Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives

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Includes a review of preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilizers, flavorings, colorings and kitchenware. 

Food Additives

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looks after the safety of our food and pharmaceuticals. Its legal basis is the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938–backed up by subsequent additions, including the Pesticide Chemicals Act of 1954, the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, and the Color Additives Amendment of 1960. For good reason, food is the most regulated of all consumer products, but the extent of protection may not be as great as you think.

Before an additive may be used in food, it must be demonstrated to be safe. The testing, however, is conducted by the industry that proposes to sell it, not by the FDA. Furthermore, there’s a loophole in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act’s mandate for safety: Dangerous substances are prohibited from being added to food . . . except where they are “unavoidable” or “necessary in production” and are used in small enough doses that no apparent hazard is presented to test animals. As you can see, the mandate for safety is hazy.

With the later amendments to the 1938 legislation, an important section called the Delaney Clause was added. This regulation prohibits the use of any food additive that has been found to induce cancer in animals or humans. The Delaney Clause was fought by the FDA, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the food industry. Their argument, of course, was that the stipulation of “no risk” is excessively restrictive: In their view, the benefits of some additives outweigh the hazards. Twenty-five years after its inception, the Delaney Clause is still under attack. Separate amendments proposed to Congress in October of 1983–by Orrin Hatch of Utah in the Senate and Edgar Madigan of Illinois in the House–have, with the help of heavy lobbying from the plastics, meat, and soft drink industries, attempted to strike down or replace the Delaney Clause. (If you plan to write to your representative to express your opinion about such changes to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the pieces of legislation referred to are Senate bill S. 1938 and House bill H.R. 4121.)

Under the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, additives that were used previous to that time and that showed no evidence of harm were permanently listed as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Only substances added to the list after the year of the amendment’s enactment were to be tested. During his administration, President Nixon ordered the FDA to conduct research on all food additives. This work has been going on since 1970 and is not yet completed, but periodic updates are made to the GRAS list. Items are classified as [I] demonstrated to be safe, [II] safe at present consumption levels, [III] the question of safety requires further study, [IV] evidence of hazard, and [V] not enough data. Nearly all of the additives that are listed in this article fall into categories III, IV, or V.

Food products have the most adequate labeling requirements of all the consumer goods that we’re examining in this mini-manual (see Hazardous Household Chemicals). Each constituent used to formulate the product must be listed on the label in descending order of its percentage of the whole.

There are, however, a number of exemptions that “streamline” labeling. For one, “incidental” compounds used to process a food, such as flour bleaches, need not be listed . . . because they aren’t present in the final product at more than trace levels. This disregards the fact that the processing chemicals may alter the nutritional value of food significantly.

There are also a number of “standardized” products that don’t require labeling as long as their makeups are within the guidelines of the 20 or so additives allowed by the FDA. Dairy products provide examples of standardized non-labeling. Manufacturers are also allowed to use general descriptions, such as “preservative”, “antioxidant”, “sweetener”, “artificial flavor”, and so on. Without the specific name, we have no way of knowing whether or not the compound used is one about which we should be concerned.

For further information on food additives, consult A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives by Ruth Winter (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1978) or The Food Additives Book by Nicholas Freydberg and Willis A. Gortner (Bantam Books, Inc., 1982).


BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): A compound used to prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid.

Hazards: Enlarges the livers and kidneys of test animals. May cause enzyme changes that make the body more susceptible to cancer or that affect reproduction.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, beverages, breakfast cereals, candy, chewing gum, gelatins, ice cream, potato chips, shortening, and vegetable oils.

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): Similar to BHA.

Hazards: Same effects as BHA but at lower concentrations in rodents and dogs; higher concentrations required to produce effects in monkeys.

Found mainly in: The same products as BHA.

Calcium disodium EDTA (ethylenediamine tetraacetate): Binds a number of minerals that can cause oxidation.

Hazards: Can contribute to zinc deficiency. May cause errors in laboratory measurements. Sensitizes people with allergies and asthma. May have a synergistic effect with BHA/BHT. A suspected teratogen.

Found mainly in: Canned crab, carbonated beverages, condiments, fruit drinks, margarine, processed fruits and vegetables, and salad dressings.

