30 Common Chemicals You Don’t Even Know You’re Eating

by admin on August 3, 2010

Michael Pollan’s maxim for eating reads: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It’s advice we could all use, especially considering how much of our meals are made up not by food but by food-like products. The food we eat every day is as much a delivery system for scores of unknown chemicals as it as a way to fill up for a few hours. Some of these chemicals can even lead to disease, as doctors, nurses, and even medical coders have witnessed. Next time you’re at the grocery store, before you put an item in your cart, check the label to see what chemicals it contains. Chances are you’ll find something you didn’t even know you were eating, and that knowledge is the first step to eating better.

No Side Effects

  1. Folic acid: This is one of the most helpful dietary supplements out there for preventing heart disease. You’ll find it in a bunch of grain products, like cereal, bread, flour, noodles, and macaroni.
  2. Fumaric acid: Fumaric acid is used in jellies to control their acidity, and it has no side effects.
  3. Lactic acid: Lactic acid tastes bitter and is reaped from sour milk and used as a flavoring agent in a variety of products, including cheeses and preserves. Safe to eat.
  4. Lecithin: This emulsifier occurs naturally in milk and is added to dairy products like cheese, margarine, and chocolate to keep foods from separating. Although an additive, it’s totally safe.
  5. Pectin: If you’ve ever had canned fruit, you’ve probably had pectin. (As a kid, I pretty much lived on canned peaches.) It’s added to foods like fruits and preserves to keep contents from separating and to hold them together.
  6. Propionic acid: It’s an intimidating name for something really helpful: Propionic acid acts a mold inhibitor, meaning you can enjoy cheese and bread longer than normal. (Of course, cheese is naturally kinda moldy anyway, but just go with it.)
  7. Algin: Algin comes from brown algae, where it reacts with water to form a binding gum. It’s used in food to extend shelf life and boost the thickness and creaminess of products like ice cream and pudding.
  8. Glycerin: Glycerin tastes sweet and is low on the toxicity scale, and it’s also colorless and odorless. Add that up, and you start to see why it’s such a popular way to add flavor to food, preserve food life, and even enhance low-fat foods like cookies.
  9. Guar gum: Guar gum is a substance made from the ground-up beans of the guar plant, a legume mostly found in India. If it’s in your food, it’s being used as a stabilizer in cheese (legit and processed kinds), jellies, and preserves.
  10. Erythorbic acid: Erythorbic acid is derived from vegetables, and though it is (obviously) an acidic substance, it’s acceptable in lower amounts. You’ll find it in soda and wine as a preservative used to maintain flavor and color over time.

