The 10 Worst Chemicals in Our Food
If -- like many Americans -- your diet includes more than the occasional soda, bag of potato chips, deli meat sandwich or can of soup, you may not know exactly what it is that you’re putting into your body. In addition to potentially large amounts of saturated and trans fats, sugar and sodium, many of the foods we eat also include chemical additives that could be harmful to our health – possibly contributing to Americans’ high rates of ADHD (diagnosed in 11 percent of school-age children in the U.S. according to 2013 data from the CDC) as well as risks of cancer. Even foods that are considered healthy -- such as dairy, some types of fish and rice -- might include chemicals that hold potential for harm. Read on to find out the 10 most dangerous chemicals in our foods and tips to avoid them.
Used to preserve color and flavor in cured meats and fish, nitrates can be found in processed meats such as bacon, deli meat and hot dogs. In a 2010 Harvard study, a 1.8-ounce daily serving of processed meat was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Nitrates were potentially to blame for results that showed consuming processed meats raised the risk of heart disease by 42% and diabetes by 19%. Researchers noted in animal studies that nitrates can promote atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and reduced glucose tolerance in animals. According to the American Cancer Society, nitrates are known cancer-causing agents in animals. Their effect on humans is unknown. You can decrease your risk of health problems associated with nitrates by choosing to eat unprocessed, organic meats whenever possible. The Harvard researchers say one serving per week of processed meat is associated with relatively small risk.
Fears concerning mercury have led to a backlash against eating fish, which is unfortunate because fish contains healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. The U.S. government encourages at-risk groups (including pregnant women, nursing mothers and children) to avoid high-mercury fish such as shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. Mercury poisoning can cause disturbances in sensations, lack of coordination of movements, impairment of vision, speech, hearing and walking, muscle weakness and impaired neurological development in children, The Environmental Protection Agency advises: “The degree of exposure to mercury is derived from both the amount and the type of fish eaten. The key factor to an individual's health is related to the amount and type of fish the individual consumes.”
Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in the lining of food cans and plastic containers. It's also in the air and water. People are exposed to this potentially dangerous chemical primarily through diet. BPA attaches to foods and liquids, particularly when a container containing BPA is heated. BPA is an endocrine disruptor and may play a role in hormonal cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. BPA also has been linked to low sperm count, behavioral problems, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and immune system problems. Austin, Texas, toxicologist Dr. Patricia Rosen says that BPA likely poses little threat in small amounts. However, eating excessive amounts of canned foods or otherwise being exposed to large amounts of BPA could put one at risk. As a precaution, Rosen recommends limiting intake of canned foods and not heating food or drinks in plastic containers. Also, look for cans and containers that are labeled "BPA-free."
Arsenic is found naturally in groundwater. When enough inorganic arsenic gets into drinking water or contaminates farm soil, it can be harmful in water we drink and some foods, such as rice. According to the World Health Organization, long-term exposure can lead to cancer and skin lesions. Developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes are also potential problems. Because most Americans’ drinking water is regulated, American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Heather Mangieri, M.S., RD, says arsenic doesn't pose a problem, but she cautions: "The population that needs to be concerned are those that consume a high amount of rice." This includes infants who are fed rice cereal as well as vegans and vegetarians and people with celiac disease who are limiting grains. Tips to lower arsenic exposure for those who eat rice include rinsing rice thoroughly before cooking it and preparing it in a ratio of six cups of water to one cup of rice.
\#6: Artificial Colors
A study published in November 2007 in The Lancet by researchers at Southampton University found a “significantly adverse effect” on attention when 3-year-olds and 8- and 9-year-olds were given a drink containing artificial food coloring. The study concluded that food coloring additives increase hyperactivity in children. The results of the study convinced the EU-based Food Standards Agency to call for a ban on several of the artificial colors (including Blue Dye no. 1 and Yellow Dye No. 5). A meta-analysis published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology in January 2012 also found a reliable connection between artificial coloring and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers estimate that 8 percent of children with ADHD have some symptoms linked with food dyes, and they recommend further research. Parents can protect children by limiting their kids' intake of foods with food coloring.
\#5: Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium may come with some unintended side effects. Although it’s logical to believe that a low-or-zero calorie soda or food will shave calories off your diet, studies show that they could actually lead to weight gain. An article published in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2010 concluded that artificial sweeteners fail to activate the food-reward pathway, which results in decreased satiety after consumption, consequently leading to increased appetite. And because artificial sweeteners are so sweet -- hundreds of times sweeter than sugar -- they can cause sugar cravings and dependence. As a result, diet drinks might contribute to obesity and its multitude of health problems, including diabetes.
