The 6 Scariest Chemicals in Your Food
Potassium bromate is a flour additive thatís used to give commercial bread that springy and squishy texture. In the late 1980s, it was found to cause kidney and thyroid tumors in rats, and many countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, banned it a few years later. If you live in California, you can breathe easyóthe state banned potassium bromate in 1991. Elsewhere in the United States, though, it is allowed. The FDA has only asked bakeries to ìvoluntarilyî cease using the additive. So check labelsóitís still included in some popular brands of hot dog and hamburger buns and other soft-baked goods.
You have probably seen parabens on the ingredient list for shampoos and soaps, but did you know theyíre in your cupboards and refrigerator too? Propyl paraben and its chemical relatives are used to retard mold growth in tortillas, muffins, and other foods that need a long shelf life. They are also added to jams and jellies to boost flavor.
Parabens in cosmetics have received a great deal of attention, with numerous studies showing them to be potential endocrine disruptors that affect hormonal activity. In a particularly scary 2012 study, parabens were detected in 100 percent of breast milk samples obtained from nursing mothers, while a previous study found them in more than 95 percent of sperm samples.
In 2013, the European Commission announced a ban on parabens in cosmetics, but as of today, they are permitted in food, though only in very small amounts. In the U.S., parabens pass muster because they are classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), a designation for chemicals that do not require government approval. But as consumers demand safer beauty products, paraben-free is turning up on more and more labels.
Nitrites and Nitrates
Hot dogs, salami, sandwich meat, and other preserved meats keep their pink color and do not spoil thanks to being preserved with sodium nitrite and nitrate, which changes to nitrite in the body. Here is the problem. In the gut, nitrite can form nitrosamines, molecules that cause cancer in lab animals. For this reason, these preservatives have been controversial for decades, with a conflicting body of research linking them to cancers, particularly of the digestive system. The World Cancer Research Institute now recommends against eating any processed meats because of that risk.
Before you banish your favorite sandwich, consider that some experts think the nitrite risk has been vastly overstated. According to these experts, as much as 80 percent of the nitrite in a typical diet comes from veggies, so you would have to stop eating a host of healthy foods to really cut your nitrite intake. The same experts say meat processors now add ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which prevents the formation of nitrosamines, turning nitrite into nitric oxide instead.
That is not to say eating processed meat is not bad for you it is very bad. A convincing body of research has tied processed meat consumption to cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. It is just not clear that nitrites are the culprit.
BHA and BHT
They are in your chips and breakfast cereal yet the preservative BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is listed as a known carcinogen by the state of California and is banned by the European Union, and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) has been found to cause lung and liver tumors in lab rats.
Like parabens, BHA and BHT are most commonly found in cosmetics and soaps, where they are considered less risky than in food. Nevertheless, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics publishes a laundry list of health dangers, from cancer to reproductive and hormonal effects to kidney damage. If this stuff is too toxic to wash with, do you really want to put it in your mouth?
Propyl gallate, a preservative used in fats, turns up in the sausage on your pizza and the butter on your popcorn (and in lard, but hopefully you donít eat lard). There is surprisingly little known about this chemical, but a National Toxicology Program study links it with thyroid, liver, and brain tumors in rats and notes that the chemical needs to be better studied.
Yikes, diacetyl seems to be in everything. Itís used to lend a buttery or butterscotch flavor to margarine, cooking oils, chocolate, candy, and chips, among many other foods. As a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation, itís in wine, beer, vinegar, coffee, and dairy products. Then there is the butter on popcorn there is a lot of it in there.
The problem is, vaporized diacetyl is toxic, with the potential to cause serious respiratory disease and permanent lung damage. It has its own disease, so-called popcorn lung, which, while extremely uncommon, is irreversible and often fatal. People who have suffered this scarring and constriction of the lungs need lung transplants to survive.