The Kitchen Think: Dangerous Food Additives


Do you know what are the most dangerous food additives?

You read food labels, I’m sure, and as a general rule you know to avoid sodium nitrites, artificial sweeteners and artificial food dyes. But what else is out there?

My friends at and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have put out an amazing downloadable booklet and an app called Chemical Cuisine: Your Guide to Food Additives. It’s packed with everything you need to know about additives. For example:

1. What’s safe.

2. What you should cut back on.

3. What you should be cautious about.

4. What certain people should avoid.

5. What to stay away from completely.

Here’s a quick printable cheat sheet on dangerous additives that food companies are still putting into what we buy in our grocery stores. These additives are unsafe in certain amounts consumed or very poorly tested and not worth the risk. Some of these are banned in other countries, but not the United States:

Here’s more detail on each of the harmful additives. But for the complete picture, you should download the guide to food additives from Nutrition and the Center for Science in the Public’s Interest… or get the App!

Dangerous Food Additives

Acesulfame Potassium: This artificial sweetener, often used with sucralose and aspartame, has not been adequately tested and has been found to cause cancer in animals.

Aloe Vera: I know many will disagree with me on this one, but aloe vera can cause stomach cramps and diarrhea. It’s found in beverages, food and flavorings and has been found to cause cancer intestinal cancers in rats. Use in skin-care products appears to be okay.

Artificial Colorings: Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6. May cause tumors and/or cancer. Yellow 5 has been found to cause allergic reactions and spike hyperactivity in some children.

 Dangerous Food Additives

Aspartame: Many of us consume this artificial sweetener in diet foods everyday. Also known as Equal and NutraSweet, this additive has been shown to cause cancer in rats, as well as headaches and dizziness in humans… me included.

Brominated Vegetable Oil: This was a new one for me. BVO keeps flavor oils in suspension, giving a cloudy appearance to citrus-flavored soft drinks like Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange and Gatorade. Tests have shown that BVO leaves residues in body fat as well as fat in the brain, liver and other organs. This additive is banned in Europe.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole: You’ll find BHA in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips and vegetable oil because it slows rancidity in fats, oils and oil in food. The U.S. Department of Healthy and Human Serves says BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” yet food companies are allowed to keep using it.

 Dangerous Food Additives

Caramel Coloring: Caramel coloring is used to simulate the appearance of cocoa in baked goods, make meats and gravies look more attractive and darken soft drinks and beer. It is usually made by heating sugar (usually high-dextrose corn syrup) with ammonia or other chemicals. Caramel coloring is potentially carcinogenic to humans.

Cyclamates: This artificial sweetener has been banned in the U.S. since 1970 because it increases the potency of carcinogens.

Ginko Biloba: This herb has been around for a long time (centuries!) and has been used in traditional healing. It supposedly boosts memory, but it has been shown to interfere with blood clotting.

Inter-esterified Vegetable Oil (also know as Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil or Trans Fat): This is a fat found in oil shortening, stick margarine, crackers, fried restaurant food, baked goods… the list goes on and on. High consumption of trans fat has been linked to obesity, heart attacks and strokes.

 Dangerous Food Additives

Mycoprotein: You see the word “protein” and you think, “This must be a good thing.” Wrong. This is a meat substitute made from processed mold not mushrooms, as the manufacturer has implied in ads and labeling. This additive can cause severe and even allergic reactions. It’s made by Marlow Foods under the Quorn brand label.

Olestra (also known as Olean): A fat substitute that is often found in “Light” potato chips and snacks. It’s a synthetic fat, but it can cause diarrhea, cramps and other stomach disorders.

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil  (also know as Inter-esterified Vegetable Oil or Trans Fat): Similar to Inter-esterified Vegetable Oil above. This is a fat found in ready-to-bake biscuits, oil shortening, stick margarine, crackers, fried restaurant food… and Americans eat a lot of it. Linked to obesity, heart attacks and strokes.

 Dangerous Food Additives

Potassium Bromate: This additive is a “flour improver”; it increases the volume of bread to produce bread with a fine crumb. Bromate is banned almost worldwide (except in the U.S. and Japan) because it causes cancer in animals.

Propyl Gallate: This preservative, found in vegetable oil, meat products, chewing gum and chicken soup base, and might cause cancer. It slows the spoilage of fats and oils and is often used with BHA and BHT.

Saccharin: The food industry’s go-to artificial sweetener, especially in diet soft drinks, no-sugar added products and sweetener packets (Sweet ‘N Low). This additive has been shown  to cause cancer (especially bladder cancer) and increases the potency of certain cancer-causing chemicals.