Nitrites, nitrates: Used to inhibit botulism-causing microorganisms; also used to improve color and flavoring.

Hazards: May combine with amines to form nitrosamines, some of which cause cancer at low levels of concentration. Can inhibit the ability of blood to carry oxygen, especially in infants. Some forms affect fertility, reduce prenatal growth, and increase prenatal mortality. Used in forms bound with sodium, which has been shown to increase blood pressure.

Found mainly in: Processed meats–such as bacon, corned beef, ham, hotdogs, luncheon meat, and sausage–and smoked fish and poultry.

Sulfiting agents: Potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite, and sulfur dioxide are used to bleach and preserve, to prevent browning, and to sterilize.

Hazards: People with allergies or asthma may have severe reactions. Can cause vitamin B1 and E deficiencies.

Found mainly in: Fresh and processed vegetables, wine.


Aspergillus enzyme: Used in processes requiring enzymatic reaction.

Hazards: Minimal data, but it may be metabolized into a carcinogenic substance.

Found mainly in: Baked goods and cheese.

Baking powder: Used as a leavening agent in baked goods.

Hazards: Contains aluminum, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of senility.

BVO (brominated vegetable oil): Used to stabilize flavoring oils. Derived from corn, cottonseed, olive, sesame, and/or soybean oils.

Hazards: Has caused damage to the hearts and livers of test animals and has increased fat deposits in their livers and kidneys; some forms have brought on testicular changes, reduced growth, and produced lethargy. Deleted from GRAS but still lawful for use.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, citrus carbonated beverages and fruit juices, and ice cream.

Calcium peroxide: Used as a bleaching agent and to make dough stronger and more extendable.

Hazards: Known to be mutagenic at high concentrations, but data are very limited.

Found mainly in: White bread and rolls.

Carrageenan: Used to stabilize, thicken, and gel.

Hazards: High dosages have caused fetal death in test animals. Some evidence of mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, and teratogenicity.

Found mainly in: Cheese spreads, chocolate products, evaporated milk, ice cream and dairy confections, and syrups.

Casein: Used as a binder and extender, clarifying agent, and texturizer. A principal protein in cow’s milk.

Hazards: Causes reactions in people allergic to cow’s milk. Processing produces some lysinoalanine, which has caused liver damage in rats at low concentrations.

Found mainly in: Frozen dairy desserts, soups, and infant formulas.

DSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate): Used as a wetting agent in one “dutched” cocoa process; also used as a laxative.

Hazards: There is some evidence that it reduces growth rates of infants because of reduced lactation in the mother. Also causes gastrointestinal irritation. Cancer and mutation tests have not been done.

Found mainly in: Some brands of “dutched” cocoa.

Glycerol ester of wood rosin: Used as a binder for flavoring oils, as a softener and plasticizer, and as a flavoring agent.

Hazards: No data available, nor are there any standards for its use.

Found mainly in: Citrus beverages, chewing gum, frozen desserts, and gelatins.

Gums: Used to blend, stabilize, and thicken mixtures.

Hazards: Guar gum has caused deaths of pregnant test animals. Gum arabic (acacia) has caused some deaths of pregnant animals at very high dosages and is an allergen. Gum tragacanth has caused fatalities in pregnant test animals and can also cause allergic reactions. Carob (locust bean) gum has caused high incidences of death in pregnant test animals.

Found mainly in: Ice cream, salad dressings, sauces, and other creamy food products.

Modified food starches: Used as thickening and gelling agents and to prevent lumping and sticking of powdered products. Produced by chemically treating starch.

Hazards: Can cause diarrhea, slowed growth, and calcium deposits in the kidneys. Some are not very digestible. Maintenance of GRAS under consideration.

Found mainly in: Baby foods and baked goods.

Oxystearin (modified glyceride): Used to blend, to clarify, and to prevent crystallization.

Hazards: May cause testicular cancer; further study needed.

Found mainly in: Salad oils.

Propylene glycol alginate: Used as a thickener, stabilizer, and de-foaming agent.

Hazards: Has caused maternal and fetal death in mice at high dosages.

