The Environmental Working Group – famous for its list of produce most likely to be contaminated with pesticides – has now released a “Dirty Dozen” guide for food additives. There are more than 10,000 additives in food distributed in the U.S., and EWG is trying to highlight “some of the worst failures of the regulatory system,” it says. The list includes:

  1. Nitrates and nitrites
  2. Potassium bromate
  3. Propyl paraben
  4. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  5. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  6. Propyl gallate
  7. Theobromine
  8. Secret flavor incredients
  9. Artificial colors
  10. Diacetyl
  11. Phosphates
  12. Aluminum additives

The report goes into detail about the concerns surrounding each additive. Some of them are known or possible carcinogens and some can have reproductive and developmental effects. EWG recommends that consumers avoid or consider avoiding the Dirty Dozen. Not only could this mean avoiding risky chemicals, but it could also mean improving overall diet, says the group, since food additives are most often found in highly processed, unhealthy foods. For the additives without definitive links to health concerns, EWG recommends limiting consumption until more information is available. The other aim of the list is to draw attention to problems surrounding food regulation, particularly those with “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designations. The category has been controversial because it allows companies to determine whether a substance is GRAS without having to seek FDA approval. Consumer groups like EWG claim that some additives with GRAS status don’t meet the same safety standard as food additives. “There are some additives that are classified generally recognized as safe and we really question that classification because they’re not free of health concerns,” said Johanna Congleton, EWG senior scientist. For example, propyl paraben is an endocrine-disrupting chemical but is considered GRAS. The report references studies that found that rats fed with the FDA’s Acceptable Daily Intake of propyl paraben had decreased sperm counts and decreases in testosterone. EWG argues that companies shouldn’t be allowed to certify the safety of their own ingredients and wants consumers to urge FDA to strengthen its regulatory system for food additives. Congleton says she finds nitrates and nitrites — often used as preservatives in cured meats such as bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs — to be the most alarming additives. Nitrites, which can form from nitrates, react with naturally occurring components of protein called amines, forming nitrosamines, which are known cancer-causing compounds. Nitrosamines can form in nitrite or nitrate-treated meat or in the digestive tract, EWG says. In 2010, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that ingested nitrites and nitrates are probable human carcinogens, and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is currently considering listing nitrite in combination with amines or amides as a known carcinogen. The Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives is based on scientific studies of hundreds of additives and data gathered from EWG’s Food Scores database, launched on Oct. 27, which includes information on more than 80,000 foods. The database scores foods based on nutrition, ingredients of concern (including food additives), contaminants (such as the likely levels of pesticide residue) and how processed the foods are.

  • Joe Blow

    Secret flavor ingredients? Could this be a little more specific…there are thousands of ingredients that go into natural and artificial Flavors which the formulation is proprietary. Does it mean all of these ingredients?

    • Anonymous

      That’s exactly the point that it is making. When companies list “Artificial Flavors” or “Natural Flavors”, the consumer has no idea what these flavors are made up of and what they are consuming. It is not specific at all, and it is a secret to the consumer.

      • Joe Blow

        And if they lost all the ingredients the proprietary nature of Flavors is gone and they become a commodity free for anyone to copy and reform sulfate without putting in the R&D man hours.

        As someone else mentioned it isn’t just the name or type of chemical, but the concentration or exposure. Flavors ingredients are typically one or two percent of all ingredients. In that, a majority of a flavor ingredient is the solvent such as ethanol and the other ingredients are one or two percent of the entire flavor. Sooo…are we really worried about 0.01% of something you can’t probounce? You are more likely to have more exposure through your regular environment than ingesting it.

      • BluebirdofUnhappiness

        So you care whether a product contains (E)-N-[2-(1,3-Benzodioxol-5-yl)ethyl]-3-(3,4-dimethoxyphenyl)prop-2-enamide in perhaps ppm? And multiply that by maybe 5, maybe 10, maybe 20 different “chemical” names that may or may not actually be substances that occur naturally in any number of foods that might make up a single flavor? Good luck with that.

  • We can all agree that food ingredients have different levels of predicted safety, and provide differing value to the producers and consumer, but the EWG approach is unscientific and sensationalized.

    For example, why don’t they supply links to key research on these ingredients, including the strengths and weaknesses of the data?
    Why don’t they discuss levels of exposure (“the dose makes the poison”)?
    Why aren’t lettuce and spinach flagged in their safety database, due to their high nitrate content?—Perhaps because of the advertising $ provided by all the specific brands listed on the search result page?

    • kaththee

      Excellent point. Most of the modern hysteria over food safety is more superstition than science. The food purist have always been amongst us in every culture, region and time. Now they use scientific verbiage as window dressing rather than religion. Since they go by the idea anything “natural” is safe they make horrific decisions for themselves and for their children. Remember just months ago when Gwyneth Paltrow insisted that the sun is natural and therefore safe, so she lets her blond hair blue eye children fry in the California sun and doesn’t worry about skin cancer. During the late 80s early 90s juicing craze, one of the founders of that food religion claimed to give it to his infant (he declined to say how young) juice and even claimed it was healthier than commercial formula or breast feeding. One juicing mother and devotee, took his dubious advice and gave her baby spinach juice and the infant died of course. One of my aunts and her entire family got caught up in the juicing habit and my aunt argued with me that juicing was healthier for my baby than my milk. Thank God and the blessing of motherly instincts because not even her daughter wouldn’t listen to her and my cousin resisted juicing her baby. Of course nothing could be more unnatural than a young mammal consuming vegetable juice from from a bottle fitted with a dummy nipple. Natural food fads and food safety obsessions are a public heath menace.

  • PHnurse

    This may be too simple but my grandma told me if she couldn’t pronounce it, she wouldn’t eat it. Why is just eating basics ( meat, veggies and fruits) so hard?

    • FoodSci

      Pronounce quinoa, acai, and gnocchi.

    • food-doc

      Vitamin B12 = cyanocobalamin. Good luck!

  • Carol

    EWG should spend their time and efforts updating and correcting misinformation on their other chemical-bashing lists before publishing new ones. They have had incorrect data on their other cleaning products list for over 2.5 years that I know of. Companies contacting them to have misinformation corrected are met with a stone wall, or promises to correct with no action or follow-up.

  • BluebirdofUnhappiness

    It’s formed during heating, so that’s not really an issue with lettuce. But your point below about “natural” cures like celery is likely valid since it’s used in exactly the same way as chemical versions. I’m not 100% sure because I don’t know the exact chemistry involved, but it’s certainly a question to ask.