Hidden Chemicals In Your Food

Discover the best chemicals in food to skip, and those that perfectly safe.

Food industry experts are scientists at their core. They are specially trained in techniques to preserve and package food with an attempt to maintain flavors, colors, and textures. They also know how to best prevent spoilage and prolong the life of foods we eat.

They know almost nothing about how those hidden chemicals in food affect human health.

Each day, foods are delivered to supermarket shelves, with the goal of having them last as long as possible and to continue to look appealing to consumers. No one wants to see mold or rot on their produce. Gray-ish hamburger meat is completely unappetizing, not to mention bad for business.

In the case of harmful bacteria, making sure our food supply is safe to eat is vitally important. Food manufacturers and processors often use products and processes to make sure our foods are microbe-free and safe from bacteria that could make us sick.

Unfortunately, food companies often turn to chemicals to preserve foods and prevent bacterial growth. These chemicals, potentially less harmful in small amounts, are now replete throughout our food supply. The additive effect of consuming many foods with the same chemicals means our exposure may be higher than is safe for our continued health (12).

Why you should be Reading Labels

Below is an outline of a variety of harmful chemicals found in foods, their purpose, as well as the risk associated with consuming these foods on a regular basis.

Keep reading below this chart to discover how oregano oil can work as well as toxic BHT for preserving olive oil.

Our Chemical Soup – Common Chemicals in Foods We Eat

Chemical additives are so prevalent within our food supply (14), it’s nearly impossible to watch and remove them all from our diets. So make sure you read those labels.

Some food additives derived from natural sources can provide the same effect within food, without the health concerns (10). Luckily, the Korean Journal of Food Science & Animal Resources has recently published their research into natural antimicrobial compounds like essential oils, polyphenols, and enzymes to use in the foods supply as an alternative to chemicals (5).

Other researchers are investigating the use of lemon balm as a replacement for potassium sorbate in cupcakes and other baked goods (1). The Journal of Food Science published research that showed oregano essential oil was able to serve as an antioxidant in olive oil just as well as BHT or BHA, without the nasty cancer-causing effects of those chemicals. BHA and BHT can also be replaced by peppermint oil in order to prevent bacterial growth in food items (9).

Safe Food Preservatives

A few food ingredients that are likely safe for consumers include carbon monoxide – used to prevent oxidation of red meat and prevent it from greying.

Another safe preservative is a group of tocopherols – which are natural variations of vitamin E. Ascorbic acid is often used to prevent rancidity – and this is also known as vitamin C. Food-grade wax such as beeswax or carnauba wax used on the exterior of apples is also a safe food preservative.

If you are having difficulty reading all the labels and ingredients at the grocery store? Check out Smart Label to quickly assess food ingredients right from your home on your smartphone, tablet, or computer.


  1. Caleja C, Barros L, Barreira JCM, Ciric A, Sokovic M, Calhelha RC, Beatriz M, Oliveira PP, Ferreira ICFR. Suitability of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) extract rich in rosmarinic acid as a potential enhancer of functional properties in cupcakes. Food Chem. 2018 Jun 1;250:67-74. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2018.01.034. Epub 2018 Jan 4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29412929

  2. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Centers for Disease Control. Environmental Health and Medicine Education. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=12&po=9

  3. Zhang JB, Zhang H, Wang HL, Zhang JY, Luo PJ, Zhu L, Wang ZT. Risk analysis of sulfites used as food additives in China. Biomed Environ Sci. 2014 Feb;27(2):147-54. doi: 10.3967/bes2014.032. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24625409

  4. Raposa B, Pónusz R, Gerencsér G, Budán F, Gyöngyi Z, Tibold A, Hegyi D, Kiss I, Koller Á, Varjas T. Food additives: Sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, azorubine, and tartrazine modify the expression of NFκB, GADD45α, and MAPK8 genes. Physiol Int. 2016 Sep;103(3):334-343. doi: 10.1556/2060.103.2016.3.6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28229641

  5. Lee NK, Paik HD. Status, Antimicrobial Mechanism, and Regulation of Natural Preservatives in Livestock Food Systems. Korean J Food Sci Anim Resour. 2016;36(4):547-57. doi: 10.5851/kosfa.2016.36.4.547. Epub 2016 Aug 30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27621697

  6. Zanfirescu A, Cristea AN, Nitulescu GM, Velescu BS, Gradinaru D. Chronic Monosodium Glutamate Administration Induced Hyperalgesia in Mice. Nutrients. 2017 Dec 21;10(1). pii: E1. doi: 10.3390/nu10010001. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29267217

  7. Rivera-Carvantes MC, Jarero-Basulto JJ, Feria-Velasco AI, Beas-Zárate C, Navarro-Meza M, González-López MB, Gudiño-Cabrera G, García-Rodríguez JC. Changes in the expression level of MAPK pathway components induced by monosodium glutamate-administration produce neuronal death in the hippocampus from neonatal rats. Neuroscience. 2017 Dec 4;365:57-69. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2017.09.029. Epub 2017 Sep 24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28954212

  8. Asensio CM1, Nepote V, Grosso NR. Chemical stability of extra-virgin olive oil added with oregano essential oil. J Food Sci. 2011 Sep;76(7):S445-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02332.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22417562

  9. Sharafi SM, Rasooli I, Owlia P, Taghizadeh M, Astaneh SD. Protective effects of bioactive phytochemicals from Mentha piperita with multiple health potentials. Pharmacogn Mag. 2010 Jul;6(23):147-53. doi: 10.4103/0973-1296.66926. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20931070

  10. Altemimi A, Lakhssassi N, Baharlouei A, Watson DG, Lightfoot DA. Phytochemicals: Extraction, Isolation, and Identification of Bioactive Compounds from Plant Extracts. Plants (Basel). 2017 Sep 22;6(4). pii: E42. doi: 10.3390/plants6040042. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28937585

  11. Inoue-Choi M1, Jones RR, Anderson KE, Cantor KP, Cerhan JR, Krasner S, Robien K, Weyer PJ, Ward MH. Nitrate and nitrite ingestion and risk of ovarian cancer among postmenopausal women in Iowa. Int J Cancer. 2015 Jul 1;137(1):173-82. doi: 10.1002/ijc.29365. Epub 2014 Dec 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25430487

  12. Etemadi A, Sinha R, Ward MH, Graubard BI, Inoue-Choi M, Dawsey SM, Abnet CC. Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study. BMJ. 2017 May 9;357:j1957. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1957. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28487287

  13. Castro LDS, Bracht L, Comar JF, Peralta RM, Bracht A. A reappraisal of the proposed metabolic and antioxidant actions of butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) in the liver. J Biochem Mol Toxicol. 2017 Aug;31(8). doi: 10.1002/jbt.21924. Epub 2017 May 29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28557337

  14. Mancini FR, Paul D, Gauvreau J, Volatier JL, Vin K, Hulin M. Dietary exposure to benzoates (E210-E213), parabens (E214-E219), nitrites (E249-E250), nitrates (E251-E252), BHA (E320), BHT (E321) and aspartame (E951) in children less than 3 years old in France. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 2015;32(3):293-306. doi:10.1080/19440049.2015.1007535. Epub 2015 Feb 16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25686474.


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