Dangerous Food Additives and Cancer Risk
Food additives surround us. They’re in almost all of the manufactured food in our supermarkets, aside from whole foods. Prepared, packaged and quick-to-eat meals are often littered with artificial flavors, preservatives, colors, and junky sweeteners.
The Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of over 3000 ingredients that can be added to foods. While this includes things like milk and eggs, it also includes chemical substances like yellow #5. The United States consumes over 1 billion pounds of chemical additives per year, which works out to between 6 to 9 pounds per person. That’s a lot of chemicals.
If you purchase boxed or prepared foods from the grocery store, you’re likely exposing yourself to large amounts of additives. Here is a list of six common food additives that might show up on your plate:
Artificial colors are found in foods that are dyed or colored using chemicals. They are usually listed on food labels as colors, for example, “yellow #5”, “caramel color”, or “FD&C Blue No.1”. These are just three examples, but they’re easy to spot as they have a color in the name.
Artificial colors are controversial since some of them are shown to come with certain health risks. A 2007 study shows that children can experience hyperactivity upon consuming artificial coloring. In another report distributed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a number of food coloring agents are listed as potentially carcinogenic and possibly linked to cancer. In this report, studies on animals showed tumor growth in the bladder, thyroid and other body systems. Here is an interesting article by Dr. Mercola that highlights a few other common food colors and their associated risks. Each color has its own unique chemical combination and can come with different health impacts.
If you’ve heard anything about the dangers of food additives, you’re probably familiar with Aspartame, a cost-effective way of sweetening foods without consuming sugar. Aspartame is made of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which has been altered to carry a methyl group making it taste “sweet.” It’s a common additive typically used in diet products (i.e. diet sodas) and other sugar-free foods. It also goes by the names Equal and NutraSweet. Aspartame is typically listed in the ingredients list as Aspartame.
Aspartame has been associated with a number significant side-effects and health risks. It is believed to be a carcinogenic substance linking to certain cancers, as studies have shown tumor growth on the thyroid, liver, and testes of rats. When studied in infant mice, neurotoxicity was also evident. Other risks include seizures, headaches, depression, anxiety, heart palpitations, and more. Aspartame has always been a controversial additive as it has a long history of challenges since its original discovery.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS):
Known as the cheapest way of sweetening foods and drinks, HFCS is made from corn and has a higher amount of fructose than glucose, which affects how it’s metabolized in the body. It’s easily found on ingredient labels and is often one of the first few ingredients in sweetened foods and drinks.
HFCS has been linked to diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome issues. The metabolism of HFCS is a little different than your standard sugar. Fructose is transported to the liver for conversion into glucose, the sugar that our body uses for energy. If there is enough glucose in the body, the fructose is then converted to fat and stored in our adipose tissues. This can increase obesity and raises your LDL-cholesterol levels. There is also evidence that consumption of refined sugars, especially fructose, feeds cancer cells and can increase proliferation of these cells.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG has become a popular additive in recent years with the boom of prepared foods. Monosodium Glutamate is a form of naturally occurring glutamate. It’s often used as a flavor enhancer and is popular in take-out foods, soups, spices, soy, chips and more. MSG can be very hard to find listed on an ingredient label, so look for these ingredients that often have MSG in themselves: Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein, natural flavorings, spices and yeast extract.
Aside from being a flavor enhancer, another of the dangers of food additives like MSG is that it’s an excitotoxin which has the ability to “excite” our cells so much that they become damaged or die. Glutamate receptors exist in our brain, which is why MSG is associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Receptors are also located in our heart, and when excessively stimulated can cause cardiac arrhythmias. Some individuals claim they are sensitive to MSG, and experience some of the following symptoms after consumption: numbness, tingling, headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, and weakness. It has also been said to promote cancer growth. However, eating minimal amounts of it doesn’t seem to pose any immediate cancer risk. But more studies are needed as many MSG-related studies are outdated.
Sodium nitrate (or nitrite) is a common additive in cured meats, like bacon, sandwich meat, and hot dogs, as it acts as a flavorant, colorant and preservative. It turns meats red and makes them appear more vibrant to consumers. Sodium nitrate is typically listed in a food’s ingredients list as “sodium nitrite” or “sodium nitrate.”
Food additives and cancer are particularly relevant when it comes to sodium nitrate. It is highly toxic and carcinogenic to our digestive system. This additive has been linked to cancer, quite publicly, in recent years. A study performed in Hawaii has linked intake of processed meat (with nitrates) to pancreatic cancers. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified processed meats as carcinogenic, linking them to increased colon cancer. While they weren’t specific as to why, nitrates are speculated to be the cause.
Trans fat is often used to extend the shelf-life of preserved foods and improve their flavor. Trans fat is a cost-effective form of fat since it takes a long time before it turns rancid. It’s often found in baked goods, margarine, and fast foods, and is typically listed on ingredient labels as “trans fat” or “partially hydrogenated oil.”
Trans fats are simply regular fats that have been processed via hydrogenation, which affects the structure of the fat molecules. One of the big dangers of food additives like trans fats is that their fat molecules are foreign to our bodies, leading to a number of health risks. These can include obesity, increase in LDL cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Fortunately, trans fats are generally accepted as unhealthy, and some countries have outright banned the use of trans-fats in foods. Others have simply limited the amount of trans fat in products.
Any prepared or packaged foods can be filled with additives and preservatives. If it comes from a box or was made at a factory, it’s highly likely that special ingredients were added to keep it tasting “good” for longer. Some of the most common foods with additives include:
Pre-packaged snacks and granola bars. Healthy swap: try homemade protein balls and granola bars
Frozen meals, restaurant meals. Healthy swap: make dinners at home, and if you don’t have time to fuss over the meal prep on a busy evening, plan ahead and schedule your meal-prep on the weekends.
Jams, peanut butter, spreads. Healthy swap: look for spreads with no added sugar, or flavors, or make your own with real fruit or nuts.
Cereals. Healthy swap: Choose whole grains like oatmeal or buckwheat grains and cook them up for breakfast. Make homemade granola at home and enjoy it with unsweetened, full-fat Greek yogurt.
Sodas, juices and bottled drinks. Healthy swap: Choose water every time, and add lemon, lime or fruit if you need more flavor.
Sauces, dressings or spice mixes. Healthy swap: make your own sauces and spices at home by blending your favorite whole-food ingredients and single-spices.
Canned soup, beans, meals. Healthy swap: simply make each of these meals from fresh ingredients using a slow-cooker.
Deli meats, hot dogs, sausages and processed meats. Healthy swap: use slices of real chicken breast and always choose whole meats, not processed.
The best thing you can do to avoid the dangers of food additives and cancer risk is to stay away from the prepared foods entirely. But we all know that’s not always possible in today’s world. There are a number of great alternatives on the market; you just need to know what to look for. Read the ingredients list and make sure that you know what everything is. If the ingredient list is short, filled with whole foods, and contains no added flavors, colors or preservatives, chances are it’s okay to consume. Always do your due diligence when your health is on the line.