7 Crazy Food Additives You Probably Missed on the Nutrition Label
Dunkin' Donuts recently announced that you'll no longer find titanium dioxide in their tasty treats. Thanks DD—but why the heck was it in there to start? The food additive is used in a lot of products, including some powdered sugars, to make whites whiter. (And if that sounds like a commercial for laundry detergent that's because it's found there too.) In fact, the white mineral makes up about 70 percent of the pigments used in the world. It's odorless, highly absorbent, and cheap, making it the perfect "dye."
Where you find it: In addition to some types of powdered sugar and laundry soap, titanium dioxide is in thousands of other products, including ranch dressing, plastic cutlery, many types of makeup, paint, icing on baked goods, and as a filler in vitamins and supplements. It also blocks UV rays, making it one of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen.
What the experts say: The FDA currently classifies it as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, and it's estimated that most Americans eat up to a trillion nanoparticles of it a day, most of us with no ill effects. However, new research has linked the chemical to inflammatory bowel diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease, and a 2015 study found that it caused genetic damage. Plus, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a class 2 carcinogen after numerous studies found it causes cancer in lab animals. While not everyone agrees it's dangerous, some companies are phasing it out just to be safe, like Dunkin'.
Beaver Anal Gland Juice
Yes, you read that right. And we can't believe this is actually in food either. (First question: how did people even discover that beaver anal gland juice is tasty?) But castoreum (as it's technically known) is a "creamy orange" natural flavoring made by drying the perineal glands of beavers and combining them with their secretions, and, yes, that includes urine and the other stuff that comes out of beaver butts. However, since beavers eat a variety of wood and plant products, their secretions have a "musky vanilla" scent and are said to naturally enhance fruit flavors.
Where you find it: Snack foods, candies, gelatin, ice cream, and drinks with strawberry and raspberry flavors
What the experts say: As gross as it sounds, it's actually a safe non-toxic alternative to artificial flavorings. The FDA classifies it as safe for human consumption and a 2007 study concluded that its long historical use as a flavoring and fragrance shows no reports of adverse reactions in humans. The scientists even found it has some natural antibiotic properties. So eat up!
Because of it's rep as the drug of choice for old-time murderers, most of us would never suspect there's arsenic in our modern-era food. But the metalloid element occurs naturally in dirt and is easily absorbed by foods growing in these soils. Too much arsenic can kill you (hence its popularity as a poison of both rats and humans), but the FDA says even tiny amounts can lead to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and lung disease.
Where you find it: While grains, produce, juice, and even water contain some arsenic, the biggest culprit is rice, thanks to its ability to efficiently remove the toxin from the soil and store it in its outer hull. Brown rice and foods containing rice flour, like crackers, cereals, granola bars, rice syrup, and even baby food have the highest levels.
What the experts say: It's impossible to completely avoid arsenic, so it's all about minimizing your exposure, according to the FDA. This is why they've set acceptable limits of how much of the toxin can be found in juices and drinking water. When it comes to rice, choose white over brown, Basmati over other varieties, and California-grown brands over southern- or foreign- grown. But in the end, it's all about moderation. “If you are a person who is eating rice every day, and also snacking on rice products, then that five micrograms from rice crackers becomes significant,” Brian Jackson, Ph.D., director of the Trace Metal Analysis Core Facility at Dartmouth College, told the New York Times. “If once a month, not so much. The idea is to eat a varied diet and be aware of how much rice you are eating.”
Brominated Vegetable Oil
It's an oil and even has "vegetable" in the name, so how unhealthy could be brominated vegetable oil be? Turns out, there are actually no veggies involved in the popular food additive, and repeated consumption causes bromine to build up in your fatty tissue. And bromine, a potent toxin, can cause all kinds of long-term health problems including cancer, heart disease, and thyroid dysfunction.
Where you find it: Citrus-flavored sodas and drinks including Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, Fresca and Powerade
What the experts say: The FDA took back their Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) designation in 1970 after studies linked the oil to heart disease and cancer in lab rats. But they stopped short of banning it, saying they were waiting on more research and allowed it to be used in the meantime. Nearly 50 years later, the FDA has yet to render a verdict, but BVO is now banned in Europe, Australia, and Japan. Thanks to petitions in the U.S., Coke and Pepsi recently announced they'll be phasing it out of their drinks. It's also relatively easy to avoid—water, juice, or milk are better for your overall health, anyhow!
Cochineal extract is made by crushing dried female cochineal beetles, a method that has been used for centuries to give a beautiful, bright red coloring to food and cosmetics. It can also be listed on labels as carmine, crimson lake, cochineal, or natural red #4.
Where you find it: Lipstick, Pop Tarts, candies, gelatin, juices, herbal teas and even pink yogurt
What the experts say: A study done by The World Health Organization found it to be a natural ingredient that is both safe and effective. But we think Burt's Bees, the popular natural cosmetics company, sums it up best with their explanation: "We are aware that it is hard to understand why we would choose to use this ingredient in our products...We choose to use it because it is natural and it provides a unique red/blue pigment in our formulas, without compromising our product quality and aesthetic standards. We believe it is a better alternative to compounds such as D&C Red #7, D&C Red #6, which are 100 percent synthetic, or FD&C No. 40, which is derived from coal tar (a non renewable fossil fuel)."
Fat gives foods a smooth texture and creamy flavor, and can help you feel satiated longer after a meal. But not all fats are created equal, especially those that are created in laboratories. Scientists have long been looking for a fat that will stay stable on shelves and not go rancid quickly—trans-fats were used for years, until they were banned; interesterifies are the latest attempt at creating a long-lasting fat that can be added to processed foods.
Where you find it: Canned soup, baked goods, margarine, pre-made meals, and snack foods
What the experts say: Despite the healthy-sounding name, a 2010 meta-analysis found that interesterified fats have similar effects as trans-fats on people, raising bad cholesterol and upping the risk for heart disease. In addition, they were found to have negative effects on blood glucose, insulin, immune function, and liver enzymes.
Dog Sex Pheremones
Methylparaben is a chemical found in dog urine and sex pheremones, and is also widely used as preservatives in food and makeup. Part of the larger paraben family, it has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, which is why it's so useful. And before you get too worried, know that most methylparaben is now synthesized in the lab, no horny canines required.
Where it's found: As a preservative in beer, wine, and cosmetics
What the experts say: Parabens have been in the news a lot recently as possible health hazards. But in a meta-analysis, researchers found that methylparaben doesn't seem to cause cancer or other diseases. However, it can alter mitochondrial function in your cells, and a significant group of people have an allergic skin reaction to it. So while the FDA classifies it as GRAS, many cosmetic companies are working to remove it.