food being canned

There’s something less than appetizing about eating an ingredient that you can’t pronounce. Words like "butylated hydroxytoluene" and "tert-butylhydroquinone" don’t exactly conjure up images of a home-cooked meal at grandma’s house. Additives like these are used for many reasons: to preserve food for longer, to make it appear more appetizing, and to add flavor. While not all food additives are necessarily bad, there are many food additives used in the United States that are actually banned in other countries.

While the European Union and many other nations take a precautionary stance on food additives, banning those that have the potential to cause adverse effects in humans, the U.S. take a more lenient stance, focusing on the probability of things going wrong instead of the possibility, according to Everyday Health. The American food industry also has a large, well-funded lobby presence, which ensures that food manufacturers here can influence government regulations to continue to produce goods at a minimal cost.

The Food and Drug Administration is the government body charged with regulating food additives in the United States. Since 1958, in order to introduce additives into products meant for human consumption, companies must file a petition with the FDA that presents evidence that the substance is safe, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although legal food additives are considered generally safe for consumption by the FDA, we’ve compiled a list below of commonly used food additives that are still considered questionable by many.

Titanium dioxide

cupcake with sprinkles

Celebrations often call for food coloring. It’s tempting to dye your friend’s birthday cake their favorite color or cover some tasty sweet treat with edible glitter to give dessert a bold visual bang. But party people be aware, because titanium dioxide, a common food additive, is now banned in the EU. This odorless powder is commonly added to products to give them a pearly, opalescent look. Foods that often contain titanium dioxide include gum, candies, chocolate, pastries, and coffee creamer. It’s also used to enhance the colors of over-the-counter and cosmetic products like sunscreen, lipstick, toothpaste, and creams.

According to the European Food Safety Authority, titanium dioxide can accumulate in the body, resulting in potential neurotoxicity, inflammation, and even damage to DNA, which can lead to the formation of cancer cells. For this reason, the EFSA no longer considers titanium dioxide safe when used as a food additive. The FDA still considers titanium dioxide safe for human consumption, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Potassium bromate

white bread white background

It’s no secret that bread is a complicated science. Getting bread to have that perfect rise, crunchy crust, and fluffy body isn’t easy and it takes time. Gluten, which forms the backbone of any bread-making endeavor, has to rest in order for the chemical bridges that bind the molecules together that lead to the properties we associate with great bread. But at some point, food scientists discovered a workaround: potassium bromate (PB).

According to Live Science, PB is a powerful oxidizing agent that bleaches bread dough and increases its elasticity without having to wait for the bread flour to age. This results in the soft, fluffy, white bread that you’re probably used to seeing in the supermarket. Ideally, the chemical is baked off during the heating process, but if any is left, it has been proven to cause cancer in the thyroids, kidneys, and other body parts of rats and mice in studies. The additive is banned in Europe, China, Canada, and Brazil, and in California, state law requires warning labels to be displayed on products containing PB.

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