\#4: BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
Used in foods as a preservative and stabilizer, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), gets a "high hazard" rating by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which cites it as posing a high overall hazard as it may pose a cancer risk for humans. In its 2011 Report on Carcinogens, the federal government’s National Toxicology Program asserted that BHA is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" based on evidence from animal studies. In addition, the EWG says there is "strong evidence" that BHA is an endocrine interrupter, which means it negatively affects the endocrine system and has detrimental effects on development and reproductive, immune and neurological functions. According to the University of California Berkeley Wellness, the exact effects of BHA are still too unclear to warrant completely avoiding foods with BHA but recommends limiting foods that might use the preservative -- many chips, sausages and cereals contain butylated hydroxyanisole in their ingredient lists -- and eating more whole, unprocessed foods.
\#3: Caramel Coloring
Used most commonly in colas, caramel coloring is made by heating sugar -- or a sugar compound such as high-dextrose corn syrup -- and ammonium compounds, acids or alkalis. When it is made with ammonia, it can contain two potentially cancer-causing substances: 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole. Based on findings from a National Toxicology Program study, the state of California added 4-methylimidazole to its list of known cancer-causing substances in 2011 under Proposition 65. According to the Pan American Health Organization, recent research has found that safe intake levels may be lower than originally thought, and the organization has called for policy makers to prompt manufacturers to utilize safer alternatives. To reduce your risk, check the list of ingredients in the foods you eat so that you can avoid caramel coloring. You will be surprised to find out that caramel color can be found as an ingredient in more than just colas and products with the word caramel in the name – including some fast food ground meat such as that found in Taco Bell beef tacos.
According to The World Health Organization (WHO) dioxins are chemically-related compounds that could potentially be highly toxic. Because about 90 percent of the human exposure to dioxins happens via food (meat, dairy and fish), most everyone has had "background exposure" to them. The WHO warns that dioxins are “potentially” toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental issues, hormonal problems, immune system effects and cancer. "In order to live in this world, you're going to have some exposure," says Dr. Patricia Rosen of Austin Toxicology. The WHO reports that many countries have systems in place to monitor dioxin levels in foods. Rosen suggests limiting risk by reducing intake of animal products such as meat and milk.
Organophosphates are among the most common pesticides used in agricultural practices today, and they may be hazardous for children. A study published in Pediatrics in 2010 examined a possible link between urinary concentrations of dialkyl phosphate metabolites of organophosphates and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children 8 to 15 years of age. Researchers found that organophosphate exposure -- at levels common among American children -- may contribute to the ADHD prevalence in the U.S.. (ADHD is diagnosed in 11 percent of school-age children in the U.S. according to 2013 data from the CDC.) Other studies, however, have found no association. American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Heather Mangieri, M.S., RD, says that children should still eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. "We're never going to eliminate exposure 100 percent -- we just have to minimize our exposure." That can be done, she says, by choosing organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible, and by rinsing fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
What Do YOU Think?
American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Heather Mangieri, M.S., RD, stresses that eating a mainly healthy diet that includes a variety of foods -- rather than large amounts of one specific food -- is the best way to minimize your risk of the negative effects of chemicals in foods.
Explore In Depth
- American Cancer Society: Hot Dog! Headlines Can Be Deceiving
- Environmental Protection Agency: Mercury Health Effects
- Environmental Protection Agency: Fish Consumption Advisories
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: Bisphenol A (BPA)
- World Health Organization: Arsenic
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: Food Dyes
- Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology: Meta-Analysis Of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms, Restriction Diet, And Synthetic Food Color Additives
- The Dr. Oz Show: Artificial Sweeteners and Other Food Substitutes: Dangerous to Your Health?
- EWG: BHA
- National Toxicology Program: Butylated Hydroxyanisole
- University of California Berkeley Wellness: Two Preservatives to Avoid?
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: FDA Urged to Prohibit Carcinogenic "Caramel Coloring"
- Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment: Proposition 65
- World Health Organization: Dioxins and Their Effects on Human Health
- MedScape: Organophosphates
Jody Braverman is a professional writer and editor based in Atlanta. She studied creative writing at the American University of Paris and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Maryland. She also received personal trainer certification from NASM and her 200-hour yoga teacher certification from YogaWorks.