Hidden IngredientsSome everyday foods, especially the processed and packaged kind, have been found to contain potentially-harmful chemicals.
And they’re not just the usual nitrites, MSG and other flavor additives and preservatives. They’re lesser-known substances that won’t likely show up on an ingredients list.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says certain small amounts of chemicals in foods are safe. For example, less than one part of methylmercury per million parts of seafood is acceptable, according to the agency, which has been fairly quiet about the presence of certain chemicals in everyday foods. Some scientists, on the other hand, think any level could be harmful and say the FDA has been too quiet about trace amounts of certain chemicals in popular products on grocery store shelves. Here are some of those products.
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Canned Foods and JuicesChemical: Bisphenol A (BPA)
How it gets there: It’s an ingredient in the linings of most food and beverage cans, and transfers from the linings to the food, according to Consumer Reports.
What it does: Some studies have shown that BPA, which is a synthetic sex hormone, is “linked to neurological, endocrine and reproductive health effects, breast cancer and other serious health problems,” according to a press release from the Environmental Health Fund.
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How it gets there: The chemicals from plastic storage bags migrates to meat, according to a 2008 scientific study. It becomes volatile when the meat is heated.
What it does: Even the FDA admits that benzene is a cancer-causing chemical, but there’s no established limit to the amount of benzene foods can contain. Exposure can cause drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, increased risk of developing leukemia, bone marrow and blood production problems and death, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
The maximum allowable level of benzene contamination is five parts per billion according to Environmental Protection Agency standards. But in one case in which roast beef was found to have an off odor, further studies found that the meat contained benzene levels between less than 5 parts per billion to as much as 17.8 parts per billion.
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Packaged FoodsChemical: Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
How it gets there: PFCs are common components in plastic bags, wraps and packages. PFCs can transfer from wrappers to foods to humans, and may even be transferred to infants through breast milk, notes FoodProductionDaily.com.
What they do: PFCs could cause women to take longer to conceive, according to Nature.com. In addition, some worry that because plastic packaging can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, PFCs could enter the food chain when they are ingested by other animals which directly or indirectly find their way into the human food chain.
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Peanut ButterChemical: Aflatoxins
How it gets there: Aflatoxins are toxins made by the naturally-occurrung fungus Aspergillus and can contaminate peanuts, corn and grains. Affected corn or other grains fed to a dairy cow could mean contaminated milk and milk products, according to the Cornell University Department of Animal Science. Safe peanut butter does exist however.
What it does: Aflatoxins can cause liver, kidneys, and heart problems, vomiting, abdominal pain, convulsions, coma and death. No major outbreaks have occurred in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but they’re more widespread in third-world countries where there are fewer regulatory checks on foods.
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How it gets there: Recycled cardboard can contain any number of dyes, glues and other chemicals, depending on the origin of materials, and bring these substances to high temperatures by putting a hot pizza on it could actually release harmful gases into the air, according to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, and phthalates and other chemicals can leach into food, according to the Environmental Working Group.
What it does: Phthalates are linked to diabetes, male genital deformities, premature births and overweight, according to ScienceDaily.com, which notes that the chemicals can also be found in flooring, cables, cosmetics and even medical products. But just as cosmetics with phthalates continue to be used worldwide, pizza boxes are still widely used.
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How it gets there: Mercury has been found in high fructose corn syrup, a major ingredient in a number of processed foods and drinks, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. It’s there because caustic soda made from mercury is used remove corn starch from a kernel to produce the corn syrup, according to the Institute. On the other hand, a study commissioned by the U.S. Corn Refiners Association found no quantifiable mercury in the products it had tested. "High fructose corn syrup does not appear to be a measureable contributor to mercury in foods," the trade group noted.
What it does: Mercury, which can also be found in seafood, affects the brain. Pregnant women are urged not to consume certain fish due to fears that mercury could cause fetuses brains to develop abnormally and cause learning disabilities and low IQ.
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Candy and SweetsChemical: Mercury
How it gets there: Candy makers are some of the biggest users of high fructose corn syrup, which, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, could contain mercury. Studies by the institute found that about one in three of the common foods and drinks in which high fructose corn syrup is a first or second labeled ingredient tested positive for mercury.
What it does: Similar to lead, mercury builds up in the body over time. Traces of mercury were found in strawberry-flavored Jell-O, for instance, according to the Institute.
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Breakfast FoodsChemical: Mercury
How it gets there: High fructose corn syrup is widely used in breakfast cereals and other breakfast products, and mercury has been detected in a number of those items, including Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars, blueberry frosted Pop-Tarts, Quaker Oatmeal to Go, notes the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
What it does: Many products containing high fructose corn syrup and quite possibly mercury are often consumed by children, notes the Institute. If their exposure to mercury starts at a young age, a child is more at risk for negative effects later in life.
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Chocolate MilkChemical: Mercury
How it gets there: Since a mercury derivative is used in the production of corn syrup, flavorings and syrups might be why traces of mercury have been found in childhood favorites including Yoohoo, Nesquick, and even Hershey’s chocolate syrup, according to the Institute’s research.
What it does: Chocolate milk and chocolate syrups are a favorite among children, but while it may seem like an innocent indulgence, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is concerned that some of these products may be especially harmful to children.
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How it gets there: Besides not being the leanest, healthiest dinner option, mercury contamination could be another reason why Manwich might not make such a great meal. The second ingredient in this sloppy joe mix, which Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy studies found to contain mercury, is high fructose corn syrup.
What it does: Whether they’re eaten by messy young eaters or pregnant women with fierce cravings, mercury in the Manwich mix could be harmful to children and fetuses. Plus mercury can be unintentionally fed to infants through breast milk.
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Pancake SyrupChemical: Mercury
How it gets there: High fructose corn syrup is a major ingredient in pancake syrup and makes for a much milder flavor than what you’d get from honey or powdered sugar. But likely due to its high fructose corn syrup content, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found traces of mercury in Mrs. Butterworth Original Syrup, for example. While Maple syrup might be a much pricier pancake topper, it’s more natural option, and might be less likely to contain mercury.
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Salad dressingChemical: Mercury
How it gets there: Mercury has been detected in corn syrup, which is a common ingredient in salad dressings because it tames the acidity of vinegar and brings out other flavors. Wish-Bone Thousand Island Dressing, Wish-Bone Western Sweet & Smooth Dressing and Market Pantry Thousand Island Dressing, which all contain high fructose corn syrup, also contained traces of mercury, according to studies by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
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