Found mainly in: Frozen desserts, ice cream, and salad dressings.


Artificial food coloring: These substances need only be listed as “artificial color”, except for FD&C Yellow No. 5, which must be specifically indicated on the label of any product containing it.

Hazards: FD&C Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine), a coal tar derivative, causes allergic reactions in people sensitive to aspirin. Citrus Red No. 2 is a known carcinogen but is still used on the skins of oranges. FD&C Green No. 3 is a suspected allergen and produces malignant tumors when injected under the skin of rats. (Subcutaneous injection is no longer considered to be a valid cancer test.) FD&C Red No. 40 has been found to produce tumors in rats and is undergoing further study. FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2 produce tumors in test animals.

Artificial coloring also is associated with hyperactivity in children. Dosages only slightly higher than the national average intake of eight of these colors have caused significant increases in hyperactivity.

Found mainly in: Many foods. Only Yellow No. 5 must be listed specifically on a label.

Aspartame: A sweetener with approximately 160 times the sweetness of sugar.

Hazards: Persons with phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot process aspartame. Its accumulation in their bodies can cause mental retardation and death. Acts synergistically with monosodium glutamate, a similar compound.

Found mainly in: Beverages, breakfast cereals, chewing gum, gelatins, and puddings.

Caffeine: A stimulant that occurs naturally in coffee, tea, chocolate, kola nuts, etc., and which is added to many other products.

Hazards: Addictive. May be a teratogen. May cause peptic ulcers and heart ailments. Young people may have a much lower level of tolerance than adults do.

Found mainly in: Carbonated beverages, chocolate products, coffee, and tea.

Calcium disodium EDTA: See Preservatives/Antioxidants section.

Caramel: Used as a coloring and flavoring. Produced by heating sugar.

Hazards: Caramel produced by an ammonia process can inhibit growth. No data available on cancer-causing effects; testing is currently under way.

Found mainly in: Candy, cola, and root beer.

Cinnamyl anthranilate: Used for its fruity taste.

Hazards: Produces lung tumors in mice. Has been voluntarily discontinued after a proposed ban by the FDA.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, beverages, candy, gelatin desserts, and ice cream.

Ethyl methyl phenylglycidate: Used as a berry flavoring.

Hazards: Causes testicular atrophy and growth retardation in male rats, hindquarter paralysis in female rats. Adverse neurological effects.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, beverages, candy, chewing gum, frozen dairy confections, and gelatins.

Ionone: An intermediary compound used in the synthesis of vitamin A. Used in fruit and nut flavorings.

Hazards: Causes allergic reactions in some people.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, beverages, candy, chewing gum, gelatin, and ice cream.

Licorice: Used as a flavoring.

Hazards: Has been shown to exacerbate hypertension (high blood pressure). Some evidence of increased spontaneous abortion in test animals.

Mace/Nutmeg: Seeds from the myristica tree are used as flavorings. Nutmeg is the seed itself; mace is the shell.

Hazards: Affects neural activity. Can cause intoxication and hallucination, abdominal pain, nausea, and stupor. Affects heart beat, respiration, and vision. Some varieties contain safrole, which causes liver cancer in test animals and has been banned by the FDA.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, beverages, candy, chewing gum, condiments, ice cream, meats, and pickles.

MSG (monosodium glutamate): Used as a flavor enhancer.

Hazards: Causes brain damage in test animals. Has produced reproductive dysfunctions in test animals. Causes female animals to conceive less frequently and to have smaller litters. There is evidence that it produces learning impairment in rats. It is thought responsible for “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, the symptoms of which include chest pain, headache, numbness, and burning sensations.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, candy, Chinese cuisine, condiments, meat, pickles, and soup.

Quinine: Made from the bark of the cinchona tree, it is used as a bitter flavoring.

Hazards: Cinchonism produces nausea, hearing loss, vision impairment, and vomiting. Fetuses of test rabbits have shown hearing damage. Allergic reactions cause skin rashes.

Found mainly in: Tonic water, bitters, and fruit beverages.

Saccharin: The most commonly used calorie-free sweetener. 

Hazards: Is a demonstrated animal carcinogen.

Found mainly in: Dietetic foods.

