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5 Mystery Chemicals Hiding in Your Food

If you’re into eating healthy, chances are you read the ingredient labels on the food you buy.

I certainly do.

To be honest, it’s just about the only thing on a label that I spend much time looking at, especially since food companies can make all sorts of outrageous claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Now assuming you are already a label reader, have you ever wondered what risks those weird ingredients might pose?

Even products as benign as unsweetened almond milk or trail mix can be a hotbed for additives.

If you ever questioned the mystery chemicals hiding in your food, just scrolling through this exhaustive list of food additives approved by the FDA will make your head spin.

Many of these unpronounceable chemicals find their way into products you eat every day, particularly if you’re eating packaged foods or at restaurants.

Having taken years of chemistry in my undergrad, I can pronounce these chemical names.

But I want to caution you that just because something sounds weird doesn’t mean it’s automatically evil.

I remember my high school chemistry teacher telling us about a pervasive chemical that we unknowingly consume everyday called dihydrogen monoxide.

That scary-sounding chemical he was referring to was water.

Just to give you a few more examples scary-sounding, but totally harmless chemicals:

  • sodium chloride is regular ol’ table salt
  • d-limonene is a flavoring agent extracted from orange peels. It’s also sold as a dietary supplement to stimulate detoxification enzymes in the liver
  • acetic acid is the naturally occurring acid in vinegar
  • allyl-isothiocyanate is an antioxidant naturally found in cabbage
  • pantothenate is an essential B-vitamin

How the word sounds has nothing to do with its safety.

However, I like to approach any complex chemical-y words on a food label as guilty until proven innocent.

5 Mystery Chemicals Hiding in Your Food That Are Dangerous:

1. Diacetyl

Diacetyl is the chemical used to give popcorn, margarines, and butter-flavored sprays their buttery flavor, only without the butter. Turns out this popular chemical additive is linked to Alzheimer’s disease and gives us yet another reason to ditch the fake stuff and eat the real thing. There are also reports of workers from popcorn manufacturing facilities developing severe lung disease and evidence that this chemical poses a risk to consumers of microwave popcorn if inhaled. (No wonder I detest the smell of microwave popcorn!) Diacetyl is usually labeled as “butter flavor” or lumped within the “natural flavors” catch-all. Buyer beware.

Source: Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2012. and Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012.

Diacetyl (DA), an ubiquitous butter-flavoring agent, was found to influence several aspects of amyloid-β (Aβ) aggregation—one of the two primary pathologies associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” – Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2012.

2. Butylated hydroxytoluene

Butylated hydroxytoluene, also listed on labels as BHT, is a preservative used to prevent unsaturated oils from oxidizing. When the food industry started cracking down on trans fats and replacing them with liquid vegetable oils that easily go rancid, they started adding in more BHT to maintain the shelf life of the product and prevent off-flavors from developing. Unfortunately, this chemical is one of many food additives suspected to promote cancer. It’s quite common in breakfast cereals.

Source: Chemico-Biological Reactions, 2011.

Chronic BHT exposure is accompanied by pulmonary inflammation and several studies indicate that elevated levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) are involved in its [tumor] promoting activity.” – Chemico-Biological Reactions, 2011.

3. Sodium benzoate

Sodium benzoate and benzoic acid are used as preservatives in beverages like soda, juices, and sports drinks. Preventing mold and fungus might be a good thing, but these chemicals can react with acidic ingredients like vitamin C and citric acid to form benzene, a potent carcinogen. Benzene is a known cause of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and rarely does science use the word “cause”.

Source: PLoS One. 2014.

Benzene is a component of gasoline, and the starting ingredient in the production of plastics and polymers via styrene; of resins and adhesives via phenol; and, in the manufacture of nylon via cyclohexane. It is toxic to the bone marrow and is associated with various hematological cancers.” – PLoS One. 2014.

4. Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a common thickener, stabilizer, and texturizer added to products like yogurt, dairy-free milks, sauces, sorbet, and even infant formula. This one would seem benign, since it’s derived from seaweed, however new evidence is linking it to a number of health problems, from inflammation of the colon to insulin resistance (a precursor to type 2 diabetes). It’s even been tied to digestive problems as severe as Chron’s disease.

Source: Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012. and Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2007.

These results show, for the first time, that exposure of human intestinal epithelial cells to carrageenan triggers a distinct inflammatory pathway via activation of Bcl10 with NF-kappaB activation and upregulation of IL-8 secretion. Since Bcl10 contains a caspase-recruitment domain, similar to that found in NOD2/CARD15 and associated with genetic predisposition to Crohn’s disease, the study findings may represent a link between genetic and environmental etiologies of inflammatory bowel disease.” – Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2007.

5. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, usually made from soy protein, is a widely used flavor enhancer with a relatively friendly-sounding name, however this ingredient is a hidden source of the neurotoxin glutamate, more commonly recognized in the form of MSG. This is a classic trigger for headaches, particularly migraines. Be especially vigilant when buying snack foods, soups, and broth. As an avid Pilates Nutritionist reader, you probably already make your own broth, right?

Source: J Headache Pain. 2013.

The presence of MSG in food may be difficult to detect since the terms “natural flavor,” “flavoring,” or “hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP),” all may appear on food labels to refer to MSG, according to current FDA food labeling codes. HVP typically contains 10-30% MSG.” – Headache. 1991.

Now that these 5 mystery chemicals hiding in your food have been revealed, it’s your job to read the ingredients on everything you buy and keep these icky additives out of your shopping cart.

Of course, these just scratch the surface of harmful food additives that are put into everyday items.

So how do you know if an ingredient is safe or not?

I don’t have a perfect answer for you.

As Michael Pollan says:

“If you can’t say it, don’t eat it.”

And while there might be exceptions to that rule, like I hinted at above, it’s safer than ingesting a potentially toxic chemical. Some of these chemicals had been in the food supply for decades before research revealed they were harmful. And despite the research, they continue to be used by the food industry.

My approach to food additives remains: guilty until proven innocent. (<– tweet that!)

If you have a sketchy food additive to add to the list, tell us about it in the comments below.

Until next week,


Veggies: Eat them because you want to, not because you have to

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.


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  1. Hi Lily~ So after reading your post, I ran to my fridge to see if my almond milk contained any of these ingredients, particularly Carrageenan. Luckily, it doesn’t. But your post reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend who was trying to watch her weight; her question to me was regarding zero-calorie-type sweeteners. My advice to her was Michael Pollan-ish, to go for the real thing. Organic cane sugar from a sustainable source was my choice for a sweetener as I know exactly what it contains: sugar. Over here in Northern Florida, we can even buy raw sugar cane at local Farmers Markets – and that makes sense to me, as opposed to uber sweetened powder. I’d love to hear what you think about sweeteners. Thank you!

    • I’m with you, Jill. I prefer small amounts of the real thing over the fake stuff. I also occasionally use stevia, a zero-calorie, but plant-sourced sweetener. You’ve reminded me that I’m long overdue on a post that explores sweeteners.

  2. Perhaps not a mystery to some, but I think consumers need to be reminded that BPA can be present in canned foods, including organic canned vegetables, beans, etc. For those of us trying to detox estrogen due to hormonal changes or estrogen dominance, I think that is one potential contaminant that is easily forgotten to be careful of. Thanks for a great list full of scientific support…and big fan of Pollan!!

    • Great point, Stacey. The leaching of BPA is a major concern because it won’t show up on ingredient labels. It’s a great reminder to eat fresh foods over packaged as much as possible.

    • Well written Lily! And thanks for the addition, Stacey! Once again, leave it to the man-made stuff to negatively affect us when we ingest it. It is important to read labels and Lily: you provided us with a detailed list of some of those ingredients that can cause health problems. Many times, it takes years to discover the negative effects of those “wonder” ingredients that improve shelf-life, stability, and reduce cost.

      • Thanks Sarah! Yeah, it’s unfortunate that the food industry often works backwards, allowing all sorts of additives at first. Then, only when research says it’s unsafe or consumer pressure is strong enough, do they remove it from their products.

  3. What a great post. Very educational! 🙂

  4. Thanks for this! I’ve been looking for a simple list of these and what they could potentially do – yikes. So scary!

    • I find it frightening too, Janet! This list can definitely be expanded upon, but it’s a good place to start. 🙂

  5. I like how you address the whole “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” topic. As you point out, that’s not always true. Off to see if these offenders are lurking in my pantry!

    • You got it Beth! Some complex ingredients are good stuff, so I like to do my research and really know what I’m eating first.

  6. This is a wonderful post! I always look at labels when I’m grocery shopping– now I know what to look out for. My concern is when I order in or go out to a restaurant– in NYC, that’s much easier than cooking. I would love a post about what to watch out for in restaurants. I look forward to reading more!

    • That’s a great idea for a future post, Paige. Restaurants are a bit more challenging when trying to avoid food additives. Thanks for the suggestion!

  7. Chemical M is an additive used in America and it’s not written on the nutrition list. A big hooha has erupted in the USA how this chemical is in virtually every food and drink product. It has been discovered by scientists that it destroys the pancreas which means thousands of people contracting pre and full Diabetes. Do we have this in our food in Australia? By the way I am a diabetic!

  8. A Harvard University PhD candidate recently linked a toxic food additive, called “Chemical M” to diabetes…

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