12 Sketchy Ingredients To Avoid In Your Food

Make sure these common ingredients aren't hiding out in your favorite packaged foods.

March 23, 2017
reading labels

If an ingredient is allowed in food, it's safe, right? Unfortunately, that's not the case. Inadequate safety testing and government loopholes have allowed super-shady ingredients, some of them with strong ties to cancer and other serious diseases, to wind up in thousands of popular foods.

Luckily, Environmental Working Group (EWG)—known for its famous Dirty Dozen list—has another consumer-friendly list that makes it easier to protect your family: the Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives, which is designed to help people figure out which additives to avoid.


Here, we cover each of these ingredients, where they're most commonly found, and why you should avoid them. 

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1. Nitrites + Nitrates

Nitrites and nitrates, often added to cured meats, including hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats, made EWG's list because they are classified as probable human carcinogens when ingested. They're also one of these 9 everyday chemicals that could be messing with your fertility

2. Potassium Bromate

Used to help dough rise during baking, potassium bromate really has no business in your bread because California has declared it a known carcinogen. Toxic to kidneys and shown to cause DNA damage, small but still detectable amounts have been found in finished bread products. Both the United Kingdom and Canada ban the use of potassium bromate in food.

Related: 6 Foods Where Organic Matters Most

3. Propyl Paraben

Used as a preservative in things like tortillas, muffins, and food dyes, this ingredient is a hormone-disrupting chemical. It can lower testosterone levels and has been shown to decrease sperm counts in animal studies. A 2001 study also found that propyl paraben accelerates the growth of breast cancer. More recently, a 2013 study found it damages female fertility

4. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Hiding out in all sorts of foods, including chips and preserved meats, the National Toxicology Program classifies BHA as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

5. Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

EWG says rats fed BHT have developed lung and liver tumors. BHT has also been shown to cause developmental effects and thyroid changes in animals, suggesting that it may be able to disrupt endocrine signaling. (Here are 16 signs your thyroid is out of whack.)


6. Propyl Gallate

Another problematic preservative used in fats like sausage and lard, this ingredient is linked to rare brain tumors in rat studies. Some studies suggest it disrupts normal hormone functioning, too.

Related: The Best (And Worst) Foods In Your Supermarket

7. Theobromine

The creator of this ingredient, sometimes used in baked goods, used a government loophole to deem the new ingredient safe, despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration doesn't even know if the ingredient is truly safe. "Theobromine is an example of how the GRAS [generally recognized as safe] regulatory system is broken and badly in need of reform," says Renee Sharp, EWG's former 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."

8. Secret Flavor Ingredients

"The truth is that when you see the word 'flavor' on a food label, you have almost no clue what chemicals may have been added to the food under the umbrella of this vague term," EWG notes on its website. "For people who have uncommon food allergies or are on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern."

Secret flavors can also contain solvents, preservatives, or other questionable ingredients. (Even "natural flavors" can contain synthetic chemicals, including solvents. Certified-organic "natural flavors" cannot, though.) To avoid these, choose fresh, organic whole foods as much as possible.

9. Artificial Colors

Completely unnecessary and used for cosmetic purposes only, artificial colors in food aren't worth the risk. Some caramel colors are contaminated with cancer-causing 4-methylimidazole, while others are linked to hyperactivity in children. (Here are 7 surprising foods that contain artificial dyes.)


10. Diacetyl

Diacetyl, which sometimes shows up as butter flavoring on microwave popcorn labels, is linked to a severe and irreversible occupational respiratory condition that can cause scarring in the lungs. In fact, former workers at microwave popcorn plants have such damaged lungs they are on wait lists for lung transplants. Make your own popcorn to avoid this nasty ingredient.

11. Phosphate-Based Food Additives

Often found in highly processed foods and baked goods, phosphates are among the most common food additives. That's upsetting, given their ability to damage the kidneys and other organs, particularly the heart. (Phosphates also make you age faster.)

12. Aluminum-Based Additives

Aluminum builds up in the body, particularly your bones, and could may contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

To help find healthier foods in the supermarket, use EWG's newly released Food Scores database and mobile app. The database houses information on more than 80,000 foods and 5,000 ingredients from about 1,500 brands. "It is clear that people are craving this kind of information about their food," says 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 article originally published on Rodale Wellness.