What’s Lurking in Your Fast Food?

Millions of Americans eat burgers, sodas and fries every day, so you’d assume that any ingredients and chemicals contained in fast food would be deemed 100 percent safe. But that’s not necessarily the case. Find out which six concerning additives are lurking in fast food.

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1Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Found in: The ranch sauce at Carl’s Jr./Green Burrito

What it is: A preservative used in food, animal feed and cosmetics that the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services considers to be a likely human carcinogen. “It has caused cancer in animal studies, and over the years, companies have significantly moved away from it since there are other ways to maintain shelf life and prevent rancidity,” says scientist Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., founder of the nutrition watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “It shouldn’t be allowed in the food supply.” But it still shows up every so often, like in the ranch sauce at Carl’s Jr./Green Burrito restaurants.

2Caramel coloring

Found in: Sodas, taco filling and the fries at Long John Silver

What it is: A group of dyes that are made from many different chemicals and foods. Some are harmless, notes Jacobson. But others—mainly those derived through a process that uses sugar and ammonia—contain a chemical called 4-methylimidazole that’s been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in mice in some National Toxicology Program studies. The tough thing is that you can’t tell just by reading the labels—they’re all called the same thing. “Soft drinks are far and away the biggest user of this particular type of caramel color,” says Jacobson. “We would like to see companies be more specific on labels about which one they’re using.”

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3Yellow 5 and 6

Found in: The peach tea and Cinnabon rolls at Burger King

What it is: Artificial colorings used in items like baked goods and drinks that are suspected of increasing hyperactivity in kids. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the dyes for use in food. But former food industry analyst Robyn O’Brien, author of “The Unhealthy Truth,” points out that food makers have started removing these dyes voluntarily from products sold in the U.K. The impetus: A large British study found a link between certain artificial dyes, including Yellow 5 and 6, and hyperactivity—and customers caused a stink.

4Acesulfame potassium

Found in: Some diet drinks, such as Diet Dr. Pepper and Coke Zero

What it is: An artificial sweetener often used alongside aspartame (Equal/Nutrasweet) or sucralose (Splenda) to make diet sodas taste better. “There’s less current research on acesulfame than other sweeteners, but I’m concerned about that one,” says Jacobson. “The research that was done in the 1970s indicated problems, and I think if it were retested, there’s a good chance it would show up as causing cancer.” Acesulfame potassium—also listed on ingredient labels as acesulfame k or Sunnett—has been approved by the FDA since the late 80s, but because it contains the known carcinogen methylene chloride, food scientists have since asked for more research to be done. Worth noting: Acesulfame is found in the fountain version of Diet Dr. Pepper at McDonald’s, but not the bottled version sold in stores.

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5Sodium Nitrite

Found in: McDonald’s Egg McMuffin

What it is: A flavoring and preservative used in cured meats, including bacon, hot dogs and ham. It’s on the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list of food additives to avoid because of years of concerns about a possible increased risk of cancer. “It’s probably quite a small risk, but almost all of these foods are also high in sodium or saturated fat,” says Jacobson. “The nitrite can almost be a signal that a food is not healthful.” A large European study recently found that people who ate a lot of processed meats—which often contain sodium nitrite—had a higher risk of heart disease and cancer.

6Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Found in: KFC Chicken Breast Strips

What it is: A seasoning that used to be infamous for use in Chinese food, but now can be commonly found in fried chicken strips and sauces at some fast food restaurants. It’s listed by CSPI as an additive that “some people should avoid”—namely, those who get headaches when they eat it. Two related substances that may have the same effect on those MSG-sensitive people are hydrolyzed vegetable protein or autolyzed yeast extract, according to Jacobson.

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