Sassafras: Used as a flavoring and topical anesthetic.

Hazards: Contains safrole, which has caused liver cancer in test animals. Banned by the FDA.

Found mainly in: Home concoctions. Its commercial use is prohibited.

Shellac: Confectioner’s glaze. A food-grade version of the furniture finish.

Hazards: Is untested.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, candy, and some fruits.

Smoke flavor: Condensate from burning hickory or maple wood.

Hazards: There are a number of carcinogens present in woodsmoke. Benzo(a)pyrene is removed from the commercial products, but other cancer-causing substances may remain. Probably less dangerous than natural wood smoking.

Found mainly in: Baked beans, barbecue sauces, cheese, fish, and meats. 

Sodium chloride: Table salt.

Hazards: Causes hypertension (high blood pressure). Infants may not be able to excrete salt effectively.

Found mainly in: Table salt and salted foods.

Tannin: Used for its astringent taste.

Hazards: Has caused tumors and death in test animals.

Found mainly in: Baked goods, candy, and ice cream.

Xylitol: A wood sugar that does not increase blood sugar as much as glucose does. Seems to be effective in lessening dental caries.

Hazards: A diuretic. Causes tumors and organ damage in test animals.

Undergoing further testing, with voluntary suspension of use.

Found mainly in: Sugarless chewing gum.


Utensils used in the kitchen are not directly under the FDA’s jurisdiction, but the agency has stepped in where there has been suspicion of contamination of food by such products. So far, such regulation has been largely a matter of investigation; only lead glazes on earthenware are watched closely by the FDA.

Pots and Pans

Aluminum: Cast into uncoated pots and pans.

Hazards: High concentrations produce memory loss and brain deterioration. Evidence shows an association with Alzheimer’s disease (senility). May bind phosphorus and calcium, leading to deficiencies.

Copper: Used to make uncoated pots and pans. Brass also contains copper.

Hazards: Toxic at high concentrations. Depletes the body of zinc. Persons with Wilson’s disease should avoid its use. Acid-containing foods can leach copper from the utensil.

Earthenware: Pottery coated with glazes.

Hazards: Lead and cadmium may be leached from the glazes by acid-containing foods. Some glazes may crack or craze, releasing material into food. Lead causes brain damage, blindness, and mental retardation. Children absorb four times as much as adults do per unit ingested. Cadmium causes abdominal pain, vomiting, anemia, kidney dysfunction, diarrhea, and pneumonia (if inhaled).

Enamel coatings: The best coatings are made with tin oxide; less expensive products are made with antimony oxide.

Hazards: Antimony oxide glazes can chip off and form tartar emetic, which is mildly toxic.

Iron: Contributes essential iron to the diet of most people.

Hazards: People with hemochromatosis (the inability to process iron) should avoid its use.

Teflon-type coatings: May be any of a number of plastics besides the Du Pont product.

Hazards: Tetrafluoroethylene is toxic but is only released from cookware at very high temperatures (above 700°F). The coatings may chip off as the pot or pan wears.

Stainless steel: Usually layered onto aluminum or steel.

Hazards: Persons with extreme metal sensitivity may need to avoid its use because of nickel leaching. In large dosages, nickel causes cancer.


Cadmium coatings: Used on some metal trays, particularly older ice cube trays.

Hazards: Acid-containing foods may leach cadmium from coated trays. Cadmium is highly toxic. (See Earthenware.)

Decorated glasses: Many patterned glasses are prepared with decals.

Hazards: Decals contain strong concentrations of lead and cadmium, which may be released onto the hands or lips. Both are highly toxic. (See Earthenware.)

Pewter: Old pewter may have been made with lead, a practice that’s been discontinued.

Hazards: Lead is very toxic. (See Earthenware.)

Plastic plates: Older plastic plates were often made with melamine and formaldehyde.

Hazards: Formaldehyde can leach from such products. It is toxic and carcinogenic. (See Disinfectants/Air Fresheners in Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products.)

To learn more about the chemicals and hazardous substances you may be living with, see Hazardous Household ChemicalsHazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning ProductsHazardous Substances in the Bathroom and Hazardous Substances in the Living Room.

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