Coloring agents Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6Sean MacD/ShutterstockThese numerical hues might sound harmless, even right out of a Dr. Seuss book, but they're code names for synthetic food dyes. These chemicals are common in the United States and they're used to make food more attractive and appetizing—especially for kids. Think: fluorescent juices, rainbow cereals, multi-hued candy. "In Europe, many products with food dyes have been taken off the shelves, labeled as dangerous, or had the dye removed as they have been linked to hyperactivity in children," says Eliza Savage, RD, New York City-based dietitian. "Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also reported that dyes may cause organ damage, cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, hyperactivity or behavioral problems in children whether or not should be banned in US." That's right—their nutritional purpose is nonexistent—they're merely a cosmetic enhancement of food.
katueng/ShutterstockRemember this one? Meet Procter & Gamble's unique creation—a synthetic fat that first hit markets in the late 1990s. This fat substitute has been used in the preparation of normally high-fat foods such as potato chips, french fries, corn chips, etc. "It passes through the digestive tract, so it provides no calories," explains Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook. "Olestra can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and gas—and symptoms can become severe, depending on how much is eaten." Amidor also notes that Olestra can reduce the body's ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and several carotenoid-based phytonutrients such as lutein and lycopene. This synthetic fat is banned in Canada and the U.K., but readily available on our home turf.
Potassium bromate (brominated flour)
Dario Lo Presti/ShutterstockThis flour "improver" acts as a strengthener for dough and allows it to rise to higher levels. It's banned for use in foods in many countries, though it's allowed in the United States. "Most of the bromate used in food quickly breaks down to form bromide, which is harmless," says Amidor. "However, it is believed that a small amount of bromate still remains long after the break-down cycle, and may be a cancer-risk to consumers." Many food manufacturers have stopped using bromate, though the FDA does approve its use in the malting of barley under specified conditions. It can be found in everything from hot dog buns to breakfast sandwiches. (Make sure you're also avoiding bleached white flour.)
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Azodicarbonamide (ADC)seen0001/ShutterstockADC is another flour improver and bleaching agent that has been used by commercial bakers since the 1960s to strengthen dough. "Concerns about ADC include two chemicals that form when the bread is baked," explains Amidor. "The first chemical is semicarbazide (SEM), which has been linked to cancer of the lungs and blood vessels in mice, but not in rats, and the second chemical is urethane, which has been linked to cancer." The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has continued to evaluate the safe use of ADA in foods and enforces a maximum allowable level for use in flour, bread and rolls. However, ADC is banned in Europe, Australia, and Singapore.
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)
Kwangmoozaa/ShutterstockThis food additive has long been banned in Europe and Japan, but is labeled as "generally recognized as safe," in the U.S.—although it's one of the questionable ingredients that can turn up in supposedly healthy snacks. It's used in certain sodas and sports drinks to keep citrus flavoring from separating out. "Several companies have removed BVO from most of their beverage offerings," says Amidor. "In 1970, the FDA removed BVO from their GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list and made it allowable on a temporary basis pending further studies." Since then, it's landed back on the GRAS list. "BVO is still poorly studied, but animal studies do indicate that it is transferred through breast milk and may lead to issues with the heart, liver, and behavioral development," Amidor adds.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
mrivserg/ShutterstockThese food preservatives are mixtures of organic compounds, and they make some experts nervous. "BHA and BHT helps prevent foods from going rancid by helping to stop oxygen from mixing with oils in the food," explains Savage—the fat is unstable and can spoil quickly. Where can you find it? Packaged meat products, soup mixes, mayonnaise, frozen meals, etc. While some studies have found them to be relatively safe, others have linked them to stomach and skin irritation, allergic reactions, and kidney or liver problems.
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Synthetic hormones (rBGH and rBST)
SunnyToys/ShutterstockThe thought of hormones being used in our food is unsettling enough—then, couple that with the fact that they're being injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. "This practice has been linked to increases in cancer risk and is banned in European nation and Canada to protect citizen from IGF-1 hazards including breast, prostate and colon cancer," explains Savage; it's also one of the toxic things that can end up on your kid's plate. Whether or not it should be banned in the U.S. is an easy question for dietitians and food safety experts to answer: "YES. rBGH and other hormones cause cows to produce more milk, but also stimulates the increase of IGF-1, a growth hormone in the cows," Savage says. "Humans drink this milk, and the IGF-1 is not readily destroyed but rather absorbed into the bloodstream where it can affect other hormones and potentially lead to cancer." A safer bet would be to choose organic, hormone and antibiotic-free milk.
Anton Prohorov/ShutterstockThis one has a long history of poisoning: Unfortunately, this ground metal is taken up by plants, and can turn up in high amounts in rice. With the increased use of certain pesticides, inorganic arsenic (not naturally occurring) levels are rising. "It's a carcinogen that can be dangerous to infants and a developing child's brain," warns Savage. (It's among the most dangerous substances that can sneak into healthy products.) "The rice cereal in the U.S. is monitored very closely by the FDA, but I would always recommend being your own advocate and looking into the products that you are serving your child and yourself." Arsenic is tough to totally eliminate, as it is a naturally occurring element, but Savage notes that some companies are aiming for levels that are "ALARA," or as low as reasonably achievable. Lundberg Organics has set its target for 10 parts per billion (ppb)—ten times lower than the FDA established guidance level of 100 ppb in infant rice cereal. The European Food Safety Authority has set limits of 300 ppb for rice cakes and crackers, 250 ppb for brown rice,and then 100 ppb for infant cereals.
Africa Studio/ShutterstockYou may be surprised to know that that apple juice you feed your kids every morning may not be as "natural" as its label touts. The same goes for fresh apples you get at the grocery store. Ever wonder how they get their extra waxy texture and shine? The glossy look is the result of a compound derivative of aniline. It's a colorless solid that seals in DPA (a mixture of chemicals that keep the fruit looking fresh for longer) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recently blocked American apples treated with DPA. Why? DPA has been linked to various cancers. Far more research needs to be done to determine the extent of its danger, but Europe is taking the tack of waiting until DPA is proven safe before accepting the foods treated with the chemical.
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