U.S. food regulators allow most food additives, but could that change?

Phone apps can help consumers find out what's really in their food

Tumisu pixabay.com | Pixabay.com

Take Action

Everyone knows the health risks of excess sugar and sodium. But public awareness of the numerous hazardous additives and chemicals in modern American food is almost nonexistent. Likely unknown to millions of consumers, our grocery shelves are stocked with products containing ingredients often banned or restricted elsewhere in the developed world. As a result, even the most conscientious consumers face an uphill battle to protect their health. Encouragingly however, digital tools – namely phone apps – have emerged in recent years that empower consumers to take back control of their diets.  

‘Generally recognized as safe’

The regulatory process employed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in large part responsible for our compromised food supply. Many of the artificial additives in foods allowed by American regulators often fail to meet the more rigorous safety standards of the European Union (EU). Furthermore, the commonly-used “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) loophole in existing FDA regulations effectively outsources food safety certification to the food corporations themselves. 

Created by Congress to expedite approval of common ingredients such as flour or salt, the loophole has been used instead to bypass rigorous FDA evaluation. It allows new additives in food as long as food manufacturers affirm that they are GRAS. Many do so by hiring their own food consultants to certify the safety of the additives in their food by claiming that the body of evidence of the additives’ harmful health effects are not sufficiently significant to warrant restrictions. These one-sided determinations frequently go unchallenged by an FDA that defers to food companies’ claims. Meanwhile, the very same additive will often fail to meet the European Union’s higher evidentiary standards, which in many cases require ingredients to be affirmatively proven as safe for human consumption. 

Once these additives make their way into the food supply, consumers face the impossible task of deciphering their obscure and difficult-to-pronounce names on nutrition labels and often have no idea what they are reading. As a result, consumers routinely purchase seemingly healthy and wholesome foods such as bread, cheese and vegetable dip that are in reality packed with potentially hazardous sweeteners, preservatives or food colorings. These ingredients enhance products’ appearance or taste, possibly at the expense of the buyer’s long term health. Unsurprisingly, a growing body of evidence shows the U.S. food system to be in part responsible for poor health outcomes relative to other developed countries.  

SOURCE: THE COMMONWEALTH FUND | TPIN

The good news is, public education can go a long way to empower consumers to make informed decisions for themselves and their families. 

Products such as the free Yuka app have emerged as useful tools for shoppers to learn what is actually in their food. Other useful apps include FoodIQ and the subscription-based Fig app.  

By scanning an item’s barcode, the Yuka app provides a health and safety score, backed by conventional indicators including sugar, calorie and sodium content as well as a list of additives, ranked from most hazardous to least harmful. The profile also explains the harmful health effects of each additive. 

However, this is not to say the app is perfect. Its calorie intake recommendations do not fit every person’s individual calorie needs, nor does the app screen for every harmful ingredient such as inflammatory seed oils. Nonetheless, tools like the Yuka app can help bring much needed transparency to Americans’ trip to the grocery store. 

Common additives to consider avoiding 

With the help of the Yuka app and various consumer advocacy groups, we have compiled a list of potentially carcinogenic and harmful additives commonly found in the typical American grocery cart. If any of items you buy have made the list, consider using the Yuka app to find alternatives with fewer artificial ingredients. 

  • Potassium bromate 

Potassium bromate is often added to dough and can often be found in products such as sliced bread and bagels, as well as tortillas, cookies, and frozen pizzas. It has been banned in Canada, the EU and the state of California (starting in 2027), due to its role in increasing the risk of cancer in the thyroid, kidneys and other organs. It also has been flagged by the National Institutes of Health.The FDA in November 2023 proposed banning a closely related additive used in oil.Based on these data and remaining unresolved safety questions, the FDA can no longer conclude that the use of BVO in food is safe,” the FDA said.

  • Sodium and calcium phosphates 

Used in numerous products, these are commonly used as emulsifiers in cheese, especially processed sliced cheese. Excess consumption of sodium and calcium phosphates have been flagged by the European Food Safety authority as exceeding the “safe level” of intake for part of the population. The twin additives have been found to contribute to increased risk of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and poor kidney function. 

  • Titanium dioxide 

Titanium dioxide is used to add shine and brightness to products’ colors and is commonly found in products such as ice cream, candy, salad dressings and frozen pizzas. It was recently classified as toxic for human consumption by the EU and banned by the EU in 2021. The NIH says: “Although TiO2 is permitted as an additive (E171) in food and pharmaceutical products, we do not have reliable data on its absorption, distribution, excretion and toxicity on oral exposure.” It is an immunotoxin and neurotoxin responsible for breaking down DNA strands and causing chromosomal damage. It can also cause inflammation, which itself is a precursor to many diseases..  

  • Parabens

Parabens are used in cosmetics and a wide range of food products as preservatives, including snack foods, tortillas and pastries. Banned by EU regulators, parabens are a group of chemicals that can elevate risk for a number of health conditions. In addition to increasing the risk of certain cancers, parabens are endocrine disruptors that can disrupt hormone regulation responsible for metabolism, fertility and even puberty. The FDA allows parabens in food or packaging to prevent spoilage.

  • Colored food dyes 

Colored food dyes can be found in many brightly colored products, such as candy, fruit juices, sodas, yogurt and pastries. Banned in the United Kingdom, synthetic food coloring such as Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are ubiquitous in American packaged foods. The FDA does have some restrictions on color dyes. They have been primarily used to brighten the appearance of certain colors in snack foods and have been linked to serious behavioral problems, hyperactivity, and attention deficit disorders in children. Some have also been known to trigger allergic reactions such as eczema and hives. You can use the Yuka app to find alternatives containing the numerous naturally-sourced food colorings used abroad. 

  • Sodium benzoate

Sodium benzoate is often added to sodas, sauces, tomato paste and fruit preserves. It is a restricted preservative in the EU due to evidence of harmful neurological effects in children. Moderate levels are considered safe in the United States. But there is significant evidence that when combined with food dyes, sodium benzoate can worsen their hyperactivity and attention deficit effects. Therefore, if consuming foods with food coloring or sodium benzoate is unavoidable, consumers should consider checking their food labels  to see whether both are present in the same product.   

  • Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids

Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids are used as emulsifiers to enhance the texture of certain foods. They are often used in desserts and baked products such as bagels. A recent study by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research found that consumption of the additive can increase overall cancer risk by 15% and breast cancer and prostate cancer risk by 24% and 46% respectively. It has also been shown to harm intestinal bacterial balance and increase the risk of certain auto-immune disorders and inflammatory diseases.

Topics
Authors

Kabir Gupta

Consumer Watchdog, Associate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Kabir is a researcher and advocate for consumers’ health, safety and financial security with PIRG’s Consumer Watchdog. Kabir lives in Boston and enjoys reading, keeping up with current events, and sampling international cuisine with friends.

Find Out More