The phrase ‘food chemicals’ sounds absolutely petrifying, doesn’t it? But after the azodicarbonamide Subway scandal recently, it’s something that we all need to be a bit more tuned into. While it takes extra time and understanding, it’s definitely worth trying to understand what chemicals are, and whether you want to be consuming them. Subway may have agreed to remove azodicarbonamide from their Hearty Italian breads this time, but there won’t always be a scandal to save you! Here are the food chemicals you should know about right now…
Tartrazine is one of the best known food chemicals in the world. It’s actually a yellow food dye, and Kraft announced last year that it would be removing the dye from foods such as macaroni cheese. Food dyes have been linked to everything from hyperactivity to cancer, but they are still widely used across candy, baked goods and processed ready meals. Did you know that you need to check your drinks too, though? Beverages often contain dyes, despite often having a dark colour.
2. Butylated Hydroxyanisole
Or BHA, for short! BHA is a preservative that is often used to preserve carbohydrates such as cereals and breads. It’s also used a lot in chewing gum, petroleum products and rubber. Yep. The National Institutes of Health says that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”, after trials on fish and rodents, but it’s still used widely. Definitely one to look into and decide if you are happy to eat it.
3. Sodium Nitrite
Sodium nitrite is often used to preserve meats, and to make them the colour that you expect bacon, ham, hot dogs and smoked fish to be. Meat products that haven’t been treated tend to have a gray appearance rather than the usual red, and this has been proven to negatively impact sales. Should it, though? Sodium nitrite is often considered safe because it’s naturally found in some vegetables, but naturally it occurs with ascorbic acid, which prevents the body from absorbing the chemical. Most food manufacturers now do this too, but not all do, so it’s worth checking.
4. Propyl Gallate
This chemical usually occurs alongside BHA, above, or a chemical called Butylated Hydroxytoluene or BHT. It’s an antioxidant which protects oily products from oxidation, which would cause them to go off. It’s found in everyday products such as dried meats, chicken soup, gum and mayonnaise, as well as beauty products as hair serums and even household adhesives. There are some suggestions that the chemical is an endocrine disruptor, which basically means that it interrupts human’s hormones, but testing has been inconclusive so far. If you’re trying for a baby, you might be advised to avoid Propyl gallate until further studies are done.
Silica is found a lot of forms, from being listed as silica to being listed as silica dioxide or calcium silicate. This is a naturally occurring element that is made up of shells of tiny single-cell algea, such as sand. It’s used in dry coffee creamer, dried soups and basically anything powdery. When it’s not in your food, it’s an insect repellant that removes the oily film that protects an insect, causing it to dry out and die. A recent EPA study showed the ‘low’ consumption by humans wasn’t dangerous, but it has been linked to lung problems in rodents.
You might also find this listed as glycerol triacetate. It’s actually listed as a ‘safe’ food additive by the FDA, although it’s in the ‘generally recognised’ section. It’s commonly used as a plasticizer, giving foods that gummy texture found in some sweets and chewing gum. It can also be used to prevent food from drying out, or to improve the texture of baked goods such as cakes. Other uses include perfume, make up, cigarette fillers and even viagra. Tests are ongoing on how much triacetin is safe to consume, but there is certainly a lot of debate. One to keep an eye on.
Another of the most popular food chemicals, tert-butylhydroquinone is a chemical preservative in the form of butane. It’s commonly found in potato chips, crackers and fast food, although it can also be found in household products such as varnishes and resins. The most common reason for adding it to food is to increase its lifespan, and in small doses, it’s considered safe for human consumption. In higher doses, it’s been found to cause nausea, sickness, delirium, collapse, tinnitus and even “a feeling of suffocation”. It can also be responsible for restlessness and some eye problems. Definitely one to watch if you suffer from any of these symptoms.
Looking at food chemicals is pretty sobering. It’s a great way to motivate you into cooking your own foods and reducing the amount of processed things that you eat! Do you pay attention to food chemicals?