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Cancer Causing Food Additives to Avoid

While the FDA may think some of these additives are safe, known carcinogens are still being allowed to be used in the manufacture of foods and drinks. These are additives you should subtract from your diet immediately.

  • Acesulfame-K: This artificial sweetener is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Since 1998, the FDA has allowed this chemical to be used in soft drinks, along with chewing gum, sugar-free baked goods, and gelatin desserts. It is often used along with sucralose. Two rat studies suggest that acesulfame-K may cause cancer, and large doses of a breakdown product, acetoacetamide, have been shown to impact the thyroid in lab animals. A study published in 2008 found that acesulfame-K and saccharine caused more damage to DNA in mice than did another artificial sweetener, aspartame. (Bandvopadhvay 2008)
  • Artificial colorings: All artificial colorings are on the CSPI “avoid or best to avoid” list, even though they are all acceptable according to the FDA. The artificial colorings you may see on food labels include blue 1 and 2, green 3, citrus red 2, red 3, red 40 (most widely used), yellow 5 (may cause allergic reactions), and yellow 6.
  • Artificial and natural flavoring: The food industry uses hundreds of chemicals to mimic natural flavors, and most of them are used in junk foods. When you see the words artificial flavoring or natural flavoring, it usually means that the real thing, often fruit, has been left out. Because companies keep the identity of artificial and natural flavorings a proprietary secret, you don’t know what you are consuming, so it is best to avoid them.
  • Aspartame: You may know it as Equal or NutraSweet, but it is really a combination of two amino acids and methanol. For decades, scientists have been conducting studies and suggesting that aspartame causes cancer, but each time the FDA refused to accept the recommendation that the sweetener be banned. In 1970 a study suggested it caused brain tumors in rats; in 2005 an Italian study found that it caused lymphomas and leukemias in male and female rats. (Soffritti 2005) A 2006 study by the same Italian researchers exposed rats to aspartame in utero and found that the chemical caused leukemias, lymphomas, and breast cancer. (Soffritti 2006) The National Cancer Institute conducted a five-year study of people aged 50 to 69 and reported in 2006 that aspartame appeared to pose no risk of cancer. (Lim 2006) The study had several limitations; for example, it was not controlled (participants reported a rough estimate of how much aspartame they consumed) and the participants had not consumed aspartame as children (a critical exposure time). The CSPI concludes that lifelong consumption of aspartame probably increases a person’s risk of cancer, and that everyone, especially young children, should not consume foods and beverages that contain it.
  • Brominated vegetable oil: This substance is used in some citrus-flavored soft drinks to keep flavor oils in suspension. When you consume brominated vegetable oil, it leaves small residues in body fat. Is this dangerous? No one knows, which is a signal to avoid it. Fortunately, this additive is not used often.
  • Butylated hydroxyganisole (BHA): This additive retards rancidity in oils, fats, and foods that contain oil. Study results do not agree, as some indicate BHA causes cancer in lab animals while others do not. The results have been convincing enough for the US Department of Health and Human Services, however, which considers BHA to be  reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. Yet while one government entity says one thing, another department says something else, and the FDA says BHA is safe enough to be added to foods.
  • Butylated hydroxytoloene (BHT): You will see this additive in items such as cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and oils. It is added to retard rancidity in oils. In various animal studies BHT either increased or decreased the risk of cancer. Residues of BHT are found in human fat. It seems clear: avoid this additive.
  • Caffeine: We’re not asking you to give up your coffee, although it is a good idea to limit yourself to just a cup or two daily. The caffeine we are talking about here is what manufacturers add to food, beverages, and supplements. Caffeine is a drug, and the only one that is found naturally or added to a wide variety of foods. (Quinine is the other drug used in foods.) If you are already drinking coffee and you are consuming other products that contain caffeine, such as energy drinks, gum, cocoa and chocolate, tea, and coffee-flavored yogurt and desserts, you are likely getting more caffeine than you bargained for. Caffeine can affect sleep, cause jitteriness, and have a negative impact on calcium metabolism. You don’t need it, so check labels (and that includes supplements and over-the-counter medications) and avoid it.
  • Carmine/Cochineal extract: Conchineal extract is a coloring obtained from the cochineal insect, which lives on cacti. Carmine is a more purified coloring also made form cochineal. In both cases, carminic acid provides the color, which is used in candy, yogurt, ice cream, beverages, and other foods, as well as in cosmetics and drugs. A small percentage of consumers experience allergic reactions to this coloring, ranging from hives to anaphylactic shock. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration gave food manufacturers until January 1, 2011, to begin accurately identifying the colorings on food labels as carmine or cochineal extract rather than as ‘artificial coloring’ or ‘color added’ as they do now.
  • Carrageenan: The Centers for Science in the Public Interest says this seaweed product is safe in small amounts, but some people disagree. Carrageenan has been found to cause colitis and anaphylasis in humans and to harm test animals’ colons when given in large amounts. Read labels to discover this thickening, gelling, and stabilizing agent in ice cream, jelly, chocolate milk, infant formula, and cottage cheese, among other items, and then put the item back on the shelf.
