Chemicals are often combined with foods to facilitate their processing and preservation or to enhance their desirability. Only amounts of additives shown to be safe by laboratory tests are permitted in commercially prepared foods.
Weighing the benefits of additives (eg, reduced waste, increased variety of available foods, protection against food-borne illness) against the risks is often complex. For example, nitrite, which is used in cured meats, inhibits the growth of Clostridium botulinum and improves flavor. However, nitrite converts to nitrosamines, which are carcinogens in animals. On the other hand, the amount of nitrite added to cured meat is small compared with the amount from naturally occurring food nitrates converted to nitrite by the salivary glands. Dietary vitamin C can reduce nitrite formation in the GI tract. Rarely, some additives (eg, sulfites) cause food hypersensitivity (allergy) reactions. Most of these reactions are caused by ordinary foods (see Allergic, Autoimmune, and Other Hypersensitivity Disorders: Food Allergy).
Sometimes limited amounts of contaminants are allowed in foods because the contaminants cannot be completely eliminated without damaging the foods. Common contaminants are pesticides, heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury), nitrates (in green leafy vegetables), aflatoxins (in nuts and milk), growth-promoting hormones (in dairy products and meat), animal hairs and feces, and insect parts.
FDA-estimated safe levels are levels that have not caused illness or adverse effects in people. However, demonstrating a causal relationship between extremely low level exposures and adverse effects is difficult; long-term adverse effects, although unlikely, are still possible. Safe levels are often determined by consensus rather than by hard evidence.
Last full review/revision July 2007 by Margaret-Mary G. Wilson, MD
Content last modified July 2012