aluminum in Food

aluminum in food

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Aluminum in Food

Aluminum: The Hidden Ingredient

Aluminum is a naturally-occurring metal, the 13th element on the periodic table. Aluminum is found in nature and manufactured items.

It’s also a widespread ingredient in many processed foods, even though exposure to high levels of aluminum is considered toxic, according to various studies

The EPA found that North American adults consume between 9-30mg of aluminum in food daily when the average amount (from natural sources) should be less than 5 mg. Aluminum has a long history of being known as a neurotoxin. Prolonged exposure to aluminum in the environment is linked with Alzheimer’s disease. The EPA recommends limiting aluminum intake for those with kidney or adrenal diseases. More studies are currently being done on the health effects of aluminum in food.

Aluminum Becomes an “Industry Standard”

Aluminum has a wide variety of uses in processed foods. It’s a preservative in canned food, used in artificial colors, baking products, beer, processed cheeses, and chewing gum. It creates a creamy texture, keeps food “fresh” for longer, and creates brighter colors. Its use in nearly everything has made it an “industry standard” ingredient, despite a lack of information on the long-term health effects. 

The National Institute of Health has deemed aluminum “generally safe,” but that hasn’t been revisited for decades. Because the NIH considers it safe, aluminum became an industry standard ingredient, meaning it doesn’t have to be listed on ingredient labels. Instead, you’ll find aluminum disguised within food colorings and “preservatives.”

Even worse, aluminum in food is classified as “good manufacturing practice,” or GMP. With aluminum included in many things, it’s easy to end up overeating this preservative. While the influential government health organizations in the United States have slacked on studying the health effects of this chemical, Europe has banned various ingredients containing aluminum. 

Its commonality makes it challenging to avoid. While most average people don’t show signs of adverse health due to aluminum, some groups are extra sensitive. Both adults and children with renal diseases and diminished kidney function or those with specific gastrointestinal issues have difficulty finding food without aluminum because of its “safe” classification. Children particularly sensitive to certain ingredients and experience sensory issues, hyperactivity, or other similar cognitive functioning are often sensitive to aluminum.

Aluminum in Food

Children are Most At-Risk

While most adults in North America consume above the recommended amount of aluminum, children tend to be a little more at risk for a few reasons. 

A study in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology in 2018 found that “re­distribution of aluminum out of the brain is slow, so aluminum can be deposited in the brain for a long time.” As aluminum affects the nervous system and brain, overconsumption for children may cause developmental hindrances, learning disabilities, irregular bone mass or growth, an issue with regulatory responses, and a number of effects listed in a 2019 Pediatrics study

The other part of the problem is that children tend to gravitate toward foods that contain aluminum. From “creamy” cheeses like the powdered cheese in boxed macaroni, to pickled or canned foods, to the candy they eat, aluminum tends to be ever-present.

children are at most risk from aluminum in food
artificial colors are a problem because of aluminum in food

Aluminum in Food and Artificial Colors

Lakes dyes are contained in most processed foods. Artificial colors are one of those ingredients already limited or banned through much of the EU. These dyes are connected with hyperactivity and learning problems in children as far back as this 1978 study. Children with ADHD, learning disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum should especially avoid dyed foods. 

These lake dyes are shown to be especially harmful:

  • Red #40 (Allura Red) – Triggers hyperactivity in some individuals and can cause (allergy-like) hypersensitivity in others. Also found to cause tumors in lab mice. 
  • Yellow #5 (Tartrazine) – Causes severe hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, and other behavioral issues in affected individuals. 
  • Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow) – Known to cause severe hypersensitive reactions in individuals and cause adrenal tumors in animals. 

Lake dyes aren’t the only foods containing aluminum that are common with children. Cheese manufacturers use aluminum in the form of sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP) to make cheese ultra-smooth and uniform. Processed cheese is a top source of aluminum exposure. The publication “Food Additives and contaminants” identifies processed cheese and American cheese as one of the top three dietary sources of aluminum exposure as far back as 1988.

Avoiding Aluminum in Food and Cookware

You don’t necessarily have to toss out everything from your house that contains aluminum. It’s a common ingredient, and many product groups haven’t figured out how to replace this metal preservative (for example, in baby formula). However, you can limit your intake along with your family’s intake.

Tips on Limiting Your Exposure to Aluminum 

Aluminum foil is part of the problem, but if you want to keep using it, just be mindful.

Avoid using a fork or other sharp objects, so it doesn’t leech into your food.

Line aluminum sheet pans with unbleached parchment paper; never use metal utensils if you use aluminum sheet pans.

Know your hidden aluminum food names: aluminum lakes dyes, aluminum sulfate, potassium aluminum sulfate, magnesium aluminum silicate, sodium aluminum phosphate.

Steer clear of products high in aluminum, including baking mixes, self-rising flour, dairy creamers, aspirin, anti-caking agents, baking powder, and American processed cheese.

Eat natural, whole foods as much as possible. They’re the least likely to contain aluminum!

Knowledge is power. Big Food is tricky and sneaky, but knowing which foods have hidden aluminum, we can choose to be mindful to find aluminum-free alternatives or just stay away from the product altogether.

We at My Superhero foods are committed to following the best possible evidence and will reevaluate our opinions as the information changes.

Additional Reading:

American Academy of Pediatrics

United States Environmental Protection Agency

European Food Safety Authority

National Library of Medicine