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Americans traveling overseas often comment on how the food tastes good "like it used to." Food in the USA is inexpensive, but American agribusiness is able to sell 10 questionable foods and food ingredients that other nations ban.

The USA has many attractions, including relatively inexpensive food, but the quality of American food leaves a lot to be desired. Here are 10 common food ingredients that the United States permits but that other countries, notably Canada and the European Union, ban.

1. Arsenic.

Arsenic is one of history's best-known poisons. Arsenic was used in murder plots against Napoleon, King Faisal of Iraq, American ambassador Clare Booth Luce, Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar, several of the Medicis and several Roman emperors. Although arsenic found in nature and bound to organic compounds is not especially toxic, inorganic arsenic can and does cause serious health problems. So would you really expect to find arsenic in your chicken nuggets.

Even China bans the addition of arsenic to chicken feed, used to give the meat a brighter color. In the USA, however, arsenic is OK in poultry feeds, and can appear in your chicken meals at fast food places.

2. Brominated or "bromated" flour.

Bromine is a Halogen, in the same class of chemical elements as iodine. When bromine gets inside the human body, it locks onto some of the cell receptors sites as iodine, keeping the thyroid hormone producing cells of the thyroid from absorbing the iodine they need to make thyroid hormone for example. But bromine is extremely useful in food processing precisely because it is extremely reactive.

Bromine in the form of potassium bromate (hence the term "bromated") is added to white flour to make it whiter. The result is whiter white bread and more colorful cakes, but the price is low-level thyroid damage in tens of millions of people, not enough to be medically diagnosed, but enough to interfere with feeling completely healthy. 

3. Brominated vegetable oil.

Bromine-treated vegetable oil tends to be especially stick. Blend brominated vegetable oil with a dye or colorant, and it blends through a watery solution. That's how brominated vegetable oil turns out to be an unlikely ingredient in American sports drinks and fruit juices (at least the ones that are so pale they have to dyed for consumers to recognize what they are). Brominated vegetable oil is legal in the USA but banned in over 100 countries. 

4.  Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).

The two most common food preservatives in the USA are butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene, also know as BHA and BHT. It's hard to find any kind of packaged food, especially bread and pastries, that doesn't include them. Although the greatest amount of BHA and BHT is used for keeping bread fresh, these chemicals actually keep fats (which are included in bread) from becoming rancid.

BHA and BHT are antioxidants; in the USA, if you happen to be a street person, you will get more of your total antioxidants from BHA and BHT than you will receive from vitamin C. They also combine with lysine to fight certain kinds of viruses. However, they aggravate allergies and asthma, and have been linked to squamous cell carcinoma in laboratory studies with animals.

BHA and BHT are banned in the UK, Japan, and in many other countries.

5. Sunset yellow (dye).

Yellow dyes, such as sunset yellow, actually are permitted in many other countries, including the member states of the European Union and Canada. But that still doesn't mean they are a good idea. The yellow dye known as sunset yellow, also known as E110, FD & C Yellow 6, and Orange Yellow 6, is an Aspirin-like substance that naturally occurs in apples, cranberries, cloudberries, ligonberries, plums, prunes, dill, oregano, wintergreen, and peppermint. If you aren't allergic to Aspirin, it is not likely to cause you any problems. But if you are allergic to Aspirin, or you are "just a little" allergic to Aspirin and you take an Aspirin and then eat a food colored with the dye, you may experience a serious allergic reaction. Sunset yellow is used to color energy drinks, soup mix, marzipan, and lemon curd.

Continue reading after recommendations

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  • Pettigrew S, Pescud M. The Salience of Food Labeling among Low-income Families with Overweight Children. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2013 Apr 20. doi:pii: S1499-4046(13)00059-6. 10.1016/j.jneb.2013.01.025. [Epub ahead of print].
  • Photo courtesy of European Parliament by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/european_parliament/5638005522/
  • Photo courtesy of Antoine.Couturier by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/antoinecouturier/8603661345/