The Food and Drug Administration is struggling to control the usage of food additives in the United States, essentially allowing many manufacturers to put untested products into foodstuffs. The term food additive sounds rather broad, but within the law these substances have a very specific definition. Food manufacturers have been disguising additives under more mainstream ingredients that the FDA has already defined as Generally Recognized as Safe, often shortened to GRAS. For example, a food additive could be part of an ingredient such as vinegar, or generally defined as that ingredient, and since vinegar is already a GRAS product, it does not need to be cleared by the FDA.1 While ensuring product safety once took years of testing by the FDA and companies alike, it was streamlined in 1997 so that manufacturers only needed to provide a voluntary summary to the FDA rather than extensive data, essentially making the entire system voluntary. The FDA believed this would encourage food producers to share findings with the agency, instead it encouraged manufacturers to outrun it.
What is a food additive?
Food additives are simply ingredients added during the process of making food that then become part of that product.2 This can be anything from common table salt to controversial ingredients such as mycoprotein. Food additives are added to a product for a number of reasons including to flavor foods, alter the texture, lengthen the shelf life and make the product more appealing.3 The texture of foods can be altered by adding emulsifiers, stabilizers or anticaking agents.4 Food additives are also often preservatives, used to kill bacteria and foodborne illnesses. Furthermore, food additives can be used to provide a more distinct flavor or color to a product.
Why are food additives so hard to regulate?
Only around 800 food additives technically fit within the GRAS category; however, in reality there are around 9,000 additives that end up in our food.5 Hence, even though some ingredients are considered by scientists to be generally safe, the FDA only has approved around 10 percent. A company has the ability to determine if its own product is GRAS, creating a conflict of interest. GRAS products are generally considered to pose no risk to consumers, but some products cause a small percentage of consumers to experience asthma attacks, allergic reactions, severe vomiting or hives.6
Part of the reason for this is because food manufacturers can simply find scientists to state that additives are safe and create summaries reporting that their products are generally safe. In many cases, food companies include additives in products long before even reporting them to the FDA or circumvent the FDA entirely. This often means the FDA isn’t even aware that certain foods are causing adverse symptoms in consumers until those effected directly report it. The FDA receives thousands of complaints regarding food additives, but it’s nearly impossible for the administration to keep up with food companies. Furthermore, gathering information from thousands of complaints can be a monumental task.7
The challenge of identifying harmful chemicals and additives is only exacerbated post-market.8 The FDA initially sets a limit on how much of an additive may be used in a single product, but as the specific additive becomes more widely used, the limit loses meaning due to its consumption across many products. Therefore, as Americans eat more processed foods, it becomes possible they are consuming dangerous amounts of specific food additives.
For medical professionals
The terrifying truth about many food additives is that though they may not be a danger to the general public, there are a number of people who suffer severe reactions. An uncertified food additive endangers the average consumer and can leave those effected in need of medical attention. Physicians and medical assistants should prepare to discuss risky eating habits with patients. Encourage patients to actively participate in a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise.
1“Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes” by Kimberly Kindy. The Washington Post. August 17, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/food-additives-on-the-rise-as-fda-scrutiny-wanes/2014/08/17/828e9bf8-1cb2-11e4-ab7b-696c295ddfd1_story.html
2“Food Additives” Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002435.html
3“Food Additives” Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002435.html
4“Food Additives” Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002435.html
5“Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes” by Kimberly Kindy. The Washington Post. August 17, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/food-additives-on-the-rise-as-fda-scrutiny-wanes/2014/08/17/828e9bf8-1cb2-11e4-ab7b-696c295ddfd1_story.html
6“Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes” by Kimberly Kindy. The Washington Post. August 17, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/food-additives-on-the-rise-as-fda-scrutiny-wanes/2014/08/17/828e9bf8-1cb2-11e4-ab7b-696c295ddfd1_story.html
7“Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes” by Kimberly Kindy. The Washington Post. August 17, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/food-additives-on-the-rise-as-fda-scrutiny-wanes/2014/08/17/828e9bf8-1cb2-11e4-ab7b-696c295ddfd1_story.html
8“Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes” by Kimberly Kindy. The Washington Post. August 17, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/food-additives-on-the-rise-as-fda-scrutiny-wanes/2014/08/17/828e9bf8-1cb2-11e4-ab7b-696c295ddfd1_story.html