Dear EarthTalk: What is the 'Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives?'.

Author:LaGarde, Meredith

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health and the environment through research, education and advocacy, launched its "Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives" in November 2014 to educate consumers about which food additives are associated with health concerns, which are restricted in other countries, and/or which just shouldn't be in our foods to begin with. EWG hopes the new guide will help consumers avoid unhealthy foods and also influence policymakers to develop more stringent rules for food producers moving forward.

According to EWG, more than 10,000 food additives are approved for use in the U.S., despite potential health implications. Some are "direct additives" deliberately formulated into processed food; others are "indirect," that is, finding their way into food during processing, storage or packaging. Either way, some have been linked to endocrine disruption, heart disease, cancer and a wide range of other health issues.

Topping EWG's list are nitrates and nitrites, both typically added to cured meats (like bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs) to prolong shelf-life and prevent discoloration. "Nitrites, which can form from nitrates, react with naturally occurring components of protein called amines," reports EWG. "This reaction can form nitrosamines, which are known cancer-causing compounds." The group reports links between nitrite and nitrate consumption and cancers of the stomach, esophagus, brain and thyroid.

The World Health Organization considers nitrites and nitrates to be probable human carcinogens; California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is now considering a similar designation. Interestingly, some nutritious foods like spinach and other leafy vegetables contain nitrates naturally, but EWG says that "human studies on nitrate intake from vegetables have found either no...

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