There are health problems associated with artificial sweeteners. But there are other hazardous additives that routinely find their way into our foods. Here are three potentially dangerous, yet commonly used preservatives:
What are they? Sulfites are salts made from sulfuric acid. In 1986 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned sulfites from use on fresh fruits and vegetables such as those in salad bars, but sulfites are still common in processed foods. They are used to prevent or reduce discoloration of light-colored food, such as dried fruit and French fries. Sulfites are also used in winemaking and are hidden in many foods containing corn syrup or gelatin.
Danger Sulfites can cause allergic reactions with symptoms ranging from deadly anaphylactic shocks to difficulty breathing, stomach aches, headaches, hives, rosacea and facial swelling. Asthmatics are especially in danger. Since 1985, the FDA has received well over a thousand reports of adverse reactions to sulfites. An FDA study concluded that sulfites posed no hazard to most Americans, but that they were a hazard of unpredictable severity to people who were sensitive or allergic. Estimates say that one to three million Americans are sensitive or allergic to sulfites. Symptoms are often not recognized as such by the sufferer.
Besides causing potentially deadly allergic reactions, sulfites destroy thiamin, also called vitamin B1.
Sulfites used as preservatives must be listed on the label. Sulfites used in food processing but not serving as preservatives in the final food must be listed on the label if present at levels of 10 parts per million or higher. Look for them under the names sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite, or sodium and potassium metabisulfite.
What are they? Nitrates/nitrites are salts made from nitric acid. They are added to meats to fight bacteria, especially the bacteria that cause botulism. Nitrates/nitrites also keep meats pinkish in color and prevent browning as meat ages. (Their use is permitted to prevent meat from browning, but it is illegal to use nitrates to disguise old meat to make it look younger.) Nitrate is changed to nitrite by bacterial action during processing and storage; nitrate itself has no effect on meat color.
Vegetables including spinach, beets, radishes, celery and cabbages can also contain nitrates from soil or fertilizer. Nitrates have also been found in drinking water, leached from soil.
Danger Nitrates/nitrites can cause cancer. They can react with amino acids in meats and form nitrosamines, a carcinogen. Nitrosamine levels in meat vary depending on a number of conditions including amount of nitrite added during processing, other ingredients used in processing, storage length and temperatures, method of cooking and degree of doneness. Nitrates can also combine with gastric acid and form substances that inhibit the blood’s transportation of oxygen, which can cause methemoglobinemia, internal suffocation with symptoms like those of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Studies indicate that well-done or burned bacon contains more nitrosamines than less cooked bacon. Also, bacon cooked by microwave has less nitrosamine than fried bacon. Fat drippings usually contain more than the bacon. For some foods, vitamin C can be added to reduce nitrosamine formation.
In the US nitrates/nitrites are legal as long as the finished meat product contains less than 200 parts per million. On labels they will almost always be listed as sodium nitrite, but could also be called sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate.
BHA & BHT
What are they? Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and the related compound, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), are used to preserve fats and oils. BHA and BHT are made from phenolic acid. They slow the development of off-flavors, odors and color changes caused by oxidation. BHA is also used as a preservative for dry foods, such as cereals.
Danger Numerous studies have suggested that at very high levels in the diets of laboratory animals, BHA and BHT can cause tumors in the forestomach of rats, mice and hamsters, and liver tumors in fish. However, since humans don’t have forestomachs, it’s unclear what BHA and BHT do to us. Other tests indicate that BHA and BHT can cause depressed growth rate, increased serum-cholesterol levels and increased liver weight. They may also cause kidney dysfunction and behavioral shifts including decreased sleeping and sluggish reflexes. Generational studies show elevated levels of aggression and slower learning rates in offspring. Reports also mention the possible existence of a no-effect level and note that the levels that produced cancer are many thousands of times higher than the levels to which humans are exposed.
Regulations limit BHA and BHT to 200 parts per million (0.02 percent) of the fat or oil content of the food product. For non-fatty foods, BHA limits are more improvised, and frequently higher, than fatty foods. On cereals, for example, the FDA limits BHA to 50 ppm of the total product. On labels they will be listed as butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene, BHA or BHT.