8 Chemical Additives Allowed by the FDA but Banned in Other Countries

8 Chemical Additives Allowed by the FDA but Banned in Other Countries

Related to the previous post on the chemical azodicarbonamide (commonly found in yoga mats, flip-flops, insulation, and more) that is used by Subway and other food manufacturers in their bread products, in this post I wanted to share what I have learned about other ingredients allowed in foods in the U.S. but banned in other countries because they have been deemed significantly dangerous based on research showing toxicity and hazardous health effects.

I recently listened to Sean Croxton interview Vani Hari on the Underground Wellness podcast and she mentioned that many companies sell different versions of their products – one version for non-U.S. countries that don’t contain certain banned ingredients and another for the U.S. market that still contain them.

I was curious and decided to embark on my own “google” quest to learn more.    For some specific examples, take a look at her article on 100DaysOfRealFood.com.  In it, Vani Hari shows the ingredient labels of several common foods sold in the US and the UK, such as Betty Crocker’s Red Velvet cake mix, McDonald’s French fries, and Pizza Hut’s garlic cheese bread.

Amazingly, while these foods can be created using a bare minimum of additives in the UK (and sometimes none), in the U.S., they’re usually LOADED with chemicals.

I discovered that a list of many of these ingredients that are banned in countries across the globe but still allowed in U.S. foods made the news last year when it was featured in the book, Rich Food, Poor Food, by nutritionists Mira and Jayson Calton.  In their book, the Caltons list the banned ingredients, which countries prohibit them, and the reasons why.  

According to the Caltons, the following additives are some of the worst of the more than 150 individual ingredients they investigated that are banned elsewhere: various food dyes and artificial colors, the fat substitute Olestra, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate (aka brominated flour), Azodicarbonamide, BHA, BHT, rBGH, rBST, and arsenic.  Below is a bit more about each one, the potentially harmful effects, and which foods you might want to avoid that contain them.

1. Artificial Food Coloring

Artificial Food Coloring
Source: Nature’s Flavour Blog

Where it’s found:  Food coloring is found in everyday items like soda, sports drinks, boxed mac & cheese, cheddar flavored crackers, Jell-O, cake, candy, cereal bars (Nutrigrain bars for example use Blue 1), and many kids’ cereals to name a few.

Why it’s no good:  Made from petroleum, the artificial dyes red 40, yellow 5, yellow 6, blue 1, and blue 2 are the most popularly used dyes in the United States and are even called the “rainbow of risk”  by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Research has shown that the use of these food coloring additives can cause behavioral problems as well as cancer, birth defects, and other health problems in laboratory animals. Red 40 and yellow 6 are also suspected of causing an allergy-like hypersensitivity reaction in children. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that some dyes are also “contaminated with known carcinogens.”

Where it’s banned: Norway, Finland, France, Austria, and the UK have all banned at least one variation of petroleum-containing food coloring. The European Union also requires a warning notice on most foods containing dyes.

In countries where these food colors and dyes are banned, food companies like Kraft use natural colorants instead, such as paprika extract, beetroot, and annatto. The food blogger and activist Vani Hari, better known as “Food Babe,” recently launched a Change.org petition asking Kraft to remove artificial dyes from American Mac & Cheese to protect American children from the well-known dangers of these dyes.

Of course, some might argue that dose is important and most people are not drinking gallons of Yellow 5 (well… unless you’re drinking gallons of Powerade…) but if these additives are in SO many of the foods sold in the U.S., then the doses are ever-increasing… so why not reduce your exposure and any potential detrimental effect?

2. Olestra (aka Olean)

Olestra (aka Olean)
Image: ResearchGate Paper

Where it’s found:  
Olestra, aka Olean, created by Procter & Gamble, is a calorie- and cholesterol-free fat substitute used in fat-free snacks like chips and French fries. Three years ago, Time Magazine named it one of the worst 50 inventions ever, but it’s still out there on US grocery shelves.

Why it’s no good:  It interferes with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K (basically robbing your body of beneficial micronutrients), may cause weight gain, and is likely to cause adverse intestinal reactions (fun side effects include cramps and leaky bowels).  

Not only did a 2011 study from Purdue University conclude that rats fed potato chips made with Olean gained weight, but there have also been several reports of adverse intestinal reactions to Olean including diarrhea, cramps, and leaky bowels. And because it interferes with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, the FDA requires these vitamins to be added to any product made with Olean or olestra.

Where it’s banned: The UK and Canada.

