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Artificial Chemicals and Additives in Food

With a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

What kinds of chemicals and additives are in the foods we eat?

What kinds of chemicals and additives are in the foods we eat?

Chemical Compounds in Modern Food

A dizzying array of chemical compounds is used in modern food. Artificially manufactured dyes, preservatives, flavors, texture-enhancers, and fats are used to alter the way food looks, tastes, and feels. Considerable debate has raged over the long-term safety of chemical food additives, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. The FDA allows the addition of non-nutritive substances to food so long as the added chemicals are “generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” Certain additives have been banned over time as their toxic natures have become more evident.

Regulation of Food Additives: A Brief History

Prior to the formation of the FDA, artificial additives to food were not regulated. Borax was used in many foods as a preservative, and lead salts were used to give the cheese a bright orange color. Sulfuric acid was dumped into beer to decrease the brewing time. Since refrigeration was difficult to obtain in the early 20th century, formaldehyde (embalming fluid) was added to milk to prevent curdling.

Butchers sold rotten meat, disguising it by using a mixture of boric acid, salt, and a red dye from the cochineal beetle so the putrid meat would appear fresh enough for purchase by an unwitting consumer. It isn’t surprising that more than a few food scandals erupted. Russel Alger (the Secretary of War under William McKinley) was forced to resign after formaldehyde-laden beef was fed to U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War. The troops became so ill that they could not fight.

Harvey Wiley (left) conducted experiments to determine the safety of certain food additives. These experiments later led to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Harvey Wiley (left) conducted experiments to determine the safety of certain food additives. These experiments later led to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Poison Squad: Testing Chemicals in Food

Congress finally granted $5,000 to study the effects of various food additives on people. Dr. Harvey Wiley, the head of the Bureau of Chemistry (part of the USDA, which later became the FDA), spearheaded the study using a group of twelve brave volunteers known as the “Poison Squad.” These men were fed some of the common food additives of the day (borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde) in controlled doses mixed into their food.

The volunteers consumed the additives in gelatin capsules (not knowing which capsules contained additives and which were placebos) and were subjected to medical examinations each week. The men consumed the additives for a period of five years and agreed not to sue the researchers for any ill effects obtained during the study.

The publicity garnered by Wiley’s experiments (and the resultant health problems in the volunteers) helped to launch the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: borax, copper sulfate, formaldehyde, and salicylic acid (aspirin) were banned as food additives due to their toxic nature. The law was expanded in 1938 to become the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Additives could not be added to food unless they were found to be safe, and chemicals could not be added to food to mask ingredients that were unfit for human consumption.

Laws regulating food purity and safety are not always followed. In 1992, the grocery chain Food Lion was infiltrated by ABC news. In an undercover exposé, Food Lion employees were shown to re-wrap and re-label meat that had passed the expiry date. Rotten meat was also rinsed in bleach to remove the putrid stench prior to sale. In response, Food Lion sued ABC for fraud, claiming they had misrepresented themselves as employees. The lawsuit also alleged trespassing since the news reporters came into the Food Lion plant without permission. The grocery chain was awarded $5 million in damages, though a later appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals (Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia) overturned the verdict.

Why Sodium Bisulfite Was Banned on Fresh Produce

Sodium Bisulfite is an anti-oxidant and is banned by the Food and Drug Administration for use on fresh produce. Sodium Bisulfite causes a high number of allergic reactions, which range from hives to respiratory complications. The most severe form of an allergic reaction is known as "anaphylactic shock," which can lead to death. Up to 8% of all asthmatics are sensitive to sulfites - over 500 serious allergic reactions were reported to the FDA, instigating a medical investigation into the additive "generally regarded as safe." The review found that 13 deaths were attributed to the use of sodium bisulfite.

While only 40% of the complaints were associated with fresh produce (the remaining complaints were from reactions to beer and wine, which also contain sulfites), the FDA focused on the largest single instigator of sulfite-induced allergy attacks: fresh produce. Sodium bisulfite is now regarded as hazardous and is banned from being used on raw fruits and vegetables.

Common Preservatives

BHA: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a white or yellow waxy solid and is added to food as an anti-oxidant. BHA is fat-soluble and reacts with oxygen in a preferential manner over the food it is added to, preventing spoilage in fatty foods.

