Why Food Additives Have Escaped FDA Scrutiny—Until Now

It’s no secret that foods with extra preservatives and additives aren’t generally the healthiest. What many people don’t know is that those additives can have worse side effects than they think—from severe vomiting to potentially life-threatening allergic reactions—according to a Pew Research study. Some of these are never-before-used ingredients, but others that have been considered safe are coming under new scrutiny.

One of these, carrageenan, is added to foods to stabilize and thicken them. You can find it in chocolate milk, yogurt, and fat-free foods, and until recently, it was considered perfectly safe. Now, though, there are concerns that it causes severe gastrointestinal issues like inflammation, even though it’s a “natural ingredient.” The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group, has even started a petition to have it banned.

There are more than 10,000 additives allowed in foods today. Some are what’s termed “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. In 1958, the FDA agreed that some additives, like vinegar and salt, didn’t need to be approved as additives before a new product could be marketed. Newer and more scientifically engineered additive ingredients, or common ones used in new ways, would still need to go through the FDA’s long review process. That alone can take anywhere from two years to a decade or more. Instead of waiting years for approval, though, businesses began using the GRAS route as a loophole to quickly get their products on the market.

Getting GRAS certification for new ingredients is all too easy, according to NPR. Businesses can run their own tests to prove their additive’s safety, and then provide a summary of their findings to the FDA. These studies can therefore be heavily biased. In a study done by Tufts University, every panel created to determine an additive’s safety from 1997 to 2012 included members, employees, or consultants of the industry that created them. But the whole process is voluntary in the first place, meaning that companies don’t even have to prove GRAS status before throwing additives into foods. It also means that the FDA really doesn’t know what’s being used at all, making it more difficult to provide the oversight that it’s supposed to.

Things have gotten so bad that the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group, sued the FDA over what it saw as a neglect of their responsibilities. A settlement reached in 2014 requires that the FDA finalize the rule—which was really just a proposed rule when companies began submitting GRAS notices in 1998—by 2016, after which the courts can order the FDA to comply. By finalizing the rule, the FDA will have to put it through a formal notice and comment period that would allow the public to critique it.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the court of public opinion has managed to do what government directives, in the US, have not. When UK consumers began to demand more natural flavorings and colors in foods—74 percent actively shopped for foods with fewer additives, according to one study—companies listened. But don’t expect the same thing to happen in the US.

Thankfully, the FDA knows what’s going on and has acknowledged that the loophole is a problem, but industry experts say trying to overhaul the program to provide more extensive oversight would just slow things down. There are too many additives to review, and too few resources with which to make that happen.

Until reforms are made, it’s up to consumers to watch out for their own health. We’ve been told time and again to avoid eating foods with more than a few unpronounceable ingredients, but that isn’t always the best way to avoid unnecessary additives. Instead, try to buy organic or all natural foods. Men’s Fitness magazine recommends watching out for these additives instead:

  • Trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, which contribute to heart disease
  • MSG, which can damage nerve cells and cause diabetes
  • BHA and BHT, a preservative that the Department of Health and Human Services says is a known carcinogen
  • Sodium nitrate and nitrite, a colorant and preservative that can cause nausea
  • Propyl gallate, which used to prevent fats and oils from going bad
  • Sodium benzoate, which is used to prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods but can cause cancer in certain instances
  • Potassium bromate, which is used in breads to increase their volume but is banned in most industrialized countries except for the US and Japan

If some of the foods already in your home have these ingredients, there’s no need to panic. At least limiting your consumption of these and other additives can benefit your health in the long run and maybe even convince the food industry and the FDA that consumers won’t stand for harmful additives any more.

Image credit: David Carroll (via Creative Commons license)

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