Chemicals in Food: What’s Being Done to Regulate Them?

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A dozen groups are challenging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the chemical industry to fully evaluate the health effects of food additives and color additives.

In a recent petition, the 12 health, environmental and consumer organizations complained that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the chemical industry had failed to adhere to a 1958 amendment to the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The amendment directed the FDA to take into account the human impact of chemicals in food before approving these additives.

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One of the dozen organizations, the Environmental Defense Fund, says it performed a study showing that only one of almost 900 safety determinations conducted by food manufacturers and submitted to the FDA for review considered the amendment’s mandate “in a meaningful way.” An article published in 2011 in a science journal indicated that more than 10,000 additives are allowed in human food.

In light of the explosive growth of highly processed foods in the diets of most Americans, the “failure” to obey the amendment may have contributed to dramatic rises in chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and kidney disease, particularly among children and socioeconomically challenged people, the petition asserts.

Representatives of these groups signed the petition:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Public Health Association
  • Breast Cancer Prevention Partners
  • Center for Food Safety
  • Clean Label Project
  • Consumer Federation of America
  • Consumer Reports
  • Endocrine Society
  • Environmental Defense Fund
  • Environmental Health Strategy Center
  • Environmental Working Group
  • Healthy Babies Bright Futures

“For far too long, FDA has allowed the food industry to regulate itself, while ignoring consumers’ concerns. Instead of requiring food manufacturers to notify FDA whenever new chemical substances are added to our food, FDA allows these manufacturers to self-certify in secret that their additives are safe,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety, says in a news release. “Not only does this prevent the public from knowing what is in their food, it prevents FDA from understanding the true cumulative effect of these chemicals on human health. This stands the regulatory process on its head.”

What are food additives?

So, what qualifies as a food additive?

The FDA explains that a food additive is any substance added to food. The definition includes substances used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food. There are two types of food additives:

  • Direct food additives are added for a specific purpose. For example, xanthan gum adds texture to foods like salad dressing, chocolate milk, pie filling and pudding.
  • Indirect food additives become part of food in trace amounts due to packaging, storage or other handling. For instance, minute amounts of packaging substances may find their way into foods during storage.

Meanwhile, the FDA defines a color additive as a dye, pigment or substance that enhances the color of a food, drug or cosmetic product.

“Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green,” the FDA says. “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.”

The FDA says it holds primary responsibility for determining the safety of food and color additives. These additives “are more strictly studied, regulated and monitored than at any other time in history,” the agency says.

What are some dangerous toxins in food?

Aside from additives, a number of dangerous toxins are found in our food system. The nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility lists some of these toxic chemicals (which are not food additives or color additives):

  • Pesticides and fungicides, which have been linked to brain damage, respiratory disease, breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, childhood leukemia, asthma and thyroid disease.
  • Preservatives like sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, which have been connected to cancer.
  • BPA (bisphenol A), which has been associated with brain damage and behavioral disorders.
  • Arsenic, which has been identified as a cancer-causing agent and has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  • Mercury, which has been connected to brain damage, behavioral disorders, lower overall function, and visual and hearing impairment.

What do the critics say?

The nonprofit American Council on Science and Health, which says it’s been “promoting science and debunking junk since 1978,” branded as “silly” the claim about additives by the Environmental Defense Fund and the 11 other groups.

“People are exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals every day. All of them are toxic at some dose and all of them are also safe at some lower dose,” the council says. “And this doesn’t just apply to ‘synthetic chemical additives,’ which [the fund] paints as toxic villains. In fact, if every one of the 10,000 chemicals were magically removed from food, it would make little difference in the total burden of chemicals to which we are exposed. Our foods contain far more than 10,000 chemicals.”

“Our food is already safe,” the council adds. “The enormous effort required to examine minute levels of thousands of common chemicals won’t make it any safer. It’s just a waste of time and money.”

According to U.S. Right to Know, an investigative research group, financial backers of the American Council on Science and Health have included Monsanto, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, 3M, McDonald’s and the Personal Care Products Council.