bromate Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Caramel Coloring, soy, corn, aluminum, sodium stearoyl lactylate, mono- and di-glycerols, and ammonium phosphatide.
Watch out for microwave popcorn too.
Many of the chemicals aren’t listed on the ingredients because they are in the packaging including Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA).
PFCs are substances that break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Microwave popcorn also contains:
- hydrogenated fats
- palm oil (a concern because of sourcing)
- soybean oil
Knowing this, popping popcorn in an air popper or on the stove seems the logical choice.
Candies are fraught with artificial food coloring and preservatives.
Look out for Propyl gallate, glycerol triacetate, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and Corn Syrup, sodium benzoate, sulfites (sulfur dioxide), polysorbate 60, 65, or 80, TBHQ, and BHT/BHA.
Artificial food coloring is common in candies and can include Blue 1, blue 2, red 2, red 3, red 40, green 3, yellow 5, and yellow 6.
Candies also can have Partially Hydrogenated Oils, Soy, Artificial Flavors, processed sweeteners, and preservatives including sodium benzoate.
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is not listed on the candy label because it can be in the wrapper or food packaging.
Dairy products can contain the compound Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and can also contain carrageenan and artificial sweeteners like sucralose and acesulfame K, especially in yogurts and ice creams.
Best to go all-natural when indicated on labels and even organic when you can.
Chips and crackers
Chips and crackers are no strangers to chemicals.
These chemicals are linked to heart disease and the overall risk of poor health, including Olestra, polysorbate 60, 65, or 80, nitrites, artificial food dyes, TBHQ, and BHT/BHA.
Crackers especially can contain highly processed additives like corn syrup, phosphates, palm oil, caramel color, canola oil, soy lecithin, soybean oil, corn oil, and MSG.
You also may ingest some Phthalates from the packaging.
Produce, luckily for us, is pretty free from harmful chemicals (except for the ones sprayed on the crops).
One concerning chemical used, however, is Citrus red # 1. This is only used on some brands of Florida oranges but holds a similar cancer risk to other food dyes. Citrus red #1 is sprayed on oranges to make them look brighter.
Fast food, gas stations, and restaurants
When you dine out or grab food at the gas station, consider all the additives discussed above as possible ingredients in your foods.
Additional concerns include Saccharin (in fountain diet sodas), and Phthalates from plastic bottles.
What’s left to eat?
What happens when you eat a lot of these chemicals all the time?
It’s anyone’s guess.
But, as chronic diseases and illnesses continue to rise, it’s best to take the guesswork out and avoid a chemical-laden diet. These chemicals can create a leaky gut, systemic inflammation increases cancer and neurological disease risks, and anyone’s guess in terms of health issues.
With all these chemicals in foods, though, is there anything left that is safe to eat?
The biggest thing you can do to help get chemicals out of your food is to cook and prepare foods that are as close to nature as possible. This means buying fresh foods without packages and labels, buying fresh grass-fed meats and eggs from local sources, and organic fresh produce.
Production of some ancient grains, like Kamut, don’t allow chemicals in their production, so they are a good bet for pasta or bread too.
For grains, cereals, and bread, choosing organic is the only way to go. This is because these banned chemicals in other countries are not allowed in organic chips, crackers, or bread.
By choosing organic dairy products, you also forgo any risk of BGH.
I realize these are sometimes more expensive choices for many, so just do the best you can when you can. These days, organic prices are very competitive in most markets.
We are allowed, even encouraged, by food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants to buy chemical foods for cheap.
The sad part is that we may pay later with our health.
Awareness of chemicals in foods is the first step to making informed decisions about what you put in your body. Avoid chemicals when you can, especially the ones highlighted in bold above.
By choosing less processed foods, USDA organic foods, and eating foods close to nature, we are, one by one, taking back the power of our food supply and our health.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.