EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ Food Additives Report Falls Short on Scientific Evidence

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) specializes in scaring the public about everyday items in their refrigerators, pantries, and medicine cabinets, often without providing compelling scientific evidence to back up its warnings. We’ve previously blogged about the problems with the group’s report on sunscreen; now the activist organization has released a new report warning the public about “dangerous” additives to their food.

The report names 12 additives, the “Dirty Dozen,” of additives associated with “serious health concerns” that are used in many common foods. It certainly sounds scary—manufacturers filling processed foods with dangerous chemicals, but EWG’s recommendations are far out of step with actual scientific research. We’ve broken down the scientific evidence for three of EWG’s “dirty dozen” food additives below:

  • Nitrates and Nitrites: EWG suggests that the ingestion of nitrates and nitrites has been linked to stomach cancer, yet research from the National Cancer Institute and AARP recently found that “nitrate and nitrite ingestion were not associated with stomach cancer risk.” EWG tries to further demonize nitrates and nitrites by listing a number of studies examining a possible link between the chemicals and brain and thyroid cancers, but notes that those studies do not actually show that a casual link between nitrite or nitrate consumption and those cancers exists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out: “The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not classified nitrates and nitrites as to their human carcinogenicity.”
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): EWG uses a 2012 report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to raise concerns about BHT’s safety, but fails to point out that the very report its citing concluded that “BHT is not of concern with respect to genotoxicity and that any carcinogenicity would be thresholded.” Essentially, the EFSA found that adults and children are not exposed to enough BHT to raise concerns, yet EWG has distorted these findings and recommends individuals avoid products with BHT.
  • Propyl gallate: This common preservative hasn’t been shown to cause any health problems in humans. The most “compelling” evidence EWG cites is a single study from 1982 that showed a possible association with tumors in rats. EWG once again cites a report from the EFSA to corroborate EWG’s warnings, but the actual EFSA report concludes: “the use of propyl gallate as food additive at the current uses and use levels is not of safety concern.”

It’s easy to get worked up when you see difficult-to-pronounce chemicals on food labels and hear activist groups crying “cancer.” But EWG’s “research” isn’t enough to warrant cutting foods like bread, muffins, meat, yogurt, cheese, etc. out of your diet.