BHT: Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) is similar to BHA: it is an anti-oxidant and is added to food to prevent spoilage. BHT is a white powder and will preserve the flavor and color characteristics of fatty foods.

Calcium Propionate: This preservative acts as an anti-microbial agent and a fungicide and is commonly added to bread products. It is also added to meat and dairy products to prevent spoilage. This chemical works by preventing microbes from using energy: it is considered “slightly toxic” and may also be used as a pesticide. It must be noted, however, that Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is also considered “slightly toxic,” so this rating is often applied to food additives.

Sodium Nitrate: Sodium nitrate has many uses: it is used in enamels for ceramics, in propellant for rockets, and is also used in the “smoke bombs” sold at fireworks stands. It is a common preservative used in cured meats: the chemical breaks down into nitrosamines – a human carcinogen. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, and gastric cancer are correlated with the consumption of Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite (below). Hot dogs, along with many lunch meat products, contain this chemical. Sodium Nitrate was originally mined in Chile, where it is bound with mineral deposits (the mineral-Sodium Nitrate complex is called caliche). It is now synthetically manufactured in laboratories by adding washing soda (sodium carbonate) to nitric acid.

Sodium Nitrite: Sodium Nitrate is used as an anti-microbial agent. It is recognized as toxic and is dyed bright pink when used as a food additive so that it cannot be confused with regular table salt or sugar. The chemical can be deadly: if a 150-pound person ate 4.85g of the chemical, the result would be lethal (LDlo 71mg/Kg). Sodium nitrite works by reacting with DNA, which causes either cancer or cell death. The artificial ingredient is added to meat and fish – giving the meat a pinker color (due to the dye used in the Sodium Nitrite raw material) and preventing the formation of botulism. On an interesting note, Sodium Nitrate has found a medical use as an antidote to cyanide poisoning. It is also used as a poison to cull wild boars in Australia.

Sulfur Dioxide: Found in nature, sulfur dioxide is often released in volcanic eruptions. Sulfur is also commonly found in petroleum products, and sulfur dioxide can be obtained by combustion. It is used primarily in dried fruit and prevents discoloration and rot. The chemical is also added to wine (in small amounts) to prevent oxidation: oxidized wine turns into a rather unpalatable vinegar. To determine if a bottle of wine contains sulfur dioxide, look for the term “contains sulfites” on the label. Sulfur dioxide is correlated with premature births and with respiratory problems.

Sodium Bisulfite: This chemical is often added to canned fruit to prevent discoloration. Under the trade name LeafGreen, it is also added to lettuce in restaurant salad bars to keep the produce looking bright and green. The use of sodium bisulfite in raw produce is banned in the United States because it can be lethal in high doses.

Potassium Hydrogen Sulfite: Like the other sulfuric compounds, Potassium Hydrogen Sulfite is used as an anti-microbial (anti-oxidant) and is used in the production of alcoholic products.

Disodium EDTA: Disodium EDTA is known as a chelating agent because it can bind heavy metal ions. It is used in a medical setting to counteract lead or mercury poisoning. Since Disodium EDTA is an anti-oxidant, it is often used in food products to prevent discoloration and spoilage.

Propyl Gallate: Another anti-oxidant, propyl gallate, is added to fats to prevent spoilage. It is a white powder and can be found in a diverse range of products. Microwaveable popcorn, bubble gum, frozen “TV” dinners, and mayonnaise are all items preserved with propyl gallate.

Danger for Manufacturers of Microwave Popcorn

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a Hazard Communication Guidance for workers who manufacture products containing diacetyl, the artificial butter flavor in microwaveable popcorn. Employees exposed to high doses of diacetyl have demonstrated a respiratory disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans, which causes permanent lung damage. Some workers have been placed on lung transplant waiting lists: OSHA now requires respiratory protection for workers in microwave popcorn packaging plants. There is no established permissible exposure limit (PEL) for diacetyl.

The Flavor Industry

Sitting amongst the heart of industrial New Jersey, the world's largest flavor company (International Flavors and Fragrances) produces a wide variety of artificial flavors in food. The company has multiple labs: from "snack-and-savory," where artificial flavors for chips and bread are manufactured, to "confectionery," which manufactures flavors for everything from toothpaste to ice cream.

