Behind the Label: Processed Foods Serve Up Questionable Additives

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Even at the green grocery store, harmful food additives lurk behind innocent-looking labels. Hundreds of shoppers who reached for "Quorn" veggie burgers, for example, became ill with severe vomiting and diarrhea. Others developed hives and had trouble breathing. It wasn't clear from the label, but Quorn is made from an allergy-inducing mold called Fusarium venenatum.

Others who purchased products like juice, yogurt and ice cream listing "natural colorings" ended up eating tiny ground-up bugs. Disguised as an additive called "carmine," the insects can cause a severe allergic reaction or even anaphylactic shock in sensitive people.

Government regulators protect the public from harmful food additives much of the time, but there are obvious holes in the system, says Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association. The FDA does not consider the synergistic effects of multiple food additives. And more specific tests are needed for special groups, such as diabetics and children.

Buying Science

Most of the FDA tests on food additives are conducted and paid for by the manufacturer, so there is a built-in potential for ethical conflicts. It pays, then, to read labels carefully. "It's a matter of equipping your tool belt with knowledge about the most problematic additives" Minowa says. "There's all sorts of stuff hidden in there."

Chicago nutritionist David Grotto, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, puts it this way: "If you can't pronounce it, it would probably make sense to avoid it in food." He adds that if a product has an ingredient list longer than your arm, it should be avoided.

Minowa, Grotto and Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), offer this list of offenders:

Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oil. "The science is completely irrefutable as far as the toxic effects of consuming hydrogenated oil," says Minowa. "When you consume it, your body immediately goes into a defense mode." This stuff is in everything yummy, from donuts and fried chicken to French fries, chips and Twinkies. The health effects? Not so appetizing. These oils produce trans fat, which is linked to, among other things, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.

Sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate. If left on the shelf for a week, meat tends to turn an unpleasant grayish color. To keep their hotdogs, bacon and bologna looking pink, meat companies add sodium nitrite. There's one problem: This additive turns into something cancerous called nitrosamine in the body. Recently, meat producers started adding ascorbic acid, which is supposed to prevent nitrosamines from forming. Still, for kids and pregnant women, it may be wise to steer clear. "The amount this one ingredient can add to your cancer risk is incredible," Minowa says. Indulging in the occasional hotdog at the ballpark won't kill you, Grotto says. But eating nitrate-laden lunch meat several times a week isn't a good idea, he says.

Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet). Scientists and regulators have debated the potential link between aspartame and cancer since the 1970s. A 2005 Italian study found rats that drank aspartame equivalent to three or four cans of diet soda per day had a significantly higher chance of developing leukemia or lymphoma. A 2006 National Cancer Institute study--which used human subjects rather than animals--found no brain cancer link. "I think the Italian study raised a red flag," says CSPI's Jacobson. …