Each country has its own standards for what ingredients and
food production practices it considers safe. And some of what’s considered
normal practice for the food industry in the United States is handled very
differently in other countries.
It’s well known that rates of chronic diseases like cancer,
heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are high in the U.S. And the country is
also saturated with food allergies and behavioral disorders.
In many cases, these conditions and diseases are highly preventable. It turns
out that there are a number of ingredients and food additives that other
countries have banned, but the U.S. still uses. Could it be possible that some
of them could be playing a part in the public health crises?
The Problem with FDA Regulation
As much as we would like to believe that everything on store
shelves is delicious, good for us, and safe, the truth is not always so
reassuring. In fact, the food supply in the U.S. (and many other nations, too)
is full of chemical flavorings, additives, colorings, and other ingredients that
you may not want to put in your body. Before we start naming names, let’s
explore how the U.S. government could let this happen.
For starters, the FDA states that
food companies can market new chemicals and food additives WITHOUT FDA
oversight or approval, so long as “the substance is generally recognized, among
qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe… ”
This is known as the GRAS system, and it might sound all
well and good. But what makes someone a “qualified expert”? And how are they
able to determine which chemicals food companies can add to the food we feed
our children? It turns out that these companies often convene their
own “expert” panels to decide whether the ingredient will pose harm. And
many of these panels contain scientists with financial ties to all manner of
industries – even including the tobacco industry (“experts” who may have, at
one time, recommended that cigarettes were safe!). Based on the panel’s
recommendations, companies then decide whether
or not to share the results of the assessment with the FDA. They don’t even
have to do so!
Most of the chemicals on the GRAS list have never had
long-term testing on humans, and therefore can’t possibly be guaranteed safe.
And some of them don’t stand up to the test of time, either. For example, BHA
is “generally recognized as safe” – despite the fact that the National Institutes
of Health’s National Toxicology Program concluded that
BHA can be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
And then there are artificial trans
fats, which have historically been on the GRAS list and added to foods like
frozen pizza, peanut
butter, packaged snack foods, vegetable shortenings, and ready-to-use
frostings to improve their flavor, texture, and shelf life. Unfortunately, we
later learned that trans fats were causing upwards
of 500,000 deaths per year from associated heart disease.
In 2015, the FDA finally decided that trans fats, or
partially hydrogenated oils, were unsafe,
giving food manufacturers a few years to remove them from the food supply.
Since the ban took place, many food companies have replaced trans fats with
ingredients like palm oil instead, which comes with its own set of concerns.
11 Banned Ingredients That Are STILL Widely Used in the
Below are some of the most commonly used food ingredients
and practices that are allowed in the United States, but banned elsewhere.
Banned Ingredients #1 — Dough Conditioners
Dough conditioners, such as potassium bromate and
azodicarbonamide are chemicals used to improve the strength and texture of
bread dough. Dough conditioners are often found in
white breads, rolls, and “egg breads.” However, they are possible human carcinogens (potassium
bromate is classified as
a category 2B carcinogen).
And exposure to them is known to cause respiratory sensitivity, such as asthma
or other breathing difficulty.
As such, potassium bromate is banned in
China, India, Brazil, the European Union, and Canada. And azodicarbonamide
is banned in
Australia and Europe.
Banned Ingredients #2 — Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) was originally patented by
chemical companies as a flame retardant. But now, BVO can be found in certain
colorful sports drinks and citrus-flavored sodas as an emulsifier. Studies have
shown that BVO isn’t harmless. It actually accumulates in
human tissue, as well as breast milk, and can cause memory
loss over time. Bromine toxicity can lead to skin rashes, appetite loss, and
heart problems, as well as major organ damage and birth defects. Bromine
also competes with
iodine for receptor sites in the body, which can increase risk for iodine
deficiency, autoimmune disease, and even certain cancers. And although BVO has
been banned in
countries like Japan, it’s been used in food and beverages in American since
1977 when it was approved by
Banned Ingredients #3 — Propylparaben
In the United States, propylparaben is used as
a preservative in tortillas, muffins, trail mix, pies, sausage rolls, and more.
Research has found that
it can affect sex hormones and sperm counts in young rats. Cornell University
research had also indicated that
exposure to parabens may be linked to breast cancer. Environmental Working
Group senior scientist Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., tells
us, “It is of great concern to us that the use of an endocrine-disrupting
chemical in our food is considered safe by our own government… Studies show
that chemicals that disrupt hormone signaling can lead to developmental and reproductive
problems.” Propylparaben is totally legal in the U.S., but in 2006 the European
Food Safety Authority banned the use of propylparaben in food. And in 2015, the
EU went further – also banning propylparaben
from cosmetic products.
