The 12 Worst Food Additives—And How You Can Avoid Them

Last Update: May 16, 2023

Every time you roll your cart down a supermarket aisle, you might be choosing food with questionable additives. The Environmental Working Group has come up with a list of the worst offenders, a dirty dozen of additives that belong in the hall of shame.

Many frozen foods and pre-made meals contain artificial ingredients. Preservatives extend the foods’ shelf life, while sweeteners and flavorings make cheaply produced ingredients taste better. Ever looked at the ingredient list on a box of cereal or a container of ice cream? Companies are banking on the fact that you won’t read it or care.

There is an alternative: Thanks to consumer pressure, wholesome, organic foods are more readily available than ever. But health food doesn’t come cheap—health food stores (even big-box players!) can charge sky-high prices for foods produced without additives, preservatives, and GMOs. One way to beat the system? Cut out the middleman. Our new company, Thrive Market, is shaking things up with a membership model that offers healthy food and wellness products at a deep discount. Get two months of free membership here.

Nitrites and nitrates

Found in: Jerky and preserved meats
Worry because: Studies have linked them to stomach cancer, and they’ve been labeled “probable human carcinogens”
The alternative: Nitrate-free jerky, like the New Primal  or EPIC

Potassium bromate

Found in: Breads and crackers
Worry because: Listed as a known carcinogen by California, and studies have shown it causes tumors in animals
The alternative: Natural, preservative-free breads and snacks such as Mary’s Gone Crackers

Propyl paraben

Found in: Many bath and body products and some foods
Worry because: Disrupts the endocrine system and acts as a weak, synthetic estrogen. Studies have shown rats fed propyl paraben had decreased sperm counts.
The alternative: Look for paraben-free foods and bath products.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Found in: Potato chips and preserved meats
Worry because: California lists this chemical as a known carcinogen. Evidence shows that BHA causes tumors in animals. The European Union classifies BHA as an endocrine disruptor.
The alternative: Shop for all-natural snacks and chips containing only ingredients you recognize.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

Found in: Added to many types of food as a preservative.
Worry because: Studies have shown BHT causes lung tumors in rats
The alternative: Always check ingredient labels, and choose natural and organic foods whenever possible.

Propyl gallate

Found in: Extends the shelf life of products with edible fats, like sausage
Worry because: Studies have reported an association between this chemical and tumors in rats. Suspected endocrine disruptor.
The alternative: Look for natural meats containing only ingredients you recognize.


Found in: Bread, cereal, and sports drinks
Worry because: The possible reproductive and developmental effects of theobromine were never satisfactorily explained to the FDA.
The alternative: Check the labels on everything, and buy natural cereals without additives.

Secret flavor ingredients

Found in: Almost every different type of food
Worry because: Customers have no idea what chemicals are included in these “flavors,” which can contain a number of solvents and preservatives.
The alternative: Shop Thrive Market’s catalog of foods free of artificial ingredients, and always check the ingredient list.

Artificial colors

Used in: Almost every different type of food
Worry because: Some studies have shown artificial colors can cause hyperactivity and behavioral issues in children.
The alternative: Shop Thrive Market’s collection of natural foods free from dyes and color additives.


Found in: Butter flavoring in microwaveable popcorn, flavoring in yogurt and cheese, and maple flavoring
Worry because: Associated with bronchiolitis obliterans in workers, an irreversible respiratory illness
The alternative: Opt for a natural popcorn, organic cheese and yogurt, and pure maple syrup.

Phosphate food additives

Found in: Packaged baked goods, preserved meats, and other heavily processed foods
Worry because: Phosphates have been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. They’re especially dangerous to people with kidney disease.
The alternative: Always read the list of ingredients on your food, and shop for organic products whenever possible.


Used in: Many processed foods
Worry because: Aluminum has been linked to developmental problems in pregnant animals, and may be associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.
The alternative: Always read the list of ingredients on your food, and shop for organic products whenever possible.

Why is it that products with lots of chemicals and processing cost less than whole, organic foods? It’s simple. Right now, 10 major food companies control nearly all of the conventional brands you see in grocery stores. These huge corporations have gobbled up smaller brands, and they’ve concocted new ways to produce more food at lower costs. The economy of scale means they can crank out high volume. But consumers pay with another precious commodity: their health.

At Thrive Market we’re trying to radically change the status quo, offering GMO-free, non-toxic food and home products at the same price as conventional options for the first time in history. By being a part of our site, making your purchases with us,  and sharing us with your friends, you’re contributing to a meaningful paradigm shift.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Gunnar Lovelace

Thrive Market CEO and Co-founder. Gunnar started Thrive Market because he was inspired to make healthy living affordable for everyone.

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