Five Controversial Ingredients: Should You Avoid Them?

These ingredients have come under fire by consumers and some processors are removing them.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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To keep pace with competitors and stay ahead in the food and beverage industry, food companies need to know what consumers want − and don't want − and give it to them or remove it quickly. This can be easier said than done, especially when more ingredients are becoming "unwanted" by consumers.

Last year, Panera Bread issued a list of 150 artificial ingredients it is removing from its bakery/cafe menus. This hasn't been easy, especially because there are 465 different ingredients, CEO Ron Shaich said at the time. "But I want to serve food that's clean, serve food I feel good about my daughters eating."

Papa John's International also has a list of unwanted ingredients, as does Whole Foods and others. In March, Schwan Food Co., Bloomington, Minn., announced it was eliminating four ingredient groups including artificial trans fats/partially hydrogenated oils, dyes, artificial flavors and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). "We are eliminating these over the next two years and will continue to evaluate our ingredient lists to ensure we are satisfying consumer expectations," says Schwan's CEO Dimitrios Smyrnios.

We've decided to take a look at five controversial substances. The further down our list you read, the more the "science" questioning them becomes dubious. What is unquestionable is that at least some consumers, especially the very vocal ones, want them removed from their foods and drinks.

1. Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)

First patented as a flame-retardant chemical, brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is a complex mixture of plant-derived triglycerides that are reacted to contain atoms of the element bromine bonded to the molecules. The stabilizer has for decades been added to about 10 percent of the soft drinks in the U.S. to keep fat-soluble citrus flavors suspended in soft drinks, giving the drink a cloudy look.

Gatorade G2Added to breads, rolls and flours, it increases volume. Deemed for decades by the FDA as an "interim food additive," or, like saccharin, manitol and acryonitrile copolymers (the latter is plastic), "permitted on an interim basis pending further study," BVO is limited by the FDA to 15 parts/million in fruit-flavored beverages.

Public pressure is forcing Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to remove BVO from their beverages. PepsiCo is removing it from Gatorade, replacing it with sucrose acetate isobutyrate, but leaving it in Mountain Dew and Amp. Banned in Japan and Europe, BVO has reportedly made some soda-drinkers sick enough to require medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve problems related to overexposure of bromine. Bromine buildup in body tissues can result in iodine deficiency and bromine toxicity, according to Doctor's Data Inc., a U.K. specialist in toxic chemical testing. The buildup may have the same effects as brominated flame retardants.

Research in animals as well as some human studies found links to impaired neurological development, reduced fertility, early onset of puberty and altered thyroid hormones. Food chemists at Germany's University of Hohenheim suggest American soda makers could easily replace BVO with hydrocolloids, though those may not provide the exact same functionality and could be more expensive.

2. BHA, BHT

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and its cousin butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are both synthetic preservatives that inhibit oxidation and rancidity in many foods and extend shelf life. Research shows they form potentially cancer-causing reactive compounds in the body, however. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, considers BHA to be possibly carcinogenic to humans, and the state of California has listed it as a known carcinogen.

Yet most research on these oxidants has been with animals and test tubes, not people. At high doses, BHT has been shown to cause cancer in rats, mice and hamsters, but does this exclusively in the animals' forestomach − an organ humans don't have. In the low levels used in food preservatives, many researchers consider BHT safe, given our lack of forestomachs.

The FDA categorizes BHA and BHT as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for their intended use in specified amounts. Subsequent reviews supported their general safety, but concluded that "uncertainties exist, requiring additional studies be conducted." BHA is approved for use in various foods up to 200 parts per million of the fat or oil content of the food product with a couple exceptions. Dry foods like cereal have set limits for each food type (see 21 CFR, Vol. 3).

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