Twelve Food Additives to Avoid

The additives in processed food don't sound like much, but they matter. (Photo: Africa Studio/

You may be familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen produce list. Each year, the organization releases a list of produce ranked by their pesticide load, and the Dirty Dozen are the top 12 fruits and vegetables that have the highest load.

The EWG has released a different Dirty Dozen list, the Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives. Of the more than 10,000 additives that can be used in processed foods during formulation or during the processing, storage, and packaging of foods, these 12 are the ones EWG that has determined are the most important to pay attention to.

Nitrates and nitrites. Often found in cured meats like hot dogs, lunch meats, and ham, nitrates or nitrites are chemicals commonly used as coloring agents, preservatives and flavoring. Studies have linked nitrates and nitrites to cancer, and scientists for the World Health Organization believe they are probable human carcinogens.

Potassium bromate. Potassium bromate is used in bread and cracker dough to help it rise during baking. It’s prohibited in the United Kingdom, the EU and Canada because it’s believed to be a carcinogen.

Propyl paraben. This chemical falls under the government’s classification of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), but additives classified as such are not required to undergo pre-market review and approval. Propyl paraben is a preservative in foods like tortillas, muffins and food dyes. It’s been linked to decreased sperm counts, the acceleration of the growth of breast cancer cells, and impaired fertility in women.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). This preservative that’s commonly found in chips and preserved meats also has a GRAS certification, but many scientific organizations consider it a possible human carcinogen. It may also be an endocrine disrupter and may be part of the reason that male frogs are transforming into female frogs.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHA’s chemical cousin, also classified as GRAS, is another preservative. Studies have shown it may cause cancer in animals, disrupt endocrine signaling, and affect motor skills and coordination.

Propyl gallate. Another GRAS classified additive on the Dirty Dozen list, propyl gallate is a preservative in products that contain edible fats, such as sausage and lard. It is associated with tumors in rats, and the European Food Safety Authority believes the studies on the additive are outdated, calling into question its GRAS classification.

Theobromine. EWG believes the FDA has failed us concerning many additives classified as GRAS, and the Dirty Dozen Guide points to theobromine as an example of how the FDA’s GRAS classification works. Theobromine is an alkaloid found in chocolate and has a caffeine-like effect. Although the FDA questioned theobromine’s classification, because additives can be designated as GRAS by “expert panels” and not the FDA, even if an additive is questioned by the FDA, it can still hold that classification “outside FDA oversight.”

Secret flavor ingredients. When you see the terms “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors” on an ingredient list, you have no idea what they mean. The EWG advocates food companies must be required to fully disclose their ingredients and not be allowed to use vague terms like “natural or artificial flavors.”

Artificial colors. Some people, particularly children, may be sensitive to food dyes and it can affect their behavior, including causing hyperactivity and hindering the ability to pay attention.

Diacetyl.This additive is mostly associated with microwave popcorn, although it can be found in other foods like yogurt and butter. It's linked to a severe and irreversible respiratory condition called bronchiolitis obliterans. Those most at risk of getting this condition are the workers in the plants where it’s used, like the workers in a microwave popcorn plant who needed lung transplants in their 30s.

Phosphates. Among the most common food additives, phosphates are used to leaven baked goods, reduce acid and improve moisture retention and tenderness in processed meats. They’re linked to cardiovascular issues and are especially problems for those with kidney disease.

Aluminum additives. Used as food stabilizers, this additive is on EWG’s watch list because a build up of aluminum is linked to neurological effects such as changes in behavior, learning and motor response and possibly Alzheimer’s.

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives may have scared you into never putting another morsel of food into your mouth, but don’t worry. You can still eat. Choosing whole, unprocessed foods, will help you to avoid most of the additives on this Dirty Dozen list.

The EWG also suggests using the new EWG Food Scores website and app to find foods without these additives. I had a preview of the app at the James Beard Food Awards, but I haven’t had a chance to really get into it and play around. It’s a database of more than 80,000 foods scored by their nutrition, ingredient concerns and processing.