Chemical Additives in Foods You Eat

Common Chemicals You May Eat Every Day

Chemical additives are found in many foods you eat, especially if you eat packaged food or visit restaurants a lot. What makes it an additive? Basically, this means it was added to a recipe or perhaps the packaging to confer some benefit to the food. This includes obvious additives, like colorings and flavorings, as well as more subtle ingredients that affect texture, moisture, or shelf life. Here are some of the most common chemicals in your food. Chances are you ate one or all of them sometime today.

01
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Diacetyl

Microwave popcorn may contain diacetyl.
Microwave popcorn may contain diacetyl. Melissa Ross/Moment/Getty Images

Some additives are considered safe or possibly beneficial. Diacetyl is not one of them. This ingredient is found most often in microwave popcorn, where it imparts a butter flavor. The chemical occurs naturally in dairy products, where it causes no harm, but when it's vaporized in the microwave you can inhale it and get a condition known informally as "popcorn lung". Some popcorn companies are phasing out this chemical, so check the label to see if it's diacetyl-free. Even better, pop the corn yourself.

02
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Carmine or Cochineal Extract

Real strawberries aren't this pink.
Real strawberries aren't this pink. Nicholas Eveleigh, Getty Images

This additive is also known as Red #4. It's used to add a red color to foods. As red food coloring goes, this is one of the better choices, since it's natural and non-toxic. The additive is made from crushed bugs. While you may be able to get past the gross factor, some people are sensitive to the chemical. Also, it's not something a vegan or vegetarian wants to eat. It's commonly found in fruity drinks, yogurt, ice cream, and some fast food strawberry and raspberry shakes.

03
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Dimethylpolysiloxane

Chewing gum often contains dimethylpolysiloxane.
Chewing gum often contains dimethylpolysiloxane. gamerzero, www.morguefile.com

Dimethylpolysiloxane is an anti-foaming agent derived from silicone found in a variety of foods, including cooking oil, vinegar, chewing gum, and chocolate. It's added to oil to prevent it from bubbling up when frozen ingredients are added, so it improves the safety and life of the product. While the risk of toxicity is considered low, it's not a chemical you'd ordinarily consider to be "food". It's also found in putty, shampoo, and caulk, which are products you certainly wouldn't want to eat.

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Potassium Sorbate

Cake often contains potassium sorbate.
Cake often contains potassium sorbate. Peter Dressel, Getty Images
Potassium sorbate is one of the most common food additives. It is used to inhibit the growth of mold and yeast in cakes, jellies, yogurt, jerky, bread, and salad dressing. For most products, any risk from the ingredient is considered to be lower than the health risk from ingesting mold. However, some companies are trying to phase out this additive from their product lines. If you find a product free of potassium sorbate, your best protection against yeast and mold is refrigeration, although refrigerating baked goods may change their texture.
05
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Brominated Vegetable Oil

Cola and other soft drinks often contain brominated vegetable oil.
Cola and other soft drinks often contain brominated vegetable oil. xefstock, Getty Images

Brominated vegetable oil is used as a flavoring, to keep ingredients suspended evenly in a liquid, and to impart a cloudy appearance to some beverages. You'll find it in soft drinks and energy drinks, although it also found in non-food products, such as pesticide and hair coloring. Although considered relatively safe in small amounts, consuming multiple products (e.g., several sodas a day) can cause health problems. Elemental bromine is toxic and caustic.

Ingredients in Cola and Their Functions

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BHA and BHT

Frozen fatty foods, such as french fries, may contain BHA or BHT.
Frozen fatty foods, such as french fries, may contain BHA or BHT. Benoist Sébire, Getty Images

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are two related chemicals used to preserve oils and fats. These phenolic compounds likely cause cancer, so they have been among the most reviled food additives for several years. They have been phased out of some foods, such as many potato chips, but are common in packaged baked foods and fatty frozen foods. BHA and BHT are sneaky additives because you'll still find them in packaging for cereal and candy, even if they aren't listed on the label as ingredients. Vitamin E is used as a safer substitute to preserve freshness.

More About BHA & BHT

How To Avoid Additives

The most effective way to avoid additives is to prepare food yourself and carefully check the labels for unfamiliar-sounding ingredients. Even then, it's hard to be sure your food is additive-free because sometimes the chemicals are put into the packaging, where a small amount transfers onto the food.