Banned food additives

November 22, 2023

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7 Food Additives Banned in Europe, Commonly Used in the US

The stark contrast between food quality in the United States and Europe is often immediately apparent to those who travel abroad.

By Vance Voetberg                                                                                                        11/2/2023

The stark contrast between food quality in the United States and in Europe often surprises those who travel abroad.

Before visiting Italy, Anna Fox was strictly gluten-free because of her doctor’s recommendation. After avoiding gluten for a few months, she noticed an improvement in her digestive health and mental clarity.

“I regained physical and mental energy I didn’t know I lost,” Mrs. Fox said.

But she became concerned that her health would slip while vacationing in Europe, given her intention to savor the pizza and pasta of Italy.  “There was no way I was going to miss out on Italy’s iconic cuisine,” Mrs. Fox said.

While vacationing, she enjoyed Italy’s celebrated gluten-containing dishes. But to her pleasant surprise, she didn’t experience the unwanted symptoms that occurred when she ate gluten back home in the United States.

“Every day there, I felt refreshed rather than drained. I was elated,” Mrs. Fox said.

There may be an explanation for this noticeable difference in food quality. While U.S. food manufacturers use a variety of food additives with potential side effects, European manufacturers must either avoid using certain ingredients or warn consumers of their risks. Even the ingredients in products in both places, such as a brand of ketchup, can be dramatically different.

Titanium Dioxide

Used In: salad dressings, flour, bread, candy, boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soup, and prepackaged baked goods.

Often used to give food a white appearance, titanium dioxide was deemed unacceptable for food products by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in May 2021.

“A critical element in reaching this conclusion is that we couldn’t exclude genotoxicity concerns after consumption of titanium dioxide particles,” Maged Younes, chair of EFSA’s Food Additives and Flavorings Panel, said in an EFSA assessment.  Genotoxicity refers to the properties of a chemical that can impair DNA or chromosomes.

Titanium dioxide breaks down into nanoparticles, which can cause inflammation, pulmonary damage, fibrosis, and lung tumors in rodents. It’s “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low, however, they can accumulate in the body,” Mr. Younes said in his assessment.  Thomas Galligan, a principal scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), explained findings that directed the CSPI to advise consumers to avoid titanium dioxide altogether.  “Our concern with titanium dioxide is that evidence suggests it might accumulate in our bodies and damage our DNA,” he told The Epoch Times.

Despite these safety concerns, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated this year that the available safety studies “do not demonstrate safety concerns connected to the use of [titanium dioxide] as a color additive.”

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

Used In: chips, crackers, cereals, premade baked goods, and granola bars.

Used in a variety of processed foods, BHA and BHT prevent oils from oxidation. However, these two chemicals aren’t akin to the antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables.

“These are preservatives in some food products and have been found to have immune effects and potentially are also carcinogenic,” said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a professor of pediatrics and environmental health sciences at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Both chemicals are “anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program. In Europe, both BHT and BHA have certain restrictions.

People shop for bread at a supermarket in Monterey Park, Calif., on Oct. 19, 2022. 

Synthetic Food Coloring

Used In: candies, sodas, sports drinks, cake and cupcake frosting, salad dressings, and chips.

Incorporated in food products to enhance appearance, petroleum-based food dyes such as Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, and Red No. 40 have been shown to induce behavioral challenges and hyperactivity. In one recent review analyzing 27 clinical trials on synthetic food dye, researchers found that the current evidence “supports a relationship between food dye exposure and adverse behavioral outcomes in children, both with and without pre-existing behavioral disorders.”

In 2021, the California Environmental Protection Agency released a report stating that current federal guidelines on synthetic food dyes were outdated and failed to acknowledge recent literature showing the negative effect that these additives have on children’s and adults’ health. California recently banned the use of Red Dye No. 3 but hasn’t restricted the use of other synthetic food dyes in the state.

The European Union requires a warning label for foods made with added colors.

Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)

Used In: sodas and sports drinks.

Exactly what it sounds like, BVO is vegetable oil with bromine added to it. It’s incorporated into a variety of beverages as an emulsifier. In 2012, however, an online petition with more than 200,000 signatures led many companies, including Coca-Cola, to stop using BVO. But many companies still utilize this emulsifier, given that the FDA hasn’t prohibited its use. The EU, on the other hand, has banned BVO as a food additive.

BVO has been associated with neurological disease in adults and reproductive harm in animal studies.

“BVO can build up in the body, and research has shown a connection between drinking large amounts of BVO-containing sodas over a long period and problems such as headaches, irritation of the skin and mucous membranes, fatigue, and loss of muscle coordination and memory,” the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wrote on its website.

The FDA announced a proposal to revoke authorization for the use of BVO as a food additive on Nov. 2, 2023.

Azodicarbonamide (ADA)

Used In: bread and baked goods.

Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is most commonly used in making various kinds of plastics and as a bleaching agent in flour-based foods. Animal studies revealed that ADA could be an organ and cellular toxin, while other research demonstrates that it can cause respiratory complications in humans. The EU prohibits its use as a food additive.

In another study, researchers found that rats fed a diet containing ADA experienced “significant behavioral changes.”

Potassium Bromate

Used In: flour, bread, and baked goods.

Used to enhance the texture of flour-based foods, potassium bromate has been scrutinized by activists for decades. Small amounts of bromate, a substance shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies, are found in potassium bromate. It was labeled “possibly carcinogenic” in 1999 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which ultimately led to its ban in European countries. This ingredient was also banned in California as recently as October, but the law won’t go into effect until 2027.

Animals exposed to potassium bromate had increased incidences of both benign and malignant kidney tumors. Additional research showed that ingesting potassium bromate resulted in significant increases in cancer in the thyroid, kidneys, and other organs of mice.

“Despite the significant evidence of potassium bromate’s harmful health effects, the food industry has long argued that it is of no concern in baked products,” the EWG wrote.

Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)

Used In: conventional dairy products.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a hormone that stimulates greater milk production in cows. The EU banned the hormone in 1999. The primary concern of rBGH is its influence on the endocrine system. Some research has found a potential relationship between increased blood levels of growth hormone because of rBGH use and hormone-related cancers such as breast and testicular. However, according to the American Cancer Society, the link between rBGH and cancer is inconclusive, warranting further investigation.

“It causes a huge number of side effects in cows themselves and potentially has health risks for humans consuming these cows,” Dr. Sathyanarayana told The Epoch Times. “Overall, the EU takes a more precautionary approach in banning this substance to prevent impacts on human health, while the United States takes the approach of waiting until we see harmful effects before regulating.”

However, this hormone can be avoided if consumers buy organic dairy products, given that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) forbids its use in certified organic products.

The Food Additive Review Process

Food additives in the United States are subject to review and approval by the FDA unless the substance is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by experts. However, manufacturers can use their discretion in determining the use of a GRAS substance, which has the potential for conflict of interest. When using a GRAS substance, manufacturers don’t have to secure FDA approval, and notifying the FDA of their determination is voluntary.

In the EU, there’s no “GRAS loophole,” according to Mr. Galligan. A food additive must be assessed by the EFSA and authorized by the European Commission before it’s used.

Many additives also haven’t been reassessed by the FDA in decades, despite new evidence suggesting that some additives are harmful. The FDA has the authority to reassess additives but isn’t obligated to do so. Conversely, all food additives approved for use in the EU before Jan. 20, 2009, were required to undergo reassessment by the EFSA.

“Compared to the United States, the EU system generally does a better job of ensuring that more recent data and scientific principles are used to assess safety and that regulators, not industry, are the final decision makers,” Mr. Galligan said.