A “food additive” is any substance added to food in order to improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture, appearance, or nutritional value. Throughout human history we’ve augmented foods, adding salt to cure meats, sugar to preserve fruits, and vinegar to pickle a variety of things. Today, there are over 3000 items in the FDA database of food additives. Just what are some of these ingredients, and are they concerning for your health?
Food additives include preservatives, sweeteners, colors, flavors, flavor enhancers, spices, thickeners, binders, texturizers, emulsifiers, leavening agents, anti-caking agents, nutrients and more. Arguably, the bulk of these agents have allowed us to produce a phemonenol array of foods that are inexpensive, safe, and nutritious. But, there are uncertainties about many common food additives causing health problems.
How do food additives get approved as safe and how reliable is that designation? First, the FDA has oversight on all food additives. In order to include a food additive the manufacturer must submit an application to the FDA with scientific evidence that the additive is safe in the manner in which it is intended to be used. The FDA makes a decision based on the composition and properties of the substance, the amount that would typically be consumed, immediate and long-term health effects, and various safety factors.
Two groups of food additives are exempt from the Food Additives Amendment. Group 1 includes additives that were determined to be safe prior to the 1958 amendment, for example the nitrites used to preserve luncheon meats. Group 2 includes additives that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) based on their widespread use prior to 1958 without observed health harm.
Concerning Food Additives
Some food additives of concern fall under the GRAS designation, two of which are the familiar preservatives butylated hydroxianisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxitoluene (BHT), both of which are well known to promote cancer in animals, yet there is debate about their carcinogenicity in humans. Both are also established endocrine disruptors, interfering with sex hormones and thyroid function. The most common foods with BHA or BHT include chips, crackers, and processed meats.
Proplyl paraben is another GRAS food additive that is very concering to human health. Found in tortillas and muffins, it has been shown in animal studies to mimic estrogen, causing decrease sperm counts, infertility, and breast cancer.
In 2010, scientists at the Word Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that ingested nitrites and nitrates are probable human carcinogens. Used to preserve meats such as sausages, salami, hot dogs and ham, nitrites are well established to increase the risk of stomach cancer, and possibly esophageal cancer. There is also a suspicion of links to thyroid and brain cancers. Recent studies have shown increased consumption of these meats increases the risk of heart disease, compared to non-preserved red meats.
If you eat bread or crackers, you are likely getting exposed to potassium bromate, which is used to promote the rising of bread. It is known to cause a variety of tumors in animals, is toxic to the kidney and causes DNA damage. European countries have banned its use but here in America it is still used.
There are many other food additives of concern, too many to review here, but in general be wary of “artificial” or even “natural” ingredients which can include dozens of chemicals not individually listed, artificial colors, phosphates, and aluminum.
What to Do about Food Additives
Already awash in a sea of chemicals, one of our largest exposures comes from the food we eat. Without really knowing what is in our food how can we begin to know if it is truly safe? While the rate of autoimmune, cancer and other diseases are on the rise, one should consider that there may be a connection to the increase in food additive exposure.
Food additives are used in just about every commercial product on the grocery shelf today, particularly if it is processed in any way. If it comes in a bag, box, can or bottle, read the label carefully and be skeptical. Make a point to purchase and prepare unprocessed whole foods. If you have a chronic health condition, especially those with vague causes, such as chronic fatigue, autoimmune disease or cancer, it may be the key to regaining your health.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in Bioidentical Hormone Replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia, weight loss and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.