Banned Ingredients #4 — BHA and BHT
BHA and BHT are popular man-made antioxidants used in
dry mixes, cereals, and dehydrated potato products to preserve them and
increase shelf life. They’re also found in product packaging. These are possible carcinogens
and endocrine disruptors —
meaning that they can alter the normal function of your hormones and lead to
disease. BHA and BHT are banned for
use in food and beverages by the United Kingdom, European Union, Japan, and
Banned Ingredients #5 — Synthetic Food Dyes
Food manufacturers use synthetic food dyes, such as blue 2,
yellow 5, and red 40, to enhance the coloring of certain foods and ingredients
to make them more appealing to consumers. Some foods that contain food dyes
include beverages (like juices, sports drinks, and sodas), candy,
and glazes used in baked goods and sweets. They’re even used in silly things
like making mustard more yellow, salmon more pink, and jarred pickles the
perfect shade of yellow-green. And don’t even get me started on maraschino
Research has linked consumption of synthetic dyes to
an increased risk
for numerous conditions, like tumors and hyperactivity in children. What’s even
more infuriating is that the U.S. used to use natural food dyes until the
But then, food manufacturers realized it was much cheaper to use chemicals,
which turned food even brighter colors.
Synthetic food dyes are banned in Europe and Australia,
where more natural coloring compounds are used. For example, in most of the
world, Fanta contains actual
fruit juice and is dyed naturally. But Americans enjoy Fanta colored
with petroleum-derived artificial dyes like red 40 and yellow 6.
Banned Ingredients #6 — GMOs
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been around since
the 1980s. But
they have become a controversial topic — and for good reason. While they’re
widespread in the U.S. — with most U.S. soy, sugar beets, corn, canola, cotton,
and alfalfa being GMO crops — many European countries
have banned or regulated them due to public safety concerns.
One common genetic manipulation involves altering DNA in
certain crops to make them resistant to herbicides. One of the most common
herbicides used in conjunction with these GMOs is glyphosate,
the primary active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup. Glyphosate consumption
is linked to cancer.
In fact, several people have won cases that allege glyphosate caused their
cancer. Bayer, the manufacturer of Roundup, is currently fighting cancer lawsuits that
involve over 13,000 people. As of June 2019, there were bans or
major restrictions on use of glyphosate in Argentina, Australia, Austria,
Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador,
France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New
Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland,
Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
Banned Ingredients #7 — Roxarsone
The arsenic-based drug roxarsone, was routinely used in
chicken in the U.S. until July 2011, when Pfizer decided to stop selling it.
However, there is no
actual ban on the use of arsenic in the raising of chickens for food.
Roxarsone was used to increase the pink coloring of raw chicken meat, to speed
the growth of the birds before slaughter, and to prevent parasites in the
chicken’s stomach. Research shows chronic
exposure to arsenic can lead to anemia, skin lesions, kidney damage. It can
also increase the risk for certain cancers, miscarriage, and birth defects. The
European Union banned the
use of arsenic-based drugs, while many chicken products in the U.S. still
Banned Ingredients #8 — Ractopamine
In the U.S., ractopamine is a muscle enhancer for pigs,
cows, and turkeys. And, like other harmful substances used during the raising
of animals, it doesn’t just go away when the animal is slaughtered. Some of it
is still left in the meat you buy. Ractopamine is banned in
122 countries including Russia, mainland China, Taiwan, and many
countries across Europe. This is because it’s been linked to reproductive and
cardiovascular damage in humans, as well as chromosomal and behavioral changes.
Banned Ingredients #9 — Herbicides, Insecticides,
Herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are widely used on
crops in the U.S. food system to keep them free of bugs and diseases.
Meanwhile, other countries see (and act on) the danger they pose to humans. Of
the 374 active ingredients authorized for agricultural use in the U.S. in 2016,
the European Union banned 72
of them. Wow.
Banned Ingredients #10 — Olestra
Olestra, or Olean, is a cholesterol-free fat substitute
created by Procter & Gamble. The FDA approved
it for use in foods in the 1990s and it’s still used in certain potato chips
and french fries. But Olestra may cause extremely unpleasant digestive
reactions, like diarrhea and leaky bowels. Consuming a lot of it can also lead
to deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins
A, D, E, K, as well as carotenoids.
Both Canada and the United Kingdom have banned the
Banned Ingredients #11 — Synthetic Hormones
Synthetic hormones, such as rBGH and rBST, are widely used
in the U.S. dairy
industry. The primary reason for this is to increase milk production in
dairy cows. However, rBGH increases IGF-1 levels in humans and may increase the
risk of developing cancer. Additionally, cows treated with rBGH are more likely to
develop mastitis, an udder infection, requiring treatment with
antibiotics. Canada, the
EU, and other countries have banned these compounds.
What You Can Do
The question you might be asking right now is, what can I do
to protect myself from these banned ingredients? While we can’t immediately
control what food companies put in their products, we don’t have to eat them.
And there are steps you can take to make healthier, safer food choices,
wherever you live.
Here are some things you can do to make sure the food you
eat is as safe as possible:
- Read all food labels carefully. Get familiar with
these banned ingredients and their alternative
names, and look for them on packaged foods.
- Eat minimally processed or, even better, whole, organic foods
as much as possible. Fruits,
vegetables, legumes, and grains won’t have the long list of
ingredients that packaged and processed foods often do.
- Cook at home as much as you can. This way, you have
more control over the food you’re eating. You know exactly what
ingredients are being used, and can decide to eat foods that best align
with your values as much as possible.
- Sign petitions. This is a great way to get involved
in public policy, and you don’t even have to leave your house. One of my
favorite places to find and sign petitions is the Center
for Food Safety website.
The good news is, you don’t have to wait for the U.S. FDA or USDA to
change policy for you to make informed choices about what you eat and feed to
your family. Every bite you take is a chance to take a stand for a safer and