Potential Side Effects

  1. Diacetyl: Butter without butter, this is the stuff added to microwave popcorn to make you think you’re eating something with a real buttery topping. Of course, it’s also used in mosquito repellant. There have even been concerns about consumer exposure to the chemical. The easy fix: Pop your own corn and add real butter.
  2. Aspartame: Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that won over crowds for tasting better than saccharine. However, it includes a component called phenylalanine that can’t be metabolized by those with phenylketonuria, a rare disease. As a result, pregnant women are discouraged from ingesting aspartame.
  3. Polydimethylsiloxane: It’s a mouthful, I know, but this chemical is an important element in Silly Putty, and it’s also found in processed foods like McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. Yes, the same stuff that goes into a rubbery toy goes into a quasi-chicken meal. Charming.
  4. Butylated hydroxyanisole: This antioxidant is used as a food additive despite the fact that has caused cancer in rats. The National Institutes of Health state that butylated hydroxyanisole is "reasonably anticipated" to become a human carcinogen, to boot, so if you see this name peeking out at you from food labels, walk away.
  5. Propylene glycol: This organic compound has a faintly sweet taste and appears in multiple products as a food additive, though it’s also used as a coolant and as a moisturizer in tobacco and cosmetics. Plus it’s a major ingredient in deodorant sticks. Think about armpits the next time you open up the pantry.
  6. Chemical flame retardants: A 2005 report found that Canadians were ingesting extremely high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a class of chemicals used as flame retardants in everything from foam to plastic. The chemicals were in several different food items, including ground beef and butter.
  7. Sodium pyrophosphate: It can’t be a good sign that this thickening agent is described as "toxic" and "irritating." It appears in foods like chicken nuggets, marshmallows, crab meat (real and imitation), and pudding.
  8. Sodium nitrite: Sodium nitrite is used primarily as a preservative in meat and fish. Its chemical applications also extend to photography and the production of rubber. It’s found naturally in many vegetables and can be helpful as an additive meant to preserve the condition of meat, but high doses can be toxic. What’s more, certain high-temperature conditions can alter it into a compound that might promote cancer.
  9. Sodium benzoate: This preservative is seen in everything from soda to fruit juice, as well as salad dressings and other condiments. The bad news is that it can combine with ascorbic acid to form benzene, a harmful carcinogen. A soda can’s exposure to heat affects the rate at which this process might occur, so keep an eye out.
  10. Potassium bromate: Potassium bromate, used in baking bread, has been banned in the United Kingdom and Europe, though not in the United States. If too much is added to the dough, it won’t all be used up in the baking process, and whatever’s left behind can be toxic. Check bread labels to see if it was used in the baking. (Bread sold in California is required to use a warning label when potassium bromate is used.)
  11. Astaxanthin: This chemical is used in the coloring of farm-raised salmon, since they’re not able to get it in the wild and are thus differently colored without it. (Weird, I know.) For humans, it’s just another food additive and antioxidant rumored to be helpful.
  12. Monosodium glutamate: Also known as MSG, this chemical is one of the more high-profile additives to make headlines. It’s a food and flavor enhancer often found in stocks, sauces, and canned food, and though reports have shown it to be acceptable at lower levels, some people can have a negative reaction to the chemical in higher doses. It probably won’t hurt you, but if you want to avoid it, that’s fine, too.
  13. Emulsifiers: Bread wasn’t created to last as long as it does in the grocery store, so emulsifiers help extend its shelf life. Emulsifiers also blend components that normally wouldn’t mix, a process helpful in the manufacturing of ice cream, salad dressings (oil and water), and more.
  14. Olestra: Wouldn’t it be awesome to eat fatty foods without the fat? That’s what fat-substitute olestra tries to make happen, though the food additive is responsible for a side effect you never want to associate with snacking: anal leakage. Sure, it might not effect you, but it’s a risky gamble to make. Always check the labels on food products.
  15. Partially hydrogenated oils: Adding hydrogen to oil makes it a dense, semi-solid oil that resembles butter but is a lot cheaper to make, which is why partially hydrogenated oil is in a lot of stuff you eat. The downsides? Weight problems, diabetes, and a general addiction to the chemical.
  16. Polysorbate 80: Another popular emulsifier, polysorbate 80 is often seen in ice cream, and a small number of people are allergic to it. It can also decrease fertility in high doses, but you’d have to gorge on the stuff for weeks, so you’re probably out of danger.
  17. Sterol esters: Sterids are added to margarine to regulate your cholesterol by inhibiting its absorption in the intestine. It’s safe to use, but as with all things, use moderation.
  18. Calcium carbonate: It’s from rocks! Yes, calcium carbonate is found in rocks around the world, and it’s used as a calcium supplement and antacid. It’s also present in soy milk as a calcium source. As with everything that didn’t start out in your food, excessive doses can be dangerous.
  19. Propyl gallate: This compound is used to preserve fats and oils and is found in meat products and chicken soup base. However, certain studies on animals have shown that it might promote cancer, so it’s definitely an additive to avoid if possible.
  20. Acesulfame-K: Another sweetener to be concerned about, Acesulfame-K is often present in baked goods and chewing gum. Because it’s relatively new (the FDA approved it in 1998), it’s best to use in low doses.

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