Now that your holiday Turkey leftovers are done or nearly so, let’s again look at some of the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “dirty-dozen” food additives. We already debunked claims about “dangers” lurking in your bacon with a slice of bread, but what about chemicals found in muffins, potato chips, cereal, and sausage? 

Each of these food items contains chemicals on EWG’s list that the group notes regulators have determined are “generally recognized as safe.” But “generally safe” isn’t’ good enough for EWG; the group suggests we need absolute safety, asking the question “but is it?” [safe] about each chemical.  In reality, nothing in life is 100 percent safe. That does not mean we must fear every substance known to man and every activity in life. Instead, we make choices that weigh the benefits of a product or activity against its risks.   

All of the four chemicals discussed here are preservatives used to protect us from the development of dangerous pathogens and to extend a food’s shelf life. These are important benefits that EWG simply ignores, while hyping risks that are actually negligible. 

Consider the preservative that is sometimes used in muffins: Propyl Paraben. This one is a “weak synthetic estrogen” and may reduce sperm counts in rats when given high doses, says EWG. There’s no big concern here. Lots of foods—from peas to broccoli to nuts and soy—naturally contain chemicals that are weakly estrogenic. That doesn’t mean they have any adverse health effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration notes that studies have found parabens to be as much as 10,000 to 100,000 times weaker than human hormones, meaning these chemicals are simply too weak to have any effects. And this research paper on the chemical sums up some important points:

There is no evidence of accumulation. Acute toxicity studies in animals indicate that propyl paraben is relatively non-toxic by both oral and parenteral routes, although it is mildly irritating to the skin. Following chronic administration, no-observed-effect levels (NOEL) as high as 1200–4000 mg/kg have been reported and a no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) in the rat of 5500 mg/kg is posited. Propyl paraben is not carcinogenic, mutagenic or clastogenic. It is not cytogenic in vitro in the absence of carboxyesterase inhibitors.

Next, EWG goes on to condemn potato chips because they contain Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA).  It sounds scary, but it’s just another preservative that helps keep your food fresh and free from pathogens. EWG raises fears because it’s classified as “possibly carcinogenic,” which if you read a prior post on this topic, you know does not mean it causes cancer at current exposure levels in food. This label is based on various agency classifications using rodent testing, which has limited relevance to humans. EWG similarly complains that this chemical is an “endocrine disrupter” in studies on rats.  Yet EWG admits: “These designations are based on consistent evidence that BHA causes tumors in animals, although there is debate about whether these findings are relevant to humans.” These studies are in fact, not particularly relevant, so why do they bother to list this chemical at all?

Similarly, EWG lists a chemical used in breakfast cereal despite scant evidence of it presenting any health effects, other than benefits associated with spoilage prevention. The chemical, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), EWG notes “is not a listed carcinogen, but some data have shown that it does cause cancer in animals.” So basically, again, there’s not much here, but EWG cherry picks a handful of rodent studies with suggestive “evidence” to incite fear. Ironically, as pointed out in a blog post by the Center for Accountability in Science, EWG’s source is a report with a conclusion that’s at odds with the activist group’s alarmist tone. This report, produced by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2012, reviewed the body of research and concluded that the chemical does not present a cancer threat at existing exposure levels in food. 

The Center for Accountability in Science also points out that that EWG inappropriately used another EFSA study to draw conclusions about the preservative called propyl gallate, which is used in sausage. Here the group uses slippery rhetoric that is designed to raise doubts and fear among consumers, even though it doesn’t really prove anything.  For example, EWG laments its use because a couple studies find “an association with tumors in male rats and rare brain tumors in two female rats,” factors that prove nothing about impacts on humans “but raise important questions” says EWG. And, the activist group whines, that the EFSA report noted that the data on this substance is “outdated and poorly described.” EWG had to dig deep into this report to find that one comment, which simply says that the panel dismissed some studies that were not suitable for drawing conclusions. EWG does not bother to note that the EFSA did have enough good studies and data to conclude: “the use of propyl gallate as food additive at the current uses and use levels is not of safety concern.”

With such tricky and slippery “science” as this, it’s a wonder why anyone takes the EWG seriously about anything.