Artificial food dyes have been scorned by public health officials for a few reasons, but some dyes that are often used in the U.S. have to come with a warning label in the European Union. The label of any food that uses yellow 5, yellow 6 or red 40 must have a warning label that says the coloring agents "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." These food dyes can be found in anything from candy to ketchup in the United States, though some companies such as Kraft and Mars, Incorporated have started to phase out these food dyes in favor of more natural alternatives.
Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is a whitening agent and dough conditioner used in baked goods. You may find it in certain breads and pastries in the U.S., though it's no longer allowed as a food additive in Australia and the European Union. In other industries such as leather and plastics, ADA is used in factory production and has been linked to asthma and other health concerns. As a food additive, it hasn't been extensively tested, but the U.S. government maintains ADA is "generally recognized as safe." Even still, some fast food restaurants in the U.S. including Subway and Wendy's have publicly announced that they stopped using ADA in their food after the compound got some bad publicity.
Brominated vegetable oil
Brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, is used in citrus-y sodas such as lemon-lime soda or orange. It was more widespread in decades past, but you can still find BVO in some popular sodas such as Mountain Dew and Sun Drop. It's an emulsifier, which means it's used to prevent separation of liquids. There are reports of scary health effects related to ingesting large amounts of BVO, including one case in which a man who drank 2 to 4 liters of soda every day experienced memory loss, tremors, fatigue, loss of muscle coordination, headaches and drooping of the right eyelid. BVO is banned in many countries around the world, including the European Union, India and Japan. In the United States, the FDA permits it but limits the concentration that can be used in a beverage.
A preservative called butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) can still be found in many American snack foods and other processed food items. It's used to prevent oxidization in some cereals, potato chips, cookies and vegetable oils. BHA is heavily regulated in the European Union, where it is classified as an endocrine disruptor. However, the FDA categorizes this additive as "generally recognized as safe," and so BHA is still widespread in the American food supply. In some animal studies, scientists have seen links between large doses of BHA and cancer growth, though in human studies they have seen no significant association between routine low-level consumption and cancer risk.
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a sister compound to BHA, often used alongside BHA in packaged foods as a preservative. You'll find BHT in American snack foods and breads. In the U.S., BHT is "generally recognized as safe," but consumer advocacy groups have cautioned heavily that it may not be as safe as it seems. BHT is permitted abroad, but heavily regulated and limited as a food additive. In the U.S., however, there are no such restrictions and BHT can be found in varying concentrations in many products.
You might think of chlorine as something mostly used to clean your pool, but some of your food might be washed with it, as well. Poultry in particular is sometimes chlorine-washed in the U.S., though the European Union bans the practice. Chlorine washing is a quick, cost-effective method of cleaning foodborne bacteria and other contaminants off of poultry carcasses. The method itself is safe - the European Union bans it because of suspicions that for especially dirty, muddy animals, the chlorine alone might not be sufficient and may hide other poor hygiene behaviors at other points in the supply chain.
Dairy with growth hormones
Bovine growth hormones such as rBGH and rBST are used by large companies in the American dairy industry to expedite the placental development of cattle and produce the largest number of cattle at the lowest cost. After four large pharmaceutical companies - Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Eli Lilly and Upjohn - submitted rBST products to the FDA in the 1990s, the FDA approved dairy produced with these hormones for human consumption. However, there's a lot of controversy over whether these hormones are abusive towards animals and whether the dairy products produced with them are safe for humans. As a result, the European Union, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina have all banned the use of rBST.
Genetically modified fruits and vegetables
Many of the fruits and vegetables you see on American supermarket shelves have been genetically modified. GMOs are created for a number of reasons including disease resistance, taste quality, pest resistance and other factors affecting farming and distribution. The European Union and various other countries impose stricter regulations and bans on certain GMOs, restricting the number of American crops that can be exported to Europe.
Meat fed with certain feed additives
Ractopamine is a feed additive banned in 160 countries, including the European Union, China and Russia, and heavily regulated in many others. It's used to induce weight gain in pigs, cattle and turkeys before they're slaughtered. There are safety concerns for animals that are fed with ractopamine; some animals, for instance, gained weight so rapidly that they lost the ability to stand. Others lose the function of their limbs or become hyperactive. For humans, a safety evaluation conducted by the European Union looked into suspicions that these products could affect blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease, but these findings were inconclusive. One way to avoid these products in the U.S. is to buy organic meats; in order for a product to be certified organic, it cannot involve animals fed with these additives.
Olestra was one of the biggest diet food fails of all time, and though it's been banned in the European Union and Canada, it's still legal in the United States. Olestra is an additive that can replicate the taste of fats in snack foods without adding fat or calories. It was discovered on accident by Procter & Gamble (making it one of many foods that was discovered accidentally) in 1968. At first, it seemed to be lowering cholesterol in those who ate it, but it was never approved as a medical drug. But decades later, in 1996, olestra was approved by the FDA as a food additive. However, this additive may have been approved too easily. People soon started to experience some less-than-desirable side effects after eating these snack foods, including Lay's Wow! Chips and Pringles Light potato chips. The side effects include abdominal cramping and loose stool, caused by excess fat in stool called steatorrhea. The FDA at first required olestra products to carry a warning label, but that requirement was dropped in 2003.
This food additive is found in some types of baked goods, often added to flour to help dough rise and improve texture of the final product. Studies suggest that potassium bromate can be harmful to human health if enough of it is ingested in food. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies potassium bromate as a carcinogen, and as such it's been banned from use in food in the European Union, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Peru, Sri Lanka, China and (most recently) India. The FDA has yet to ban potassium bromate from foods but has urged bakers not to use it, and some restaurants have started to opt out of baking with it in response to public demand. These aren't the only chemicals you'll find in American foods - here are 19 of the most common chemical additives and what they do.
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