Originally published on WomansDay.com
Find out all the crazy chemicals and weird additives lurking in what you eat
By Jolene M. Bouchon
Known as one of the healthier fast-food chains, Subway restaurants recently made headlines for baking their bread with azodicarbonamide (ADA), the chemical that makes yoga mats and flip-flops foamy and pliable. Even though the restaurant is removing ADA, it’s found in 500 other processed foods because it extends shelf life and reduces costs. Although the FDA generally recognizes ADA as safe (GRAS), there are other chemicals in your food that may make your stomach turn, both figuratively and literally. Read on for the surprising truth.
1. BROMINATED VEGETABLE OIL IN CITRUS-FLAVORED DRINKS
Mountain Dew, Fanta, Powerade and more contain brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a stabilizing ingredient that evenly distributes the flavorings throughout the liquid. But BVO is also a flame retardant, typically sprayed on furniture and couches. Though there are few studies on the effects of BVO on humans, excessive BVO intake may lead to memory loss as well as skin and nerve damage. In fact, Japan and Europe have already banned the chemical—the U.S. may follow suit soon.
2. CASTOREUM IN RASPBERRY AND VANILLA FLAVORINGS
Popping up in ice creams, yogurts, candies and baked goods, it’s usually labeled as “natural flavorings.” Oh, it’s natural, all right, derived from beavers’ butt secretions! Castoreum comes from the animals’ castor sacs, which are located around the anus, and beavers use it to mark their territory. Because the creature’s diet is primarily leaves and bark, the secretion has a woodsy, slightly floral scent (which is why castoreum is also in fragrances) and a sweet flavor. There’s no evidence that castoreum is harmful to humans, but it often contains urine and anal excrement too, which is just…yuck.
3. L-CYSTEINE IN BAGELS, BREADS AND CEREALS
When you think about bagels, do you also think about hair? Now you might. The amino acid L-cysteine, which is added to bread and bagels to soften the texture, comes from human hair, duck feathers and even hog hair. There are no known safety risks to consuming L-cysteine, but vegans might not appreciate the animal-derived products in their morning meal.
4. POLYDIMETHYLSILOXANE IN CHICKEN NUGGETS, PIZZAS AND FRENCH FRIES
Don’t let those 20 letters fool you. The antifoaming, anticaking, stabilizing agent, also sometimes called dimethicone, is another word for silicone, a polymer used in furniture polishes, dishwashing detergents, cosmetics, caulks and Silly Putty. Studies show that polydimethylsiloxane doesn’t accumulate in the body, so it’s generally recognized as safe. But high temperatures can break down the ingredient into compounds like toxic formaldehyde, which can irritate eyes and the upper respiratory tract, among other offenses.
5. PROPYLENE GLYCOL IN ICE CREAMS AND SALAD DRESSINGS
This antifreeze and lubricating agent makes soft-serve ice creams soft and salad dressings evenly blended. Yet it’s also a major component in de-icers, paints and varnishes, engine coolants and e-cigarettes’ smoke. Luckily, even if 5% of an adult’s whole diet is propylene glycol, the FDA says it wouldn’t cause “frank toxic effects.” Then again, the ingredient may be toxic to kids.
6. SHELLAC IN JELLY BEANS
Confectioner’s glaze gives shiny candies their glossy coating. But confectioner’s glaze is just a more appetizing term for shellac. The good news: It’s not the same wood varnish you’d find at your hardware store, which contains toxic methanol. The less good news: It’s made from secretions of the female lac beetle. Though it hasn’t been shown to be toxic, it can cause allergic reactions in some people and major objections from vegans, vegetarians and those with religious dietary requirements.
7. TITANIUM DIOXIDE IN COFFEE CREAMER, ICE CREAMS AND SALAD DRESSINGS
Bright-white processed foods wouldn’t necessarily look that way without the help of titanium dioxide. This popular pigment is used to whiten everything from ice creams and salad dressings to toothpastes, paints and sunscreens. Studies show that it has a low risk of toxicity, but it can be tainted with small amounts of lead and arsenic. Also, exposure to the powdered or aerosol form has been linked to respiratory tract cancer.