Aluminum is a metallic element that makes up about 8.2 percent of the earth’s crust. Since the discovery of cheap processes to extract aluminum from compounds like aluminum oxide and bauxite in the late 1800s, aluminum has been used in a variety industries and products. The human body does not need aluminum, but because food additives and cooking utensils contain aluminum, you may get exposed to this potentially harmful element.
Because aluminum makes up a significant portion of the earth’s crust, soil and water contain aluminum, which means that most foods contain at least trace amounts of this metal. Ingesting small amounts of aluminum may not cause harm, but over time aluminum builds up within your body. Some foods, like baking powder and processed cheeses, have higher than natural levels of aluminum because they contain aluminum-based food additives. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers the following food additives as “GRAS – Generally Recognized as Safe”: aluminum ammonium sulfate, aluminum calcium silicate, aluminum nicotinate, aluminum potassium sulfate, aluminum sodium sulfate, aluminum stearate, sodium aluminum phosphate and aluminum sulfate. Many still question the safety of these food additives, however. The group known as the Department of the Planet Earth petitioned the FDA in September 2005 to rescind the GRAS rating for these additives, citing studies linking aluminum food additive ingestion to Alzheimer’s disease. Studies haven't conclusively proven a connection, however, according to Health Canada.
Even if you avoid eating foods containing aluminum food additives, you could be adding aluminum to your food without even realizing it. Cookware manufacturers choose to use aluminum because it conducts heat effectively and uniformly, allowing foods to cook evenly. Cooking foods, especially acidic foods like fruits, tomatoes and wine, in pans made from aluminum can cause aluminum to leach into your food. To prevent this, manufacturers developed anodized aluminum, which retains the heat conductivity properties but creates a hard surface that does not react with food. To prevent scratches that can harm the surface and allow aluminum into your food, use only wood or plastic utensils when cooking food in these pans.
Pickles may contain a significant level of aluminum. Some manufacturers add alum, an aluminum salt such as aluminum sulfate or potassium aluminum sulfate, during the pickling process to add firmness and crispness to the pickles. You can avoid ingesting aluminum by choosing pickles that do not contain alum. However, a variety of other products that you use daily, including deodorants and antacid medications, also contain aluminum salts, increasing your exposure.
Effects of Aluminum
The New York University Langone Medical Center reports that although small amounts of aluminum usually cause no harm, prolonged exposure or exposure to high levels can cause serious medical problems. Harmful exposure occurs over time, from eating foods that contain the food additive sodium aluminum phosphate or from living near aluminum mining. Short-term exposure, such as from breathing aluminum dust in the workplace, is also harmful. Aluminum toxicity affects the musculoskeletal system and brain, causing muscle weakness, bone pain, osteoporosis, delayed growth in children, altered mental abilities, dementia and seizures.
- New York University Langone Medical Center; Aluminum Poisoning; McCoy Krisha; September 2010
- Michigan State University Extension; Cookware Today; June 2003
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Petition to Rescind the “Generally Recognized as Safe” Status for Aluminum Based Food Additives; September 2005
- “Journal of Food Science”; Influence of Alum on the Firmness of Fresh-Packed Dill Pickles; 1972
- Health Canada: Review of Dietary Exposure to Aluminum