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6 Harmful Additives Still on U.S. Shelves

It feels like there’s a new headline every week about toxic ingredients. These headlines blame food additives for everything from hyperactivity in kids to cancer. But if these additives so bad, why are they still on U.S. shelves?


It feels like there’s a new headline every week about toxic ingredients. These headlines blame food additives for everything from hyperactivity in kids to cancer. But if these additives so bad, why are they still on U.S. shelves?

It turns out there is a ton of disagreement on which additives are safe, and which ones are dangerous. The disagreements occur between people, countries, companies, and scientists.

Many additives you can easily find on American shelves are banned in other countries.

Let’s have a look at the additives (and the actual, unbiased research behind their dangers).

Don’t care to read the research-based overview and background of each? Scroll down for a table summary.

6 Harmful Additives Still on U.S. Shelves (Evidence-based)

Donuts with sprinkles trans fats

1. Trans (hydrogenated) fats

While trans fats do occur in small amounts in nature (animal products), they are primarily created through altering the structure of liquid vegetable oil by drowning it in hydrogen gas until it becomes solid.

Think of it this way: normally, some fats are liquid at room temperature and some fats are solid. Trans fats are liquid fats that undergo a harsh chemical process (hydrogenation) to turn them into solids.

While the FDA and other regulatory bodies know about the harms associated with trans fats, they continue to populate U.S. shelves (though they are being phased out).

Increased risk of:

  • Stroke: This study found that with every additional 2 grams of trans fats consumed per day, men experienced a 14% increase in risk of stroke.
  • Heart Disease: Consumption of trans fats is associated with increased risk of heart disease, according to studies 123, and 4.
  • Diabetes: Animal studies consistently show that high intake of trans fats is associated with poorly functioning insulin and glucose (not sure how these normally function? Check out this blog). Human studies have mixed results, though its important to note that one study of 80,000 women found high trans fat intake increased diabetes risk by 40%.
  • Bad cholesterol: When trans fats replace other fats already present in the diet, “bad” cholesterol (LDL) goes up, and “good” cholesterol (HDL) goes down (according to this meta-analysis).

 fries preservatives and additives fried

2. BHT & BHA (Butylated hydroxytoluene, hydroxianisole)

BHT & BHA are used to prevent oils and other packaged ingredients from oxidizing or spoiling. This makes these synthesized compounds antioxidants, which you’d think would be a good thing. Unfortunately, any beneficial antioxidant effects they may have are overshadowed by their cancer-promoting effects.

Increased risk of:

  • Impaired blood clotting: While this effect may only occur at higher doses, it’s still a potentially dangerous side effect that occurs in animals in multiple studies.
  • Tumor growth: The vast majority of research shows both BHT & BHA to be tumor promoters (BHT report here and BHA report here).

skittles artificial coloring

3. Artificial food dyes

Artificial food dyes (AFDs) are generally synthesized from toxic substances (like petroleum), and exactly how harmful they are is dependent on the specific dye, its contaminants, and an individual’s allergies. Some studies have identified certain dyes (Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5 & 6) as being safe, while other specific dyes have been determined as non-safe (Red 3). Because these dyes are an entirely unnecessary component of processed foods (and because it’s too hard to remember which color and number pairings were deemed safe) it’s best to avoid them entirely.

Increased risk of:

  • Cancer: Most of the results that suggest increased tumor risk with AFD consumption have been in animals. However, many commonly-found contaminants are known carcinogens for humans, including benzidine. 
  • Hyperactivity (in kids): While the relationship between AFDs and ADHD/hyperactivity has been studied for more than 40 years, exactly how much of an effect AFD ingestion has on hyperactivity in kids still hasn’t been figured out, and seems to differ on a case-by-case basis. However, the evidence that does exist is too substantial to ignore, a full summary can be found here.

artificial sweeteners harm

4. Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame-potassium) are tricky, because if they assist people in facing the challenges of diabetes management or weight loss, they can be beneficial. However, in most cases, ingesting artificial sweeteners has no benefit, and instead can lead to other problems.

Increased risk of: 

  • Cardiovascular & metabolic problems: When the results of 37 trials and cohort studies were compared through a meta-analysis, artificial sweetener intake was associated with weight gain, increased waist circumference, and higher rates of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular issues.

olestra olean potato chips fat-replacer5. Olestra (Olean)

A zero-calorie fat-replacer, Olestra rose to popularity in the ’90s, and is most commonly found in chips. 

Increased risk of:

pretzels-fritters-baked-goods-food bromated flour

6. Potassium bromate (bromated flour)

A frequently-found additive in baked goods, bromated flour speeds up and generally “improves” the baking process. While the substance is recognized as harmful, it’s claimed that it changes during the baking process and becomes harmless. This claim is not true, and as a result its use in food is banned in a whole lot of places (from China to Canada)…and yet it’s perfectly legal here in the U.S.

Increased risk of:

  • Kidney failure: According to this review, potassium bromate is nephrotoxic to animals and humans, meaning it causes kidney damage.
  • Cancer: Potassium bromate has a documented ability to damage DNA, leading to cancerous tumors (review here).

Fitness formulary table for processed foods-2

Avoiding these ingredients is an important step in any healthy diet. For more guidance on what to look for on the labels of packaged foods, check out this blog post, and for clean-label staff picks, check out this one!

Which of these additives and their dangers surprised you? Why do you think the U.S. can be so slow to outlaw harmful additives? Drop a comment below.