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.