You know that too much sugar is bad for you and that trans fats wreak havoc on your arteries. You also know that if you eat a lot of salt, your heart will suffer. But did you know that there are other things that are added to food that don’t “do your body good”? You may have read (and skipped right over) these ingredients on nutrition labels, not spending a lot of time wondering to yourself, “what the heck could this be?” Unfortunately, when it comes to food additives, what you don’t know (or are ignoring) may be hurting you. The side effects that you might experience can range from something as benign as a mild headache to as severe as a cancerous tumor. The key is to be aware and avoid (or limit) consuming them as much as possible. Here are the additives that are the worst for you.
Acesulfame potassium (also known as acesulfame K) is an artificial sweetener much like others on the market. It tastes 200 times sweeter than sugar. It’s used in a number of foods, including diet soda, baked goods, sugar-free gum, and fruit juices. Unfortunately, studies have shown that it may potentially cause cancer and negatively affect the thyroid. The Center for Science in the Public Interest warns people to avoid it. Pregnant? You really want to ditch it—at least until you give birth. A study published in PLOS ONE in 2013 reported that drinking artificially sweetened soda during pregnancy may increase the risk of asthma and allergies in children.
What could possibly be bad about a little fake color added to your food? A whole lot. Studies show that some artificial dyes have been found to cause thyroid, lymph, and kidney tumors; cause chromosomal damage; and spur lymphocytic lymphomas. The good news is that 17 of 24 synthetic dyes have been banned from use in American foods; the bad news is that seven still remain. Some foods are colored with naturally derived substances like beta-carotene and carmine, but many that are petroleum derived are still being added. Which ones are the worst? Red #3 (found in candy, baked goods, and desserts) has been associated with cancer in animal studies. Red #40 (found in drinks, desserts, candy, and pet food) causes allergy-like reactions. Yellow #5 (aka tartrazine) and Yellow #6 (found in breakfast cereals, soda, gelatin, popsicles, and frosting) cause hypersensitivity and hyperactivity in children and adrenal gland and kidney tumors in animals.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a chemical preservative and flavor enhancer that can be found in practically every aisle of the supermarket. More than 40 different forms are added to foods like potato chips, processed snacks, canned soup, fast food, salad dressing, sausages, and packaged rice mixes. You may not always recognize MSG on a label because it often gets hidden in foods under a different name. Be sure to look for these too: maltodextrin, sodium caseinate, autolyzed yeast, autolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or yeast extract. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported so many reactions to MSG that the side effects of consuming it have earned their own name: MSG symptom complex. People who suffer from it report headaches, flushing, sweating, chest pain, nausea, tightness in the chest, rapid heartbeat, and facial pressure after consuming MSG.
Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrites
Both these chemicals are salts that are added to meats to prevent bacterial growth and food spoilage. They not only act as preservatives but also give food a red or pink color. Sodium nitrate and nitrite are most often added to processed meats, including hot dogs, ham, bacon, kielbasa, and luncheon meats. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, eating foods that are high in nitrates and nitrites can increase your risk of cancer, brain tumors, leukemia, and nose and throat tumors.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), propyl gallate, and tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) are three chemical antioxidant food additives that contain oil and fat to keep food from spoiling and to preserve storage life. You can find these three (or some combination of them) in foods like vegetable oil, chicken soup base, potato chips, fried foods, and some meat products. The Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that these chemical antioxidants may be associated with cancer and recommends that you limit your consumption of foods containing them.
Aspartame (also known by its packaging design as “the little blue packet”) is a common artificial sweetener found in more than 6,000 products. It’s super controversial and has been studied extensively over the past 30 years. Although the FDA approved its use in the 1980s, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has offered numerous studies that show issues related to the consumption of this product. There are 92 known side effects associated with aspartame use, with the most common being headache, dizziness, change of mood, nausea, change in vision, vomiting, abdominal pain, and memory loss. Aspartame can be found in foods like diet soda, sugarless chewing gum, pudding, yogurt, salad dressing, fruit drinks, and cereal.