Lab technicians in white coats mix vials of chemicals in specific (and highly secretive) formulations to achieve unique flavors. The majority of artificial flavors are created from compounds that generate esters. Esters are highly aromatic chemicals that carry the generic chemical formula of R-COO-R'. For example, an artificial raspberry flavor can be created by mixing Isobutanol with Formic Acid: these two chemicals will give rise to the ester Isobutyl Formate, which has a strong raspberry flavor and scent.

Common Artificial Flavors

Chemical NameFlavorUsed In

Allyl Hexanoate

pineapple

Gummy candy, drinks

Benzaldehyde

bitter almond

Imitation almond extract

Cinnamonic Aldehyde

Cinnamon

Chewing gum, candy

Diacetyl

Butter

Microwaveable Popcorn

Ethyl (E,Z)-2,4-decadienoate

Pear

Pear tea, pear cider

Ethyl Maltol

Sugar/Cotton Candy

English toffee, candy

Ethyl Vanillin

Vanilla

Imitation vanilla extract

Ethyl Propionate

Fruity

Chewing gum, candy

Isoamyl Acetate

Banana

Banana cakes, candy

Limonene

Orange

Candy

Methyl Anthranilate

Grape

Candy, grape drinks

Methyl Salicylate

Wintergreen

Chewing gum, mints

High levels of tartrazine (Yellow No. 5) are used to give Inca Kola (a common carbonated beverage in Peru) its characteristic yellow color.

High levels of tartrazine (Yellow No. 5) are used to give Inca Kola (a common carbonated beverage in Peru) its characteristic yellow color.

List of Artificial Colors Used in Foods

  • FD&C Blue No. 1, Brilliant Blue, FCF, E133
  • FD&C Blue No. 2, Indigotine, E132
  • FD&C Green No. 3, Fast Green, FCF, E143
  • FD&C Red No. 40, Allura Red AC, E129
  • FD&C Red No. 3, Erythrosine, E127
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5, Tartrazine, E102
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6, Sunset Yellow FCF, E110

Limited Dyes

  • Orange B: Used only in hot dog and sausage casings
  • Citrus Red 2: Only for coloring orange peels

Common Food Dyes

Of all the artificial food additives, artificial color serves the least amount of purpose. It does not preserve food or enhance flavor in any way. Artificial color in food simply makes food more enticing to eat - without artificial color, hot dogs would be gray. Farmed salmon has a pink dye added to make the filets red. Everything from children's vitamins to candy ("Taste the Rainbow!") have artificial color.

Many artificial food dyes are manufactured from coal tar or petroleum products. Blue No. 1, for example, is manufactured from coal tar and can be found in some dairy products and in sweets. This dye has been banned in the European Union but is acceptable in the United States. Red No. 3 is another dye manufactured from coal tar and is often used in cherries.

Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine) has been subjected to many studies which link artificial coloring agents to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A 1996 study in the Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine (Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine (1997) 7, 333±342) demonstrated increased activity levels and aggression in children with ADHD who consumed beverages laced with tartrazine and sunset yellow (Yellow No. 6). Beverages laced with amaranth (a red dye, currently delisted by the FDA because of suspected carcinogenic properties) did not show an increase in hyperactivity.

Several food dyes have been delisted, including Orange No. 2 (previously used to color Florida oranges) and FD&C Violet No. 1. Orange No. 2 was delisted after animal toxicity studies showed the dye was, indeed, toxic. Violet No. 1 was delisted in 1973 after it was found to produce cancer in rats.

Delisted Dyes: A Brief Synopsis

  • FD&C Red No. 1 was delisted in 1960 because it caused liver damage in dogs, rats, and mice.
  • FD&C Red No. 4 was delisted in 1965 after laboratory studies demonstrated damage to the adrenal cortex and urinary bladder in dogs. The chemical was still allowed for use in maraschino cherries until 1976.
  • FD&C Green No. 1 and FD&C Green No. 2 were delisted in 1966: the dyes were not necessarily harmful to health but were simply unnecessary (green dye can be made by mixing tartrazine with a blue dye).
  • FD&C Violet No. 1 was delisted in 1973 due to suspected carcinogenic properties (studies showed the dye produced cancer in lab rats).
  • Carbon Black was delisted in 1975 because of carcinogens released during the manufacturing process. Artificial colorant is still allowed in Canada.
  • FD&C Red No. 2 was delisted in 1976 after studies showed it was a carcinogen in rats. Studies performed in Russia also demonstrated the dye was embryotoxic.
  • Graphite was delisted in 1977. Graphite contains aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known carcinogens.

