Harmful ingredients allowed by the FDA

20+ Harmful Ingredients Allowed by the FDA but Banned in Europe & Beyond: Understanding Hidden Ingredients in Food

From skincare to snacks, artificial ingredients seem to be in just about every product. When diving deeper into the rabbit hole of these sneaky chemicals, there’s a key detail that is often left out of the conversation. Some harmful ingredients allowed by the FDA in the United States but are banned (with good reason) in foreign countries

It’s no secret that the relationship between industrial agriculture, Big Food manufacturers, lobbyists, and policy makers is complicated. This web of bureaucracy, money, power, and deceptive marketing makes it harder for regulatory agencies to ban potentially harmful artificial ingredients in our food.

Harmful ingredients allowed by the FDA

While it is unfortunate that the FDA is behind in regulating many harmful ingredients, it is important for those of us living in the US to educate ourselves on these chemicals. Artificial ingredients can sneakily impact our bodies in potentially harmful ways if we don’t know how to search for them, avoid them, and seek alternatives.

Review this table of 20 harmful ingredients allowed by the FDA. All of these ingredients are banned or restricted in the EU and beyond.

Harmful ingredients allowed by the FDA:

IngredientFunctionCommonly FoundPotential Harms
Titanium dioxideColoringCandies (Skittles, Starbursts), baked goods, sauces, soupsGenotoxic (toxic to our DNA) may lead to some cancers.
Potassium BromateDough conditioner: 
Makes bread and crust smooth and fluffy.  
Whitening agent: 
Gives finished loaves their bright white color
Flowers, bread, rolls, pastries, baked goods, snacksCarcinogenic in animals. 
– Linked to nervous system damage
– Linked to kidney damage
Thyroid tumor
AzodicarbonamideWhitening agent
Dough conditioner: Makes dough soft, stretchy, and more uniform
Packaged baked goods, bread, snacksCarcinogenic
Respiratory problems
Worsen allergies
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)Preservative: Makes food last longer. Used for foods that contain fat. Often used along with BHT (see ????) 
Flavor enhancer: can create addiction
Gum, snack foods, preserved meats, cereals, processed packaged foods of all sorts.Endocrine disruptor
– Impair blood clotting

Note: some data show a benefit, but the harm outweighs the benefit.
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH, rBST), SomatotropinHormones: used to artificially increase milk production in cowsDairy productsCarcinogenic
Harmful and cruel treatment to animals
Color Dyes:
Yellow #5 and #6 and Red #40
ColoringChildren’s medicines, frozen treats, candies, packaged snacks, flavored drinks, salad dressings, condimentsADHD
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)Emulsifier: a substance needed to bring 2 ingredients that don’t naturally go together (like oil and water, for example).
Stabilizer: smooths out a mix of ingredients that would not naturally mix well (think smooth pudding and ice cream).
For example, keeps citrus flavoring from separating out in drinks and sodas
Used to be found in Gatorade and Mountain Dew. Found in other beveragesInfertility
Interferes with thyroid function
Skin lesions
Memory loss
Behavioral and developmental disruption. 
Food sprayed in ChlorineAntibiotic: Decrease risk for spreading infectious diseases like salmonella (also antimicrobial and antifungal).Chicken– Promotes lax farming practices vs in Europe which practices strict hygiene. 
– Unnecessary exposure to the chemical chlorine (the stuff you bleach with).
RactopaminePharmaceutical drug (Beta agonist): Supplemented in animal feed to artificially cause more lean meat and less fat on animals.Pork and beefCardiotoxicity, broken limbs, tremors in animals
Elevate HR in humans
Neurologic toxicity
Trans fatsGenetic modification is used to artificially create resistances to diseases and pests and tolerance to herbicidesFruits and grains
Ex. genetically engineered papaya
– Long-term health effects are unknown and unstudied
– Glyphosate tolerant GM crops are directly sprayed with the toxic herbicide leading to higher exposure in consumers
– Environmental impacts of crossing with wild species 
– Increasing the issue of antibiotic resistance
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)Genetic modification is used to artificially create resistances to diseases and pests and tolerance to herbicidesFruits and grains
Ex. genetically engineered papaya
– Long-term health effects are unknown and unstudied
– Glyphosate tolerant GM crops are directly sprayed with the toxic herbicide leading to higher exposure in consumers
– Environmental impacts of crossing with wild species 
– Increasing the issue of antibiotic resistance
OlestraFat substitute that adds no calories to its food productsChips and other processed food– Severe GI Distress
– “Anal  leakage”
– Disruption of the gut biome
– Inhibits fat soluble vitamins
– Increases appetite
– One of the worst 
products ever approved by the FDA
– Still lingers in our food in the USA.
PropylparabenPreservative: Artificially makes foods and drinks last longer.Tortillas, bread rolls, muffins.Affect sex hormones and fertility. 
Carcinogen (breast)
Endocrine disruption
Glyphosate (Roundup)HerbicideMost produce, particularly heavy usage on wheat and other grainsSee glyphosate resource guide.
Brominated Flame RetardantsStabilizer: Prevents ingredient separation especially in drinks– Soft drinks
– Sports drinks
– Energy drinks
Thyroid toxicity
Cognitive problems
Acesulfame potassiumArtificial sweetener– Processed foods
– Drinks
– Snacks
Neonicotinoid pesticidesPesticides (kill insects, pests)– Crops (corn, soybeans, cotton, etc).
– Fruits
– Harmful to bees and other pollinators (decrease their numbers)
– Soil contamination
– Harm other wildlife that are critical to ecosystem balance
– Leads to resistant insects requiring more pesticides to be effective much like glyphosate.
Sucks up water and moisture to keep foods dry
– Dry food products and snacksThyroid toxicity
Hormone disruption
Synthetic hormones in livestockArtificial hormones: to augment growth both in size and speed.Beef, chicken, pork and other animal products.Premature puberty
Hormone disruption leading to many other problems.

Many of these studies on these harmful ingredients are on animals. However, that does not minimize the potential harm to us. We will never know the definite harms because it is impossible to ethically run studies on humans, especially children.

We like to err on the side of caution. Eating real, whole foods without artificial ingredients feels like a win-win. What’s better than eating something natural and free of chemicals that arguably tastes better than the fake, ultra processed version?

artificial ingredients banned outside us

Think twice about the misleading marketing surrounding you at the grocery store. Question the brightly colored food labeled for children. Do some research to see if a product is banned in other countries.

These 20 harmful ingredients allowed by the FDA are just a few of the ingredients that we should be mindful of. However, some products that have artificial ingredients are easier to come by and potentially cheaper in some instances. Plus, artificial ingredients are so deceptive, they can sneak up on us from time to time–it happens to the best of us! At the end of the day, we encourage you to be mindful of the products you are consuming. It can feel overwhelming, but when you get past all of the marketing, it’s as simple as reading ingredients and sticking to real whole single ingredients foods as much as you can.

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