Companies have added thousands of ingredients to foods with little to no government oversight because a loophole in a decades-old law allows them to deem an additive to be “generally recognized as safe” — or GRAS — without the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s blessing, or even its knowledge.
GRAS “came into place due to the 1958 Food Additives Amendment,” according to Thomas Galligan, the principal scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “The food industry is allowed to self-determine that a substance is generally recognized as safe,” allowing it to bypass the Food and Drug Administration, he said, adding that the European Union has no equivalent process.
While Europe has banned five toxic chemicals commonly used as additives from nearly all processed foods, in some cases, the FDA hasn’t even reviewed the science since the 1970s.
New Jersey environmentalist and consumer advocate Lisa McCormick said Congress or the FDA should end the use of brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3 and titanium dioxide in food products sold in the United States.
“These chemicals are linked to serious health problems, such as a higher risk of cancer, nervous system damage and hyperactivity,” said McCormick. “European regulators have already banned the five substances from use in food, with the narrow exception of Red Dye No. 3 in candied cherries and California’s legislature could soon set an important precedent for improving the safety of many processed foods, but all Americans deserve protection from the toxic chemicals lurking in our food.”
Declared unsuitable for use in flour by both the WHO and United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization in the early 1990s, potassium bromate—which can also cause non-carcinogenic adverse effects on the human kidney—is now banned in the European Union, China, and other countries around the world.
A recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), baked goods containing potassium bromate in the U.S. are widely available despite many companies’ shift away from the additive.
A recent EWG study found TBHQ, a preservative commonly found in Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its and almost 1,250 other popular products, may harm the immune system.
Europe’s top food safety agency has found that titanium dioxide, an additive used in Skittles, Starburst, and thousands of other foods, should no longer be considered safe due to its ability to damage our DNA.
“It would surprise many Americans to learn that certain food additives found in bread, baked goods, and candy on grocery store shelves in the United States are not allowed in Europe,” said McCormick. “Likewise, European Union regulations prohibit the use of different drugs and hormones from being given to farm animals to promote growth or increase milk production while those chemicals are permitted in the United States.”
The European Union has a more precautionary approach but the United States has historically used what McCormick called, “a shoot first, ask questions later” attitude toward dangerous activities.
The items listed above are only a small part of the problem.
Common food additives such as artificial coloring, high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, MSG, sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate, and trans fat are found in processed food products. Many of these additive-filled processed food products are putting children at risk for endocrine, neurodevelopmental, and thyroid disruption, cancer, heart disease, immunosuppression, oxidative stress, and weight problems.
In July 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics called attention to the “more than 10 000 chemicals…allowed to be added to food in the United States” and the potential adverse effects on children’s health. Reproductive toxicology data are available for only 263 food additives, and developmental toxicology data are available for only two.
McCormick applauded groups like CSPI and EWG that are working to expose harmful ingredients and fight for clean, healthy food for all, but she said, “Americans must rise to the responsibility of citizenship because our political system is broken.”