  • Corn syrup: Corn syrup contributes empty calories, promotes tooth decay, and is used in foods that have little to no nutritional value. Candy, marshmallows, syrups, snack foods, and imitation dairy foods often contain corn syrup. To make matters worse, several recent studies have reported the presence of mercury in high fructose corn syrup. (Dufault 2009)
  • Dextrose: This sugar is found naturally in fruit and honey, but it is often added to foods as a sweetener, contributing empty calories and a greater risk of tooth decay. And as you’ll read in chapter 18 on limiting liabilities, sugar is a definite no-no for prostate and overall health because of its cancer-promoting properties and lack of nutritional value, among other  merits. Food manufacturers dump dextrose into everything from bread to soda pop.
  • Diacetyl: If you eat butter flavored  popcorn or cooking oils, then you are probably ingesting diacetyl. Low amounts of this chemical are found in butter, but much higher levels are used in butter-flavored foods. After long-term exposure to diacetyl by workers in factories that produce microwave popcorn resulted in the development of obstructive lung disease, many food producers stopped using the ingredient. But it’s still out there.
  • Fructose: Fruits and veggies contain a small amount of fructose, but food producers also use this sweetener. You can also get fructose in your diet from foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, another sweetener you want to avoid (see entry below). Food manufacturers sometimes promote fructose as being healthier than high-fructose corn syrup, but that’s just a sweet deception. Although modest amounts of fructose do not raise blood glucose levels, which is a concern for diabetics, large amounts (and the definition of “large” really depends on the individual) can increase triglyceride levels and thus the risk of heart disease. Lots of fructose can also elevate levels of the hormones leptin, insulin, and ghrelin, which regulate appetite and thus can contribute to weight gain.
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Food manufacturers like this sweet syrupy liquid because it’s cheaper than sugar and has a very long shelf life. But that’s what’s good about it for manufacturers. What about you? You may have seen commercials in which high-fructose corn syrup is promoted as “natural” and in moderation, a part of a good healthy diet. High-fructose corn syrup, which begins its life as cornstarch, is not exactly natural, because it is made sweeter via a process that converts the starch into glucose subunits, which are then transformed to fructose. And there isn’t anything healthy about it, as its use has been associated with weight gain, damage to the liver and other organs, and an increase in insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes. Fructose must be metabolized by the liver, and if the liver has too much fructose to process, it can damage the organ, causing, for example, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. High-fructose corn syrup is found in hundreds, probably thousands of processed foods. Avoid it when possible.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate (HSH): This is another sweetener often used in dietetic and reduced-calorie foods. It is poorly absorbed by the body and can cause intestinal gas and diarrhea. Thus, you don’t need it.
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP): HVP consists of vegetable protein  (usually soybean but also corn or wheat) that has been boiled in hydrochloric acid and then neutralized with sodium hydroxide. HVP is used to enhance the natural flavor of food and contains monosodium glutamate (MSG; see below), which can cause adverse reactions in sensitive people.
  • Lactitol: This sugar alcohol and sweetener is made from lactose, or milk sugar. It is not absorbed well by the body and does not promote tooth decay. However, it can cause diarrhea or loose stools if consumed in large amounts (more than 20 grams). Lactitol is found in candies, baked goods, ice cream, and sugar-free foods.
  • Lactose: This is a carbohydrate found only in milk, which is where it belongs because it is Nature’s way of delivering nutrients to infants. Lactose is added to foods as a mildly sweet source of carbohydrate. Many people are lactose intolerant and experience gas and stomach discomfort when ingesting lactose.
  • Maltitol: Another sweetener and sugar alcohol, it is not absorbed well by the body and does not promote tooth decay. However, like lactitol, it can cause loose stools or diarrhea if consumed in large amounts. Maltitol is made by hydrogenating maltose, which is obtained from corn syrup. It is a common ingredient in candies, chocolates, jams, and other sugar-free foods.
  • Mannitol: Have you ever noticed that some chewing gum looks dusty? That’s mannitol. Like other sugar alcohols, it is not absorbed well by the body and does not promote cavities. The FDA requires foods whose reasonably foreseeable consumption may result in a daily ingestion of 20 grams of mannitol to put the following warning on its products: Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): MSG is a flavor enhancer and allows companies to reduce the amount of real ingredients in their products; for example, the amount of beef in beef soup. Some people are sensitive to MSG and may experience headache, nausea, weakness, and a burning sensation in the back of the neck and forearms.
  • Mycoprotein: This is a unique ingredient found in a frozen meat substitute called Quorn, which is made from processed mold (Fusarium venenatum).  The products are advertised as being mushroom in origin, which is not accurate because the mold or fungus from which the products are made does not produce mushrooms. In fact, the mold is grown in liquid solution in large tanks. Quorn products have been available in the UK and Europe since the 1990s and in the United States since 2002. Quorn foods are meat-free and high in protein, but they have been associated with side effects, including vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and hives in some people. In summer 2009, a woman in Arizona sued Quorn after she got violently ill shortly after eating the products. Although both the British and American governments acknowledge that Quorn foods can cause allergic reactions in some people, they have not agreed to require Quorn foods to bear a warning label.
