When I was little, we had a Kmart really close by my house. Every time we would visit, I would beg my mom for Little Debbie Snacks for my lunchbox. Those boxes of deliciousness (and now grossness) lined the end cap of the aisle so nicely by checkout, we just couldn’t miss them when we walked by. Little did I know at the time, that I was eating one of the most controversial preservatives ever invented. You’ve probably heard all about this ingredient in cosmetics, shampoos, lotions, toothpastes and deodorants, but may not realize that you could be eating it too. This endocrine-disrupting preservative has been found in the urine of over 90% of Americans, so nearly all of us are being exposed to it from a variety of sources – and there’s absolutely no reason we should be eating it!
The Culprit: Parabens
Parabens are added to some processed foods as a preservative. You’ll find it mostly in cheap baked goods like muffins, cakes and tortillas. But, it’s also added to some seemingly healthy products like trail mixes.
The problem with parabens…
The scientists at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently came out with their Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives and propyl paraben makes their list as one of the most hazardous ingredients in our food. Their guide lists the 12 worst offenders in the ingredient world that are associated with serious health concerns and which the FDA has failed to take serious action on.
Parabens have been researched extensively and found to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are linked to breast cancer (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4), and reproductive problems (sources: 1, 2, 3). Parabens act as a weak synthetic estrogen, and endocrine-disruptors like these are believed to be a contributing factor in the increasing incidents of early puberty in young girls. According to a report in the New York Times:
“Of particular concern are endocrine-disruptors, like “xeno-estrogens” or estrogen mimics. These compounds behave like steroid hormones and can alter puberty timing. For obvious ethical reasons, scientists cannot perform controlled studies proving the direct impact of these chemicals on children, so researchers instead look for so-called “natural experiments,” one of which occurred in 1973 in Michigan, when cattle were accidentally fed grain contaminated with an estrogen-mimicking chemical, the flame retardant PBB. The daughters born to the pregnant women who ate the PBB-laced meat and drank the PBB-laced milk started menstruating significantly earlier than their peers”.
Although parabens are generally believed to be excreted from the body within hours after exposure, these health effects are being attributed to recurrent exposures that take place over time. As we’re repeatedly exposed to parabens in our environment and food, this is a real hazard.
Parabens can be in your food even if it’s not on the label.
This is because parabens are sometimes naturally occurring in food (such as blueberries and vanilla) and can also appear in food packaging, contaminating its contents. Researchers recently tested food products from a grocery store in New York and found parabens in 90% of a wide variety of foods: drinks, dairy products, oils, fish, grains, meat, fruit, vegetables – so they are everywhere! This means that we can’t completely avoid parabens, but we can do our best to minimize our exposure. Eliminating them as a food additive is an easy way to start.
What To Look Out For In The Grocery Store:
When parabens are added as an additive, they are fairly easy to spot on an ingredient list, as long as you know what to look for. There are a few different types approved to be added to food, and this is how you might see them listed on the ingredient label:
“Propyl Paraben” or “Propylparaben”
Sometimes listed as “Methyl and Propyl Parabens” or “Methyl-Propyl Paraben”
“Artificial Flavor” or “Artificial Flavoring” – The FDA allows parabens in synthetic food flavorings.
“Ethylparaben” – not commonly used in food
“Butylparaben” – not commonly used in food
Besides checking out the ingredient list, it’s always a good idea to consider the packaging that is being used in any packaged food, because these chemicals may leach into the food. This is yet another good reason to ditch processed food and head straight to the farmers market!
Food Brands Guilty of Using Paraben Additives:
Last month, the EWG launched a campaign, demanding that U.S. companies remove parabens from their food after their Food Scores database found parabens in 49 widely-available processed foods. Cheap processed foods are the biggest offenders… big surprise! Here’s just a few popular brands that have been known to use paraben ingredients according to EWG’s database:
- Little Debbie
- Weight Watchers
- Sara Lee
- La Banderita Tortillas
- Emerald Breakfast
- Private Selection
- Cafe Valley
- Archer Farms
- Arizona Snack Company
- Mrs. Fields (adds parabens to some frosted cookies)
A major place that you may find paraben additives is in your local grocery store’s private-label bakery section. Ask the bakery department if they will let you read the ingredients in their special-order cakes before you ever order anything. I don’t believe in deprivation, and I know there are times in our lives when we just need to eat cake! Instead of picking up a chemical additive laden supermarket cake, try out my fantastic pound cake recipe with homemade chocolate frosting. If you want more help avoiding processed foods with synthetic preservatives, you’ve got to check out the Food Babe membership program. You’ll get exclusive weekly tips, a new monthly meal calendar with recipes, grocery lists and the support of the Food Babe team. Hope you’ll consider joining us!
Don’t Be Fooled By The Naysayers
Some people who have a vested interest in continuing the use of these synthetic chemicals like to say, “Vanilla naturally contains parabens! Your recipes contains parabens!“. It is true that parabens occur naturally in foods like blueberries and carrots, but does that mean we should stop eating these healthy foods? Absolutely not! As over 90% of us have been shown to have parabens in our urine, we are being over-exposed to parabens, and it’s not because we are eating too many vegetables. There’s no reason for food manufacturers to continue the use of synthetic paraben additives as preservatives in food. As stated in the post above – parabens are everywhere – so we should do our best to limit our exposure by choosing foods (and beauty products) without these additives. Propylparaben is on EWG’s list of food additives to avoid for a reason. The use of synthetic parabens as an additive is irresponsible and should be stopped.
Please spread the word
Do you know someone who isn’t reading ingredient lists or is still buying brands like Little Debbie Snacks? If so, please share this post with them! The real food movement is spreading like wildfire because of your sharing, so thank you!