The Danger of Food Additives
Before you drop that package of frozen dumplings into your shopping cart or give in to that occasional craving for a refreshing citrusy soda from the roadside rest stop (guilty as charged!), how closely do you look at the ingredient list? And do you know the reasons why some of those ingredients are in your food at all?
Even the most conscientious consumer doing their best to source healthy packaged foods would have a hard time avoiding food additives—those substances that enhance food’s flavor, texture, and appearance; improve or maintain nutritional value; or prolong its shelf life. A recent study determined that 60 percent of packaged foods purchased in the US contain additives. Now, five of those additives are at the center of proposed legislation in California that seeks to ban the production and sale of foods that contain them.
Why? Because these additives, used widely in processed foods in the US, have been associated with serious human health concerns, including cancer, behavioral issues in children, damage to the nervous system, and reproductive problems.
The Food and Drug Administration—the federal agency with primary legal responsibility for determining the safe use of food additives in the US—asserts that, when it comes to additives, “consumers should feel safe about the foods they eat.” But research suggests otherwise. In fact, the five additives targeted by the proposed California bill—brominated vegetable oil, propylparaben, potassium bromate, titanium dioxide, and Red dye No. 3—are already banned in the EU and other countries, based on scientific studies linking them to “significant public health harms.”
The California Five
If you read the headlines, you’d think California was out to take away all things fun. Are Skittles really the enemy? What’s an Easter basket without rainbow-colored Peeps and jellybeans? But the five additives in California’s crosshairs are in many more products than just rainbow-colored candies. In fact, they’re in everything from salad dressings to dumpling wrappers to vitamins and protein drinks. Here’s a snapshot of the “what” and “why” of them:
1. Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is included in many citrus-flavored sodas and fruit drinks to keep citrus flavoring from floating to the top. Despite the fact that BVO’s GRAS status was revoked in 1970, the FDA bowed to industry pressure and, since 1977, has allowed “interim use” of BVO as a stabilizer at concentrations up to 15 parts per million. Despite the fact that BVO is linked to health problems, the FDA has not reevaluated or changed BVO’s interim status in the more than 45 years since these guidelines were established.
2. Potassium bromate is an incredibly effective and affordable dough conditioner, used in food items such as breads, cakes, and frozen pizzas to enhance dough’s elasticity and yield baked goods that are fluffy, soft, and white. Despite studies linking it to kidney and thyroid cancer, and even though some bakeries have removed brominated flour from products, it’s still found in fast-food buns and many other commercially produced bread items.
3. Propylparabens extend products’ shelf life as an antimicrobial preservative, and appear in items such as tortillas and cake frosting. Research points to these chemicals as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s hormones and hormone-producing organs and possibly lowering the body’s natural defenses against certain types of cancer.
4. Titanium dioxide—a colorant and texture enhancer—is used in salad dressings, dairy products, and gummy candies. Recent research raises concerns about the chemical’s ability to cause damage within cells that can lead to cancer-causing mutations.
5. Red dye No. 3 (listed as “FD&C Red #3” on food labels) has been banned for use in cosmetics for more than 30 years, but somehow, it’s still found in everything from candies to vegetarian meat substitutes to vitamins and cough syrups. Despite the fact that the FDA approved it for human consumption, a growing body of evidence shows that it is tied to hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral effects in children—who also happen to be the target consumer for foods and medicines that contain this synthetic dye.
How Did We Get Here?: The 1958 Food Additives Amendment
In 1958, the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) established a clear definition of a food “additive” (any substance intentionally added to food) and required premarket approval of those additives by the FDA, unless the additive was already “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS).
Ingredients that fell into this GRAS category would not require formal FDA review and approval, either because they had already been scientifically shown to be safe based on intended use or they had been commonly used without known evidence of harm (think, for example, baking soda).
To achieve GRAS status, new food additives had to undergo rigorous scientific safety assessments and be deemed safe by a nonbiased panel of food safety experts. A final report then had to be submitted to and evaluated by the FDA before GRAS status could be granted. But because of rapid advances in food technology—and the ever-lengthening list of ingredients foods could contain—the federal agency quickly became overwhelmed. They simply couldn’t efficiently manage the labor- and resource-intensive process of reviewing submitted GRAS petitions.
The GRAS Loophole
In 1997, the FDA shifted from a petitioning process to one of voluntary reporting and notification. This shift in approach allowed the food industry to achieve GRAS status for ingredients at a faster pace, without a lengthy approval process from the FDA.
While the FDA can revoke GRAS status if sufficient concern over the safety of an ingredient arises, the sheer volume of additives that have passed through the voluntary reporting system without thorough vetting by the FDA has created a loophole in food safety regulations. The power to approve the use of food additives now rests in the hands of the companies anxious to get their product on the shelves—at the expense, the proposed legislation in California suggests—of consumer safety.
What Can You Do?
While the FDA claims to reevaluate GRAS status of additives at the emergence of new evidence, there is little to suggest this actually happens. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that studies used to support the safety of additives rarely (if ever) rely on models based on human cells and organ systems and don’t look at the long-term cumulative effects of low-level exposure to these chemicals. When we consider that so many of our food products have contained these ingredients for decades, even in amounts deemed “safe,” without research that examines how the human body metabolizes them, it appears the system set up to protect consumers from harm is genuinely flawed. Whether the California food ban passes into law, it reminds us that as consumers, we owe it to ourselves to be ever vigilant. Buy fresh, whole foods whenever possible. And when buying packaged goods, check ingredient lists carefully, and make use of the excellent resources online, such as the website of the Environmental Working Group, to research ingredients you don’t recognize. Food additives have played an important role in the advancement of food science and have helped to keep food safer for longer. But we can’t assume that a substance is safe just because it’s on a label.