Food Additives State of the Science

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2020

A new EWG guide brings attention to food additives, commonly found in many processed foods, that can increase the risk of cancer, harm the nervous system, change the body’s hormonal balance and affect the immune system.

We’re publishing the guide because the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory approach to food additives does not consider the latest science on the health harms caused by additives that may be legally added to processed foods manufactured in the U.S.

Some of the chemicals highlighted in the guide are not allowed for use in food in the European Union, including potassium bromate, a carcinogenic bread additive, and brominated vegetable oil, a flavor stabilizer used in beverages that can harm the nervous system.

We especially recommend avoiding foods with synthetic colorants, known as FD&C colorants. Dietary exposure to these colorants can lead to changes in the nervous system, such as increased risk of attention deficit disorders and other neurobehavioral changes in children. Foods sold in Europe that carry several of these colorants must carry a warning stating they may harm activity and attention in children.

In addition to additives in the ingredient list on the food label, potentially harmful chemicals can migrate into food from food packaging and end up in our diet.

Such materials include PFAS, the family of fluorinated chemicals that can harm the developing fetus, suppress the immune system and cause other health harms. PFAS are added to packaging to make it slick and nonstick. Other food packaging chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, can disrupt the normal function of the endocrine system and affect reproductive system development.

EWG’s advice for families: Read ingredient labels to avoid these additives. Choose fresh whole foods when possible.

Food Additives To Avoid
Chemical Function Health Harm Products That May Contain Food Additives*
Brominated vegetable oil Emulsifier Harm to the nervous system Soda, sports drinks
Potassium bromate Dough conditioning Increased risk of cancer Bread, noodles, dough-based products
Nitrate and nitrite Antimicrobials (meat preservatives) Increased risk of cancer Processed meat
Propyl paraben Antimicrobials (preservatives) Endocrine disruption Corn tortillas
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT); propyl gallate; tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) Antioxidants (preservatives) Increased risk of cancer

Change to the immune system
Processed meat, ready-to-eat cereal, flour-based snacks
FD&C colors (Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3) Synthetic colorants Neurobehavioral problems in children Candy, ready-to-eat baked goods, chips and snacks, cereal, soda
Titanium dioxide Mineral colorants Change to the immune system in the digestive tract Candy, ready-to-eat baked goods, ice cream
Acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose Non-nutritive synthetic sweeteners Weight gain and change to metabolism Diet beverages and other prepared beverages, ice cream

* These are the most common categories where food additives can be found. The food additives included in this table can be found in many different products, including some not listed here. The only way to know whether a specific product contains a particular ingredient is to read the ingredient label.


Food Packaging Chemicals That Can Harm Health
Chemical Health Harm
BPA Endocrine disruptor
PFAS Harm to the immune system, harm to the developing fetus,
increased risk of cancer
Phthalates Endocrine disruptors


Get the App

EWG's Skin Deep® Mobile App

Download EWG’s Healthy Living App Today! Ratings for more than 120,000 food and personal care products, now at your fingertips.

Download EWG’s Healthy Living App Today! Ratings for more than 120,000 food and personal care products, now at your fingertips.

Get the App Download App

Other EWG Resources

EWG's Tap Water Database

Children's Health Initiative

EWG's Healthy Living App

Guide to Healthy Cleaning

EWG's Food Scores

EWG's Skin Deep

Safe Cell Phone Use

Cancer Prevention Within Reach