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Food additives have been a part of our diets for thousands of years. Ancient peoples used vinegar, salt, spices, herbs, and honey to help preserve foods and add flavor. These safe, natural additives have been used for centuries by traditional societies around the world.
However, the advent of chemistry as a modern scientific discipline coincided with the industrialization of food production in the 1800s, and artificial food additives were introduced. Mislabeled, adulterated foods and dangerous chemical preservatives (such as formaldehyde) and coloring agents invaded store shelves and home pantries until the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906.
Since then, thousands of chemicals have been approved and are in use as preservatives, flavors, and colors. Research and experience show that a number of these may cause or contribute to a wide range of health problems – from hyperactivity to cancer – and are best avoided. Certain food additives have a special designation of GRAS (generally recognized as safe). But what are they really – and are they really safe?
Today’s food safety laws include the regulation of food labeling, which ostensibly helps consumers know what is in what they eat. For consumers reading those labels, understanding what is natural and what is synthetic can be a challenge. Even additives with names that make them appear natural may be made from petrochemicals. For example, to a conscientious consumer, the term “organic acids” may seem to refer to natural additives, but to a chemist, they are “organic” because of their carbon-based chemical structure.
Based upon their chemical origin, food additives can be classified into two main categories: artificial and natural. Some natural additives are acids (e.g., citric, acetic, propionic, sorbic, and benzoic) that lower the pH value of a food and inhibit mold, while others function as flavorings or colorings. These can come from sources as varied as fruits, herbs, resins, and insects. Although not everyone is comfortable with the idea of eating bug parts, and not all natural additives are perfectly safe, they are generally considered safer than artificial additives.
BHA and BHT
The most dangerous artificial additives are petroleum-based preservatives. To avoid these, look for “butylated hydroxyanisole” (BHA) and “butylated hydroxytoluene” (BHT) on food labels. Ongoing research on BHA and BHT links these additives to decreased sperm motility, cancer, skin conditions, and behavioral problems, yet these chemicals are found in cereals, chewing gum, fats and oils, and even packaging “to ensure freshness.”
Other artificial additives to avoid are those in the polysorbate family. Some of these emulsifiers are petroleum-based and others are organic sugar alcohols, but all are considered to be harmful. Tumors, cancers, reproductive problems, and anaphylaxis have all been linked to this group. On food labels, polysorbates are sometimes listed by their full scientific designation, but you can still find “poly,” “sorb,” and “ate” buried within those names; for example, “polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate.”
Like polysorbates, sulfites can be dangerous and are often petroleum derived. Some sulfites do occur naturally as a byproduct of fermentation, but more are added to food – especially fruit products (including wine) – as preservatives. These compounds should be avoided, especially by those with allergies or sensitivities, as they can cause breathing problems and even anaphylaxis. You can find the full names of different sulfite compounds on labels by looking for “sulfite” or “sulfur” buried within; for example, “sulfur dioxide” or “potassium metabisulfite.”
Nitrates and nitrites
Although potassium and sodium nitrates are naturally-occurring mineral salts that have been used for centuries to cure and preserve animal protein, much of the nitrates and nitrites added to food today comes from laboratories. Both nitrates and nitrites have been linked to cancer, and they are known to be particularly dangerous to infants. Nitrates cause dehydration of the intestines, and nitrites have been shown to cause changes in the internal organs of laboratory animals. Avoiding nitrates and nitrites can be tricky, as they can be included in “spice mixes” on food labels without being listed as separate ingredients. Some manufacturers of cured meats will label their products as “nitrate and nitrite-free” to help consumers avoid these harmful substances.
Although each person may react differently to different chemicals, and research on food additives doesn’t always come to the same conclusions, we do know that even small doses of chemical additives can linger in the body and cause long-term damage.
These threats to our health can be minimized by avoiding the artificial colors, preservatives, flavors, and sweeteners found in nearly every packaged food product on the market today, but that can be a daunting task. Simply avoiding the four most dangerous groups of food additives – BHA and BHT, polysorbates, sulfites, and nitrates/nitrites – is a good place to start, and will go a long way toward helping you attain optimum health.
For more information, see “What’s Really in Your Food?” by Jennifer Handy, found in the Spring 2013 Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing. Become a member today to receive access to this journal along with many other health and nutrition resources.