‘Dirty’ Myths: Fact-Checking the Lists

  • Negative claims about the safety of ingredients such as nitrites, food colors, diacetyl, and GRAS ingredients are unfounded.
  • Ingredients in food are both well-tested and there for a reason. Lists that try to say otherwise aren't supported by science.

File this in the category of “here we go again.” After establishing the Dirty Dozen brand with questionable science on pesticide residues, the Environmental Working Group released a ‘dirty dozen’ list of food additives.

Let’s see how some of the additive dirty dozen myths stand up to FACTS.

Nitrates and Nitrites

‘Dirty’ MYTH: Nitrates and nitrites in cured meat can cause cancer.

FACT: The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) found that nitrites are not associated with cancer. They maintain a list of chemicals found to be carcinogenic, and sodium nitrite is not on that list. The NIH actually found nitrates may have health benefits.

Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)

‘Dirty’ MYTH: The GRAS system has loopholes that mean unsafe ingredients make it into food.

FACT: For an ingredient to be GRAS, it must have either a history of safe use prior to 1958, or information on its safety made publicly available, and there be agreement among qualified expert scientists that there is a reasonable certainty that the ingredient is safe for its intended use. Find out more about the detailed approval process.

Food Colors

‘Dirty’ MYTH: Some caramel food colors can cause tumors due to 4-MEI.

FACT: 4-MEI (4-methylimidazole) has actually been in cooked foods since we began using fire.  It is a byproduct of the normal heating and browning of foods and beverages and is produced by heat in almost all foods, including caramel coloring.  4-MEI itself is never added to foods or beverages. Despite some organizations’ claims, overall FDA and other global health authorities agree there is "no reason to believe that there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring.” Read more about 4-MEI and caramel coloring.

‘Dirty’ MYTH: Some colors can affect hyperactivity.

FACT: Many of the studies suggesting a link had significant limitations, including: inability to demonstrate cause-and-effect; failure to duplicate study findings; small sample populations; the inability to isolate one food color and link it to a particular behavior; and reliance on anecdotal reports and recall by study participants. To date, most scientific experts, including a scientific panel convened by FDA, agree that there is not sufficient evidence to support a causal relationship between food color consumption and increased hyperactivity. As Dr. Robert Gravani, Professor of Food Science at Cornell University, says: “There is a lack of scientific evidence for a link between synthetic food color additives and adverse behavior in children.” Find out more about the science on food colors and hyperactivity.


‘Dirty’ MYTH: Foods that contain diacetyl as a flavor ingredient could damage consumers’ lungs.

FACT: Diacetyl and related compounds produce the buttery odor and flavor of many foods.  It occurs as a natural byproduct of fermentation and is found in several dairy products like butter, cheese and milk as well as in bread, coffee, brandy, and rum.  It also is manufactured as a component of artificial butter flavoring that is used in butter-flavored microwave popcorn, candy, baked goods, and cake mixes. There is currently no evidence of health risks to the general public from preparing or consuming butter-flavored popcorn, or any other product containing diacetyl, when prepared in the home as directed. There are concerns about inhalation of diacetyl vapors specifically for factory workers, so processing plants make sure that those working with very large quantities of mixing diacetyl have closed tanks and good air circulation. However, these concerns do not apply to the average person consuming products containing diacetyl. Learn more about diacetyl. (It should be noted that inhalation of fumes or particulates from a wide variety of products and substances--even including organic flour--in the absence of proper safety precautions can compromise respiratory function. But you won't hear much about that from the alarmists.)

The fact is that the approved food additives and GRAS ingredients used in our food system are both well-tested and are there for a reason. Those concerned about the healthfulness of their food would be better served by looking at the nutrition content of food products, including calories, fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals per serving, to ensure they are consuming the recommended amounts of important nutrients.

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