The U.S. Food and Drug Administration database includes an extensive list of more than 3,000 food additives commonly used in processed foods. Food additives may vary from common food ingredients such as sugar and salt to the uncommon and abbreviated ones such as acesulfame-potassium and BHA. These additives help maintain freshness, add flavor, improve taste and prolong shelf life of processed foods. Although considered safe in amounts typically consumed, some food additives may have a negative impact on health.
Acesulfame-potassium, or acesulfame-K, is an artificial sweetener that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and used in many foods including baked foods, diet sodas, sugar-free gum, mouthwash and toothpaste. The Center for Science in the Public Interest urges consumers to avoid acesulfame-K because animal studies suggest it may cause cancer and affect the thyroid. Research published in "Preventive Medicine" in 2008 found that consumption of artificial sweeteners for more than 10 years was associated with development of urinary tract tumors. Furthermore, a study in the journal “PLoS One” in 2013 reports that drinking artificially sweetened soda during pregnancy may increase the risk of asthma and allergies in children.
Aspartame, another artificial sweetener found in more than 6,000 products, has been associated with cancer. Its widespread use and possible role as a carcinogen in both animal and epidemiological studies calls for prompt action of regulatory agencies to re-evaluate use of aspartame, according to an article published in March 2014 in the “American Journal of Industrial Medicine.”
Brightly colored foods like candy, gelatin desserts and carbonated drinks contain food colors made from chemicals that should be avoided, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. These include food colors such as Blue 1, Blue 2 and Red 3 that have been associated with cancer in animal studies; Red 40 with allergylike reactions; Yellow 5 with hypersensitivity and hyperactivity in children; and Yellow 6 with adrenal gland and kidney tumors in animals.
Caramel coloring, a food additive that gives color to cola products, beer, baked products, sauces and chocolate products, contains two compounds, 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, that are known to cause cancers in animals. According to a 2012 article in the “International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health,” amounts of these chemicals in caramel food coloring often exceed guidelines. The author recommends the FDA follow the California State law requiring a warning on food labels that may provide more than 30 micrograms of this coloring per day.
Butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA; propyl gallate; and tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ are three chemical antioxidants added to vegetable oils and fried foods such as potato chips. They inhibit rancidity in fats and oils and increase shelf life of processed foods. The Center for Science in the Public Interest cautions that these food additives may be associated with cancer in experimental studies and recommends limited consumption of foods containing these chemical antioxidants.
Addition of hydrogen to vegetable oil produces a butterlike food ingredient called partially hydrogenated vegetable oil which contains trans fats. Trans fats increase risk of cardiovascular diseases and deaths due to heart attacks more than saturated fats. Read the ingredient list on food labels and avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetables oil.
Olestra, a man-made fat, gives fried foods such as chips the look and taste of regular chips without adding to the calorie intake because it is not digested in the body. In addition to inhibiting absorption of fat-soluble carotenoids from fruits and vegetables, olestra intake may cause flatulence, cramps and diarrhea, which may be severe in some cases.
Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrites are two common preservatives used in processed meats to maintain red color and prevent bacterial growth. These include hot dogs, ham, bacon and luncheon meats. Consumption of foods rich in nitrates and nitrites can increase the risk of cancer due to the formation of carcinogenic compounds called nitrosoamines, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.