In 2003, the FDA lifted a requirement forcing companies that use Olestra in their products to include a label warning consumers that the food their eating could cause ‘cramps and diarrhea,’ despite the fact that the agency received more than 20,000 reports of gastrointestinal complaints among olestra eaters.

3. Bromine / Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)

Bromine / Brominated Vegetable Oil

Where it’s found:  Citrus-flavored sodas (Mountain Dew) and sports drinks sold in the U.S. typically contain brominated vegetable oil (BVO), which was originally patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant.  In January 2013, PepsiCo announced it would no longer use the additive in Gatorade after consumers complained but would leave it in Mountain Dew. 

Other food products made from brominated vegetable oil include New York brand flatbreads, bagel chips, Baja Burrito wraps, and other bread products. (Other non-food products made from bromine: chemicals that keep carpets from catching fire and disinfect swimming pools!)

Why it’s no good:  Well, not sure if I want to drink something originally intended as a flame retardant…  BVO’s main ingredient, bromine, is a poisonous chemical that is considered both corrosive and toxic. It’s been linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss. 

BVO has been shown to bioaccumulate in human tissue and breast milk, and animal studies have found it causes reproductive and behavioral problems in large doses. Bromine is a central nervous system depressant and a common endocrine disruptor. It’s part of the halide family, a group of elements that includes fluorine, chlorine, and iodine.

When ingested, bromine competes for the same receptors that are used to capture iodine. This can lead to iodine deficiency, which can have a very detrimental impact on your health. Bromine toxicity can manifest as skin rashes, acne, loss of appetite, fatigue, and cardiac arrhythmias.

Where it’s banned: BVO has been banned in all European Union countries, as well as India and Japan.

4. Potassium Bromate

basket of bread

Where it’s found:  Rolls, bread crumbs, flatbreads, and bagel chips. Nearly every time you eat bread in a restaurant or consume a hamburger or hotdog bun you are consuming bromide, as it is commonly used in flours.

Bromated flour is “enriched” with potassium bromate.  Commercial baking companies claim it makes the dough more robust and more elastic, reducing baking time; however, many successful companies (such as Pepperidge Farms) manage to use only unbromated flour without any problems.

Why it’s no good:  Studies have linked potassium bromate to kidney and nervous system damage, thyroid problems, gastrointestinal discomfort, and cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies potassium bromate as a possible carcinogen.

Where it’s banned: Canada, China, and the EU. California declared it a carcinogen in 1991 but it’s still permitted to be sold in the State as long as it contains a warning label.  And while the FDA has not banned the use of bromated flour, they do urge bakers to voluntarily leave it out.

5. Azodicarbonamide

Image: This Change.org Petition

Where it’s found: Frozen dinners, packaged baked goods, and bread products (and in foamed plastic products like yoga mats and sneakers).

Related to the previous post on the topic, here is another article discussing the use of azodicarbonamide — the chemical commonly found in yoga mats, flip-flops, insulation, and more — by Subway and other food manufacturers, and this one lists nearly 500 food items in more than 130 brands of bread, bread stuffing and snacks (including many advertised as “healthy”) that include the chemical. 

While the additive has not undergone extensive testing to determine its health effects on humans, as you’ll see in the list, many well-known brands, including Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Shoprite, Safeway, Smucker’s, Fleischman’s, Jimmy Dean, Kroger, Little Debbie, Tyson, and Wonder have been using it in their foods.  This article lists 11 other fast food chains that also use azodicarbonamide.

Why it’s no good:  Azodicarbonamide is known to induce asthma and has been associated with the risk of cancer. More here.

Where it’s banned:  Australia, the U.K., and most other European countries. And it’s not enough to ban this product in Singapore. You can get up to 15 years in prison and be penalized nearly half a million dollars in fines for using this chemical! Currently, it is a USDA and FDA-approved food additive, however, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (as well as New York Senator Chuck Schumer) are wanting azodicarbonamide banned for good.

6. BHA and BHT

Image: ThoughtCo

Where it’s found:  BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are commonly used preservatives found in breakfast cereal, nut mixes, chewing gum, butter spread, dehydrated potatoes, and beer to name a few.

Why it’s no good: BHA and BHT are waxy solids made from petroleum. BHA is known to cause cancer in rats, and may be a cancer-causing agent in humans as well.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program’s 2011 Report on Carcinogens, BHA “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” and may trigger allergic reactions and hyperactivity, while BHT can cause organ system toxicity.

Where it’s banned:  Japan, the UK, and several other European countries.  California is the only state that recognizes the U.S. National Institute of Health’s report that BHA may be a human carcinogen, a cancer-causing agent.

