A new EWG guide brings attention to food additives, commonly found in many processed foods, that can increase the risk of cancer, harm the nervous system, change the body’s hormonal balance and affect the immune system.

We’re publishing the guide because the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory approach to food additives does not consider the latest science on the health harms caused by additives that may be legally added to processed foods manufactured in the U.S.

Some of the chemicals highlighted in the guide are not allowed for use in food in the European Union, including potassium bromate, a carcinogenic bread additive, and brominated vegetable oil, a flavor stabilizer used in beverages that can harm the nervous system.

We especially recommend avoiding foods with synthetic colorants, known as FD&C colorants. Dietary exposure to these colorants can lead to changes in the nervous system, such as increased risk of attention deficit disorders and other neurobehavioral changes in children. Foods sold in Europe that carry several of these colorants must carry a warning stating they may harm activity and attention in children.

In addition to additives in the ingredient list on the food label, potentially harmful chemicals can migrate into food from food packaging and end up in our diet.

Such materials include PFAS, the family of fluorinated chemicals that can harm the developing fetus, suppress the immune system and cause other health harms. PFAS are added to packaging to make it slick and nonstick. Other food packaging chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, can disrupt the normal function of the endocrine system and affect reproductive system development.

EWG’s advice for families: Read ingredient labels to avoid these additives. Choose fresh whole foods when possible.

Food Additives To Avoid
ChemicalFunctionHealth HarmProducts That May Contain Food Additives*
Brominated vegetable oilEmulsifierHarm to the nervous systemSoda, sports drinks
Potassium bromateDough conditioningIncreased risk of cancerBread, noodles, dough-based products
Nitrate and nitriteAntimicrobials (meat preservatives)Increased risk of cancerProcessed meat
Propyl parabenAntimicrobials (preservatives)Endocrine disruptionCorn tortillas
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT); propyl gallate; tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)Antioxidants (preservatives)Increased risk of cancer

Change to the immune system
Processed meat, ready-to-eat cereal, flour-based snacks
FD&C colors (Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3)Synthetic colorantsNeurobehavioral problems in childrenCandy, ready-to-eat baked goods, chips and snacks, cereal, soda
Titanium dioxideMineral colorantsChange to the immune system in the digestive tractCandy, ready-to-eat baked goods, ice cream
Acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucraloseNon-nutritive synthetic sweetenersWeight gain and change to metabolismDiet beverages and other prepared beverages, ice cream

* These are the most common categories where food additives can be found. The food additives included in this table can be found in many different products, including some not listed here. The only way to know whether a specific product contains a particular ingredient is to read the ingredient label.

Food Packaging Chemicals That Can Harm Health
ChemicalHealth Harm
BPAEndocrine disruptor
PFASHarm to the immune system, harm to the developing fetus,
increased risk of cancer
PhthalatesEndocrine disruptors