The Top 4 Legal Yet Toxic Ingredients in Your Food

The Top 4 Legal Yet Toxic Ingredients in Your Food

The United States is famously the land of the free. Unfortunately, our government extends that to regulations as well. While other nations near-instantly ban chemicals shown to cause harm, we get warning labels — if that. Consider glyphosate, which despite multiple lawsuits and studies, is still legal in the U.S. In fact, we’re the world’s top user of it.

Even scarier, our food contains additives that have been linked to disease. The Food and Drug Administration has either dismissed the risk as “minimal” or they allow up to a certain percentage.

In other words, “FDA-regulated” doesn’t mean much. Read on to learn the top four ingredients that probably shouldn’t be in your food.

Dyes and Artificial Colors

Would you buy breakfast cereal in bland colors? Do you feel averse to juice that isn’t brightly hued? Food manufacturers know that we expect our food to look a certain way.

If you’ve ever experimented with a juicer, you’ve seen that natural puree isn’t always vibrant. But juice companies want to make their juice look as fresh and enticing as possible. So, they often add artificial colors to keep the final product from looking dull.

Food also tends to lose a lot of its color as it’s processed, baked, dried, or recombined. No one wants to eat something that looks like dirt. Enter the food dyes to make it look appealing again.

Unfortunately, most of these artificial colors are harmful. In 1973, pediatric allergist Dr. Benjamin Feingold observed a connection between food-dye intake and hyperactivity. He advised parents to restrict their children’s consumption of foods with artificial colors and BHA/BHT. While studies have been inconclusive about the diet, other research has shown the health risks of these ingredients.

In particular, Red Dye 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6 have been linked to hyperactivity. We now call this Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD has been characterized and diagnosed in various ways over the past few decades, so it’s hard to know how much it’s risen. However, diagnoses are increasingly prevalent among both children and adults.

A single UK study was enough to persuade the European Union to require labeling foods that contained the dyes. However, the FDA’s 2011 Food Advisory Committee meeting decided this wasn’t necessary in the United States. Even as further research has indicated a link between Red Dye 40 and ADHD, the FDA has still not taken action.

Even beyond the ADHD risks, artificial colors can cause allergic reactions. The FDA has thus declared amounts that are “Acceptable for Daily Intake.” But these (small) numbers are based on body weight. Yet your box of artificially colored crackers does not list its volume of Yellow No. 5. As you can probably guess, food manufacturers can use more than the ADI. You’re left to hope that your serving size doesn’t put you over the edge.


Dr. Feingold also pinpointed BHA and BHT as risk factors for hyperactivity. The jury’s still out in that regard, but these preservatives have other issues. They’re antioxidants, but only in the sense that they prevent oxidation among fats and oils in the food. This prevents the product from going rancid as quickly.

However, BHA may actually act as a carcinogen in the human body — despite some claims that it could provide an anti-inflammatory boost.

So claimed the National Institutes of Health — and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and European Union agree. Yet the FDA declares BHA to be “generally safe.”

The IARC found that BHT may be carcinogenic in animals, although human studies are inconclusive. However, some studies have indicated that BHT can disrupt hormones and damage organs. Because we consume BHT so variably, it’s hard to tell.

That’s the case for both BHA and BHT, as well as all preservatives. When we can only test people’s response to acute amounts, it’s difficult to assess how much chronic consumption could affect our health.

In any case, there are many other preservatives to choose from. Or better yet, we could make fresh, non-processed food more widely accessible.


Another common preservative, sulfites appear in everything from crackers to beer to guacamole. (A lot of party foods!) About 1 in 100 people have a sulfite sensitivity. In some cases, this can be severe enough to cause asthma or even anaphylaxis.

This was enough for the FDA to take action back in 1986… on adding sulfites to fruits and vegetables. Other types of food are fair game. Sulfites even appear in some pharmaceuticals.

Worse, there are no firm labeling requirements. You must know what to look for in the ingredients list. If you’re concerned about sulfite or have asthma, avoid foods and beverages that contain:

  • sulfur dioxide
  • potassium bisulfite
  • potassium metabisulfite
  • sodium bisulfite
  • sodium sulfite
  • sodium metabisulfite

Sodium Nitrates

Imagine a food additive that keeps the product safe for consumption…only to become poison in your stomach. That’s essentially what sodium nitrates are. Commonly used to stabilize, color, and preserve meat, they convert to nitrosamines in hot or acidic environments.

Nitrosamines are precursors to nitrosamides, which are known carcinogens. When consumed in food, they are risk factors for pancreatic, renal, and colorectal cancer. Beer and salted meats may even contain pre-formed nitrosamines, shortening the road to potential carcinogen exposure.

So, simply the act of cooking and eating meat can release pre-carcinogenic substances into your body.

Consumption of sodium nitrates has also been linked to hypothyroidism, although these findings haven’t been replicated.

It’s important to note that many foods naturally contain nitrates. Thankfully, these foods also often contain vitamin C, which seems to counteract nitrates’ effects.

The issue is that processed foods often contain a much higher percentage of sodium nitrates. The CDC recommends no more than 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. As with food dyes, though, the exact amount is never disclosed on labels. A single hot dog likely won’t put you over the edge.

But what if you’ve been packing a bologna sandwich for lunch every day? Or enjoying some crackers and cheese as your afternoon snack? Or unwinding with a cold beer at night? All those sodium nitrates add up.

Because sodium nitrates have such variable effects, and because research has been largely inconclusive, they have not been banned in either America or Europe. And unfortunately, the United States’ lack of labeling requirements means you could be consuming much more than 3.7mg/kg per day.

Wrapping Up

It can be frustrating not to know what precisely is in your food. Your sole guidance is the order in which ingredients are listed. Under U.S. law, they must be listed from highest percentage to lowest.

Otherwise, it’s up to you to know which ingredients are risk factors. In general, though, avoiding hyperprocessed foods is a wise choice. As we collectively decrease the demand for these products, companies will feel the pressure to change.

Meanwhile, your body will appreciate a diet of fresher foods. For anything you can’t buy fresh, choose “low sodium” options or products marked as “no artificial colors/sulfite-free.” Even if the FDA says it’s okay, your body knows best!

This article is inspired by an interview with Mira Dessy, The Ingredient Guru and a holistic nutritionist. 

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