7. Chicken With Arsenic

Where it’s found:  In chicken in your supermarket fed arsenic-based drugs in their feed.
Arsenic-based drugs are approved for use in animal feed in the US because they make animals grow quicker and make the meat appear pinker (i.e. “fresher”).  But it also gives them higher levels of arsenic in their meat…

The FDA has stated these products are safe because they contain organic arsenic, which is less toxic than the other inorganic form, which is a known carcinogen.

Why it’s no good:  The problem is, scientific reports surfaced stating that organic arsenic could transform into inorganic arsenic, which has been found in elevated levels in supermarket chickens.

One study published in May 2013 led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health found that chickens raised with arsenic-based drugs end up having toxic, inorganic arsenic in their meat.

Unfortunately, this means countless consumers within the US are ingesting this known carcinogen.  The inorganic arsenic also contaminates manure, which can eventually migrate into drinking water and may also be causing heightened arsenic levels in US rice.

Where it’s banned:  The European Union.  In 2011, Pfizer announced it would voluntarily stop marketing its arsenic-based feed additive Roxarsone, but several others are still on the market. Several environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the FDA calling for their removal from the market and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies inorganic arsenic as a “human carcinogen.”

Although trace amounts of arsenic are found in many foods, best to avoid more than necessary, so sticking to organic birds is probably your best best.

Chicken With Arsenic
Please contact us for Image credits

8. Synthetic Hormones rBGH And rBST, Also Known as Bovine Growth Hormones

Where it’s found: Lots of U.S.-produced milk and dairy products. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is America’s largest-selling dairy animal drug. RBGH is a synthetic version of natural bovine somatotropin (BST), a hormone produced in cows’ pituitary glands.

Monsanto developed the recombinant version from genetically engineered E. coli bacteria and markets it under the brand name “Posilac.”  These synthetic hormones are given to cows to boost milk production and are therefore found in milk and other dairy products (unless the label specifically says otherwise).

Why it’s no good:  The milk from these cows is filled with IGF-1 (insulin growth factor -1), which has been linked to breast, colon, and prostate cancers by promoting the conversion of normal tissue cells into cancerous ones.  And it’s no good for the cows either!  

rBGH-injected cows suffer at least 16 different adverse health conditions, including very high rates of mastitis that contaminate milk with pus and antibiotics.  Additionally, according to the American Cancer Society, the increased use of antibiotics to treat rBGH-induced problems in cows may promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Where it’s banned:  Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Israel, and the European Union.  In 1999, the United Nations Safety Agency ruled unanimously not to endorse or set safety standards for rBGH milk, which effectively resulted in an international ban on milk produced in the U.S.

The Cancer Prevention Coalition has been trying for years to get the use of rBGH by the dairy industry banned in the U.S. 

The best way to avoid rBGH is to look for products labeled as “rBGH-free” or “No rBGH.”

Handy Chart to Avoid the Top Potential Health Offenders

Chemical Additives Allowed by the FDA but Banned in Other Countries
Source: Food Safety Helpline

Here’s a handy chart that might help if all of these are overwhelming… if you see any of the following ingredients listed on the nutrition label, then maybe think twice before you buy the product.

Leaving these banned bad boys on the shelves will let the grocery stores and food manufacturers know that U.S. consumers don’t want these products in our homes or bodies either!

IngredientFound inHealth Hazards
Food coloring:  FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2Cake, candy, macaroni and cheese, medicines, sports drinks, soda, pet food, and cheeseMost artificial colors are made from coal tar, which is a carcinogen
Olestra (aka Olean)Fat-free potato chipsDepletion of fat-soluble vitamins and carotenoids. Side effects include oily anal leakage
Brominated vegetable oil (aka BVO)Sports drinks and citrus-flavored sodasCompetes with iodine for receptor sites in the body, which can lead to hypothyroidism, autoimmune disease, and cancer. The main ingredient, bromine, is a poisonous, corrosive chemical, linked to  major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss
Potassium bromate (aka brominated flour)Rolls, wraps, flatbread, bread crumbs, and bagel chipsSee bromine above. Associated with kidney and nervous system disorders,  gastrointestinal discomfort
AzodicarbonamideBread, frozen dinners, boxed pasta mixes, and packaged baked goodsLinked to asthma
BHA and BHTCereal, nut mixes, gum, butter, meat, dehydrated potatoes, and beerBHA may be a human carcinogen, a cancer-causing agent. BHT can cause organ system toxicity
Synthetic hormones: rBGH and rBSTMilk and dairy productsLinked to breast, colon, and prostate cancers
ArsenicPoultryEPA classifies inorganic arsenic as a “human carcinogen”


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