Texture Enhancers

Potassium Bromate is added to flour to create a high-rising bread dough with a springy texture. When added in extremely small amounts (15-30 parts per million), the bromate is “used up” in the baking process, leaving no residual chemical in the bread. If it is used in higher quantities, or if the bread is not cooked at the right temperature, potassium bromate will remain in the finished product. Potassium bromate has been shown to induce tumor formation in rats. The FDA has not banned the additive but has suggested that bakers stop using the chemical on a voluntary basis.

Potassium bromate has been banned in the United Kingdom and Canada. Since the state of California lists bromate as a carcinogen, bread products must be labeled with a cancer warning if they contain potassium bromate. For this reason, nearly all bread products sold in California are bromate-free.

Common Fat Substitutes

Olestra was developed by Proctor and Gamble and approved by the FDA in 1996. The chemical had the same general properties as natural fats: it provided a rich taste and mouthfeel but passed through the digestive system without being absorbed. Olestra is a synthetic chemical manufactured from sucrose (table sugar), and is able to bond to a number of fatty acids. The resultant molecule is extremely large, and cannot be absorbed in the intestines – because of this property, it adds no calories or nutrition to food.

Unfortunately, the side effects of Olestra caused many people to stop purchasing the product. The chemical additive caused intestinal cramping and diarrhea, and would also bind any natural Vitamin E, Vitamin D, and Vitamin K consumed during the meal. The chemical is banned in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Due to a large drop-off in sales, Proctor and Gamble is now marketing Olestra as a lubricant for industrial use and as an additive for paint. The chemical has been renamed “Sefose” for this purpose.

Warning labels (such as this one on a diet Dr. Pepper can) were once required for the use of saccharin. The use of warning labels has since been discontinued, as the chemical is not a human carcinogen.

Warning labels (such as this one on a diet Dr. Pepper can) were once required for the use of saccharin. The use of warning labels has since been discontinued, as the chemical is not a human carcinogen.

Common Artificial Sweeteners

A number of artificial sweeteners are used in place of natural sugar in processed foods. Here are some of the more common examples you are likely to run into.

Aspartame

Aspartame has come under a great deal of scrutiny, as a widely circulating “chain mail’’ style of email claimed the artificial sweetener caused diseases ranging from Multiple Sclerosis to Alzheimer’s Disease. The original email is ascribed to a “Nancy Markle,” though the name is likely fictitious. A very similar health scare rumor letter was penned in 1995 under a different screen name. While chemical additives to food are controversial, there has been no evidence that aspartame has caused the great diversity of medical problems stated in the email chain letter.

Aspartame is dangerous to those suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU), and anyone who has this genetic disease should avoid the consumption of aspartame.

Aspartame is a non-saccharide sweetener made from aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide. The sweetener was subjected to a medical review in 2007 and found to be safe. Of all the artificial sweeteners on the market, aspartame is the most studied and tested on the market. While some critics maintain the FDA is biased in its studies, the entirely independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the FDA’s rulings to be accurate and the study methods to be properly conducted.

Acesulfame-K

Discovered in 1967, most people are unaware that this artificial sweetener exists. With a chemical structure similar to saccharin, the acesulfame-K (K is the chemical symbol for potassium) is stable through heating processes and is calorie-free. The product is added to chewing gum, sugar-free Jell-O, and some “Lite” chocolate syrups. Approved by the FDA in 1988, the sweetener has been studied many times and has not shown any carcinogenic effect. Acesulfame-K is allowed in the United States and in the European Union.

Saccharin

The only sweetener to have carried an active warning label, saccharin, demonstrated an increase in bladder cancer rates among male laboratory rats. The artificial sweetener was added to the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s “Report on Carcinogens” in 1981. The increase in bladder cancer could never be demonstrated in a human population, and further studies determined the increase in bladder cancer rates were due to a unique mechanism found in male rats. While saccharin is a carcinogen for rats, it will not increase bladder cancer rates in humans. The chemical was delisted from the “Report on Carcinogens” on December 21, 2000. The warning labels were taken off the product, as the danger did not apply to human consumers.