With more than 500 food additives permitted for use in Canada’many of which have been implicated for negative effects on human health’it can be difficult to keep track of which to eat and which to avoid. Though some researchers may feel certain additives are toxic, their studies may not be enough to get the products banned by the government, making it difficult for Canadians to know who to trust.

Used primarily to preserve shelf life and boost flavour, as well as to maintain colour, many synthetic additives are not harmful, and some, such as ascorbic acid, can even improve the nutritional value of our foods. However, other chemical agents have undergone inadequate, conflicting or inconclusive testing.
The following is a list of the top 10 food additives legal for use in Canada that have raised red flags within the scientific community. While none of them has been definitively proven to be harmful, they haven’t been proven to be safe, either; it’s ultimately the consumer’s choice whether to take the risk. (Note that some additives have different names in the U.S. and in Canada; we’ve given you both names in many cases.)

 1. Sodium nitrite, also known as sodium nitrate

Where it’s found: Bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats and other processed meats.

– It’s used as a preservative, as well as for flavouring and colouring (it stabilizes the red colour of cured meats, preventing them from turning grey). It also hinders the growth of bacteria that may cause botulism.

Why avoid this additive: Sodium nitrite can cause the formation of nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing chemicals; this reaction occurs especially in bacon. Look for bacon products that contain ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid; both are safe additives that help inhibit the potentially dangerous reaction.

 2. Propyl gallate

Where it’s found: Some vegetable oils, meat products, potato sticks, chicken soup base and chewing gum.

What it is: An antioxidant preservative that keeps fats and oils from spoiling (oxidation causes spoilage, changes flavours and leads to colour loss).

Why avoid this additive: Reputable mice and rat studies have shown a possible cancer link. Propyl gallate is often used with both BHA and BHT (below).

 3. Brilliant Blue FCFC (aka Artificial Blue 1)

Where it’s found: Drinks, candy, baked goods.

What it is: An artificial colour (see below).

Why avoid this additive: General testing has been inadequate, there have been some suggestions of a slight cancer risk.

 4. Erythrosine (aka Artificial Red 3)

Where it’s found: Cherries in fruit cocktail, candy, baked goods.

What it is: An artificial colour (see below).

Why avoid this additive: In the ’80s, the FDA recommended the dye be banned after studies presented convincing evidence it caused thyroid tumours in rats. It’s still in use worldwide.

 5. . Acesulfame-potassium (aka acesulfame-K)

Where it’s found: Baked goods, chewing gum, gelatin desserts, soft drinks, energy drinks.

What it is: An artificial sweetener about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Why avoid this additive: Two animal studies suggest that this additive could be cancer-causing, though other studies say it’s safe. It also breaks down into a substance’acetoacetamide’that in large quantities has been found to affect the thyroid in dogs, rabbits and rats. Watch for it in foods that use sucralose, an artificial sweetener’acesulfame-potassium is often used in conjunction with it.

 6. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

Where it’s found: A wide variety of processed foods, especially shortening and some margarines, deep-fried foods, cookies, baked goods and snack foods. Many products have shifted to using alternatives; it’s important to read labels.

What it is: A processed type of fat that helps increase shelf life and improves the texture of some processed foods.

Why avoid this additive: The process to make partially hydrogenated vegetable oil creates trans fats, which may contribute to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Many companies have removed or are in the process of removing trans fats, so there is almost always a trans-fat-free alternative.

 7. Aspartame

Where it’s found: Several sugar substitute products; an array of diet foods including sodas, drink mixes and low-calorie frozen desserts; chewing gum.

What it is: An artificial sweetener.

Why avoid this additive: Controversy over aspartame’s safety has swirled since the ’70s, when studies done on rats suggested it may cause brain tumours. More recent animal studies have now linked aspartame to lymphomas, leukemia and breast cancer. As well, some people show an acute sensitivity to aspartame, suffering headaches and dizziness shortly after consuming it. And to top it all off, not only have “diet” products containing aspartame not been shown to aid in weight loss, they may even cause you to eat more.

 8. Sunset Yellow FCF (aka Artificial Yellow 6)

Where it’s found: Some beverages, sausage, baked goods, candy, gelatin desserts.

What it is: An artificial colour (see below).

Why avoid this additive: Animal studies sponsored by the food industry have turned up evidence of tumours in the adrenal gland and kidney related to this, the third-most widely used dye. It may also cause some allergic reactions.

 9. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

Where it’s found: Breakfast cereals, gum, vegetable oil, chips; may also be used in food packaging to maintain freshness.

What it is: Like propyl gallate, these are antioxidants that prevent fats and oils from spoiling.

Why avoid this additive: Some rat, mice and hamster studies suggest these agents can cause cancer, while others show they’re safe. But BHA and BHT are easily avoided, as many brands use safer packaging processes and/or safer chemicals (such as vitamin E), or don’t use an antioxidant agent at all.

 10. Indigotine (aka Artificial Blue 2)

Where it’s found: Pet food, beverages, candy.

What it is: An artificial colour (see below).

Why avoid this additive: The largest study performed on this dye suggested it may cause brain tumours in male mice.