  • Olestra: This synthetic fat, made by Procter & Gamble, is marketed as a no-fat additive, as it passes through the digestive system without being absorbed. People who eat foods that contain Olestra pay a price for using this fat replacement, is it can cause diarrhea and loose stools, abdominal cramps, flatulence, and other adverse effects. Olestra also reduces the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble carotenoids from fruits and vegetables. Foods that contain Olestra are not really fat-free because they contain substantial amounts of indigestible fat.
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil: This oil reduces the levels of polyunsaturated oils and also creates trans fats, which promote heart disease and have been declared by the Food and Drug Administration to be even more harmful than saturated fat. The Harvard School of Public Health researchers have estimated that trans fat has been causing about 50,000 premature heart attack deaths per year. Consumers should know that Nutrition Facts labels are required to list the amount of trans fat in a serving, but that foods labeled as having 0 g trans fat are allowed to contain 0.5 g per servings, while  no trans fat means the food is trans fat free. Although the use of partially hydrogenated oil in fast food and processed foods has declined, there are still many foods that contain this unhealthy fat.
  • Polydextrose: This additive is a bulking agent and is found in baked goods, candies, puddings, frozen desserts, and salad dressings, among other foods. It is made by combining dextrose with sorbitol, resulting in a slightly sweet, reduced-calorie substance. The FDA has decided that if a serving of a food will probably provide you with more than 15 grams of polydextrose, the label will warn you that Sensitive individuals may experience a laxative effect from excessive consumption of this product. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
  • Potassium bromate: This food additive is used to increase the volume of bread and to produce bread with a fine crumb structure. Bromate causes cancer in animals, and tiny amounts that may remain in bread pose a small risk to consumers. Bromate has been banned around the world except in the United States and Japan.
  • Propyl gallate: This additive is used to retard the spoilage of oils and fats and is often used along with BHA and BHT because of their synergistic effects. Studies have suggested that this preservative may cause cancer in animals.
  • Saccharin: Saccharin (sold as Sweet ‘N Low) is 350 times sweeter than sugar and is used in diet foods or as a tabletop sugar substitute. Several studies have shown that saccharin causes cancer of the uterus, ovaries, skin, blood vessels, and other organs in rodents. A National Cancer Institute study found that use of saccharin and cyclamate (which has been banned) was associated with a higher incidence of bladder cancer. (Natl Cancer Inst)  In 1977, the FDA proposed that saccharin be banned, but Congress voted to allow its continued use provided that foods that contained it carry a warning label. In May 2000, the US Department of Health and Human Services removed saccharin from its list of cancer-causing substances.
  • Sodium benzoate, benzoic acid: These preservatives are found primarily in fruit juice, carbonated drinks, some condiments, and pickles, and they prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. Although they appear to be safe for many people, sensitive individuals may experience hives, asthma, or other allergic reactions. If sodium benzoate is used in beverages that also contain vitamin C (ascorbic acid), the two substances, in an acidic solution, can react and form small amounts of benzene, a chemical that cause cancer. Although the risk is small, it is real. A 2006 lawsuit finally forced soft drink makers in the US to reformulate their beverages to remove the substance.
  • Sodium nitrite/nitrate: Sodium nitrite stabilizes the red color in cured meat and provides a characteristic flavor, while sodium nitrate is used in dry cured meat because it slowly breaks down into nitrite. The addition of nitrite to food can lead to the development of small amounts of cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Food manufacturers now add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to bacon to inhibit the formation of nitrosamine, which has greatly reduced the problem. However, several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer. Thus avoidance of nitrite and nitrate is still recommended.
  • Sorbitol: Yet another sweetener, but this one also is a thickening agent and helps maintain moisture. It can be found in dietetic drinks and foods, candy, shredded coconut, and chewing gum. It is half as sweet as sugar and is used by some diabetics because sorbitol is absorbed more slowly and does not cause blood sugar levels to spike. Sorbitol is a natural laxative and can cause diarrhea and stomach pain and exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome. Some people have reported dizziness, dry mouth, and abdominal bloating. The FDA requires food producers to label items  whose reasonably foreseeable consumption may result in a daily ingestion of 50 grams of sorbitol with the warning Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.
  • Sulfites (Sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfate): Sulfites are used to prevent discoloration (in dried fruit, some dried, fried, or frozen potatoes, seafood, vegetables) and bacterial growth (in wines). At the same time, they also destroy vitamin B1 and can cause severe reactions in sensitive individuals, especially asthmatics. The FDA has banned the most dangerous uses of sulfites and now requires that wine labels list sulfite when used. When shopping for dried fruit, wine, or other foods that may contain sulfites, look for brands that say no sulfites or sulfur-free.
  • Xylitol: A sugar alcohol and sweetener that is found in sugar-free chewing gum and low-calorie foods. Like the other sugar alcohols, it is not well absorbed by the body and does not promote tooth decay. Large amounts may have a laxative effect.


Site last updated 21 October, 2016



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