As anyone on a weight loss plan can attest, looking forward to a daily treat (even if it’s the pre-packaged diet version) is a welcome respite from meals measured down to the ounce. You can indulge in that Weight Watchers-approved sweet snack (Red Velvet Crème Cake, anyone?) with zero guilt. But while you’re focusing on the calories, “points” or meticulously measured serving sizes, you may be overlooking an ingredient in these snack foods that has some experts concerned.
Meet propylparaben, a type of paraben preservative that helps minimize microbial growth and has been deemed an “endocrine disruptor” by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that educates consumers about chemicals and additives in food and personal products. According to the EWG, an endocrine disruptor can interfere with hormones and may cause infertility or adverse effects on development, reproduction and the neurological and immune systems, especially in utero.
Though once commonly used in cosmetics, propylparaben and its paraben counterparts have been getting the boot—most recently by Johnson & Johnson—as consumers raise concerns about parabens’ potential link to breast cancer (in addition to the endocrine-disrupting claims). The fact that cosmetics companies are concerned about parabens should be enough to give the food industry pause, says Johanna Congleton, PhD, a senior scientist with the EWG. “If propylparaben is being taken out of products that are being put on our skin, it certainly shouldn’t be in our food,” she says.
Congleton and her colleagues at the EWG recently released a report listing foods that contain propylparaben. In addition to several Weight Watchers cakes (including the red velvet), other brands to make the list include Sara Lee, Arizona Snack Company, Café Valley, Elizabeth’s Naturals and La Banderita.
After LivingHealthy reached out to the companies mentioned, Dawn Food Products (the producer of Weight Watchers foods) responded: “Although propylparaben is FDA-approved and used throughout the bakery industry, we are reviewing the use of this ingredient as part of our ongoing effort to provide exceptional, high-quality products for our consumers.” Elizabeth’s Naturals said it has since removed propylparaben from the trail mix on the EWG’s list, and Lehi Valley Trading Company (owner of Arizona Snack Company) said that it will listen to “any potential concerns the public might raise while regularly reviewing our products, their ingredients and the safety processes we put in place.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave propylparaben the green light back in 1972 and tells LivingHealthy that propylparaben is “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS). The FDA also maintains on its website that there’s no evidence of parabens having an adverse effect on Americans’ health during the 40 years they’ve been used in the United States.
“All chemicals can show effects at high doses, and propylparaben is no different from any other,” says Carl Winter, PhD, director of the FoodSafe Program and an extension food toxicologist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. “The important thing to consider is how much we’re exposed to, and it’s a very, very low toxicity when looking at animal studies,” he explains.
However, the FDA’s current GRAS classification should be revisited, says Congleton. The biggest reason is that, back in 2004, the European Food Safety Authority couldn’t determine a safe consumption amount for propylparaben after reviewing a 2002 study that showed the chemical lowered sperm count and testosterone levels in young male rats, even at low doses. This prompted regulators to withdraw its permitted use from the European Union’s list of approved food additives in 2006.
“If scientists in the EU are concerned enough to discontinue its use in food, we certainly think the FDA should take a look and reevaluate its safety,” says Congleton. “The good news is that, according to [the EWG’s] food database, we didn’t find it in a lot of foods, but we did find it in almost 50 and these are widely available.”
For Winter, hearing claims that an ingredient such as propylparaben is a carcinogen or disrupts hormones makes him question whether there have been subsequent studies on the topic. Most of the studies done on propylparaben have been single studies, he says. “A lot of people say it’s a carcinogen, so regardless of levels, we need to avoid it. But I think that oversimplifies the equation from the toxicology standpoint,” Winter explains. “The study [linking propylparaben to breast cancer] didn’t have a control group. It just had tissues from people who had cancer. So are these levels any different from controls?”
Winter also notes that if propylparaben is removed from food, there needs to be a viable replacement to prevent spoilage and microbial growth. Tocopherol—a form of vitamin E—has potential as an alternative preservative to paraben, says Congleton.
Since propylparaben has GRAS classification, the FDA tells LivingHealthy that any potential changes would require thorough review of new data. Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore how often the FDA has changed its mind in the past. There was the reversal on sulfite-coated produce back in the ’80s, and most recently, a mandate that the food industry start to remove artificial trans fats like partially hydrogenated oils—which for decades had been considered “generally recognized as safe.”