 Dangerous Food Additives

Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite: Bacon’s best friend, this preservative stabilizes the red color in cured meats like ham, frankfurters and lunch meat. Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of potent cancer-causing chemicals in the food.

TBHQ (Tert-Butylhdroquinone): A preservative that prevents rancidity in vegetable oil, snack foods, cereals and other fat containing food. This additive has been shown to increase tumors in lab rats.

Factory-made foods with chemical additives are part of our lives now, but we should try to understand the safety ratings of these ingredients. Remember, knowledge is power… especially when it comes to what we eat.

Extra Helpings: Kosher Salt vs. Table Salt


Blanca asks: What is the difference between regular salt and kosher salt? If I don’t have kosher salt, can I just use regular salt in my recipe?

There’s something so flamboyantly romantic and artistic when a chef reaches into a crock for a pinch of salt and throws it into the food with a flourish (and, no, Mama doesn’t find it the least bit show-offish). It just wouldn’t have the same effect if the chef stood there with a saltshaker… shaking, shaking, shaking… would it?

Anyhow, that’s kosher salt the chef is using… not table salt.

Chefs love kosher salt because the large grains make it easy to season with and because it dissolves slowly in cooking. It’s also chemical free, so it tastes better.

Unlike kosher salt, anti-caking chemicals are added to table salt to help it flow freely out of the saltshaker. Iodine is also in there, and has been since 1924, when the government asked the Morton Salt Co. to add it to its product. (People weren’t getting enough iodine in their diets, so the government stepped i… hard to imagine that happening today without an uproar, huh?).

Table salt also weighs more than kosher salt, so that’s another reason why you can’t substitute it equally.

So to answer your question, there is a difference: texture, taste and weight.

Oh, one other thing… and as long as no organic ingredient is introduced into it, salt, kosher or table, keeps forever. For more info about different kinds of salt, click here.


Extra Helpings: Xanthan Gum


Florence asks: I’ve started baking gluten-free and a lot of recipes (including yours!) call for something called Xanthan gum. What is it and why do I need it… I don’t want more chemicals in my food!


No one wants more chemicals in their food, so I totally hear you. But Florence, Xanthan gum is not a chemical! It’s made by fermenting corn sugar with a tiny bacterial microorganism called (are you ready?) Xanthomonas campestris. It’s a completely natural carbohydrate.

Xanthan gum adds volume and viscosity to your gluten-free baking… in other words, it makes your dough sticky. Big food companies have been using it for years as an emulsifier and thickener.

I’m sure you’ve considered leaving it out, since it doesn’t seem like it’ll be easy to find in the supermarket. Well, if you are going to start baking gluten-free, and you want great results… find it and use it.

Actually, it is a lot easier to get these days than it was even a year ago. Bob’s Red Mill has it in half-pound bags… more than enough for a month’s worth of baking because a little bit goes a long way! You can usually find it on the ever-expanding gluten-free aisle or with the speciality flours.

One thing to keep in mind… Xanthan gum can be made from fermenting wheat and soy (as well as corn), so if you’re trying to be Gluten-Free… read the label!



Kitchen Think: Russia, China and EU All Ban This Drug… Why Don’t We?


Image-by-EWGThink about this a moment.

A few days ago, Russia banned imports of U.S. pork and beef because the meats may contain the feed additive ractopamine. That’s the same additive banned in China, Taiwan and the European Union.

Ractopamine is used to develop lean muscle in livestock… pigs that are fed the additive during the last weeks of their lives produce an average of 10% more meat and have less fat. Between 60% and 80% of the pigs in this country are given the additive.

But since it’s been in use, the drug maker (Eli Lilly) has received hundreds of reports from vets and farmers about pigs that became sick or lame because of the additive. The situation is serious enough that the Food and Drug Administration now requires the drug to carry a warning label when it’s dispensed.

Thirteen years ago, the FDA declared ractopamine safe for livestock… Really? Ractopamine mimics stress hormones, making a pig’s heart beat faster and relaxing its blood vessels. Ractopamine hasn’t been proposed for human use, but somehow, I have to believe that these additives find their way into our bodies if we’re eating livestock that’s been fed the drug.

There’s something unsettling about the fact that other countries (including China, which has a history of goosing food with illegal substances) have taken a stand on ractopamine. It makes me wonder, once again, if the FDA is looking out for big business or us.

Thankfully, if you’re concerned enough about this, some American food companies are avoiding ractopamine altogether… like Whole Foods Markets and Chipotle Restaurants.

But what about regular grocery stores where discount prices fuel the way we shop? Mama’s always preaching about reading labels and being informed BEFORE you buy.

Ractopamine is one of the BIG reasons why.


I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: