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New Guide Warns of ‘Dirty Dozen’ Food Additives

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For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Washington, D.C. – Environmental Working Group today published a new Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives designed to help people figure out which additives to avoid and why. The release comes after the successful launch of EWG’s major new food-scoring database, which Adweek said, “sets a new bar.”

The guide covers food additives associated with serious health concerns, ingredients banned or restricted in other countries, and other substances that shouldn’t be in food. It turns the spotlight on some of the worst failures of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process for additives and underscores the need for better oversight of our food system.

EWG also highlights two types of additives to watch, since scientists have not determined whether they are linked to human health problems. 

“With thousands of ingredients lurking in food, EWG wanted to bring attention to additives that may have implications for human health, and we wanted to expose how the food regulatory system has failed us,” Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist, said. “Not all additives are cause for concern, but EWG’s Dirty Dozen list is a good place to start to identify which ones to avoid or minimize in your diet.”

Here’s EWG’s Dirty Dozen list:

  1. Nitrites and nitrates
  2. Potassium bromate
  3. Propyl paraben
  4. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  5. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  6. Propyl gallate
  7. Theobromine
  8. Secret flavor ingredients
  9. Artificial colors
  10. Diacetyl
  11. Phosphate-based food additives (Watch List)
  12. Aluminum-based additives (Watch List)

Nitrites and nitrates, often added to cured meats, made EWG’s list because they are classified as probable human carcinogens when ingested. Potassium bromate is a carcinogen in animals and banned in foods sold in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Diacetyl, which is used as a butter flavoring on microwave popcorn, is linked to a severe and irreversible occupational respiratory condition that can cause scarring in the lungs.

Scientists have raised questions about the safety of propyl paraben, BHA, BHT, and propyl gallate.  The FDA classifies them as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS. Propyl paraben, for example, often added to tortillas, muffins and food dyes, is a recognized endocrine disruptor. The National Toxicology Program has classified the preservative BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and BHT, its cousin, has been shown to cause cancer in animals.

Additives designated as GRAS do not need government review or approval before they go on the market. Instead, a food manufacturer can decide whether a compound is safe without oversight from the FDA. In one case, as Natural Resources Defense Council found, FDA food safety scientists questioned a company voluntarily seeking GRAS approval of theobromine. Rather than answering those questions, the company withdrew its request. According to an AIBMR Life Sciences database that tracks GRAS designations, theobromine is now listed as GRAS without the FDA’s approval.

“Theobromine is an example of how the GRAS regulatory system is broken and badly in need of reform,” said Renee Sharp, EWG’s director of research. “Companies are resorting to their own experts and paid consultants for safety approval of food additives, and not the government. This practice has to change.”

EWG’s Dirty Dozen list also includes flavor mixtures, which could be made up of more than 100 substances, none of them disclosed individually. Consumers have no way of knowing what is actually in something called “flavoring.” EWG draws attention to artificial colors such as “FD&C colors” and “Caramel III and IV” because they are widely used in highly processed foods, and some could be contaminated with compounds that can cause cancer in animals.

Two classes of additives, one group containing phosphate, the other, aluminum, are on EWG’s Watch List. Scientists are still determining whether there is a link between these additives and potential health effects. In the meantime, EWG recommends consumers limit their consumption of foods with these additives, particularly if they are in unhealthy and highly processed products, until more information is available.

The Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives is based on scientific studies of hundreds of additives and data gathered from EWG’s newly released Food Scores: Rate Your Plate database and mobile app.The database houses information on more than 80,000 foods and 5,000 ingredients from about 1,500 brands. As the New York Times put it, Food Scores is “one of the most comprehensive online databases of food products.”

During the first week of launch, Food Scores generated more than 280,000 searches and 1.6 million page views. The barcode scanner app had 20,000 downloads.

“It is clear that people are craving this kind of information about their food,” said Ken Cook, president and cofounder of EWG. “Lobbyists for the food industry have long sought a permissive approach to the use of food additives. As long as their views hold sway at FDA, we advise people to use Food Scores and our new Dirty Dozen Guide to make smarter decisions for their families when they shop.”

This release has been updated.