Artificial intelligence: FDA bans 7 synthetic food additives, finally
My sandwich looked like something out of a restaurant commercial: glossy yellow cheese oozing between two golden-brown slices of toast. The first bite should have been rich, gooey and decadent. Instead, I grimaced. The sensation was…sandy. Starchy. Flour-y. I stalked back to the kitchen, pulled open the fridge door, and snatched the culprit. Printed on the back of the plastic package—Mexican Style Blend Finely Shredded Cheese, left by a visiting friend—was an ingredient list longer than just “cheese.” Including: potato starch, cornstarch, dextrose, and calcium sulfate.
Food additives are a fact of modern life—they improve shelf-life, flavor, texture, consistency and color. Yet all are not created equal. Though texturally distracting in my lunch, the extra components of that shredded cheese—“(added to prevent caking),” as well as “natamycin (a natural mold inhibitor)”—are recognized as safe. Other additives that have infiltrated the U.S. food supply since companies began ramping up processing the late-1950s, however, may not be so innocent.
Last week, environmental and consumer watchdog groups won a small victory: the FDA announced that it will ban, at long last, seven synthetic food-flavoring agents that have been shown to cause cancer in animals.
“Americans deserve food free from synthetic additives known to be carcinogens,” wrote Center for Science in the Public Interest policy director Laura MacCleery in an Oct. 5 release following the announcement. One can almost taste her satisfaction: the move comes in response to a 2016 petition filed by filed by CSPI, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among other groups, and a subsequent lawsuit launched against the FDA. Under the 1958 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act’s Delaney Clause, the FDA cannot allow companies to use any ingredient linked, in any dose, to cancer.
The compounds in question include a tangle of tongue-twisters: benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether (aka methyl eugenol), myrcene, pulegone, pyridine, and styrene. Most commonly found in candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and other snacks, they’re often labeled simply as “artificial flavors.” The first offender, benzophenone, is a plasticizer found in rubber components that come into contact with food during production. Styrene has already been abandoned by the industry.
Change won’t happen overnight, though: Brands have a two-year deadline to reformulate products in compliance with the new FDA standards. Savvy consumers may want to keep an eye on labels for the sketchy seven in the meantime.
Back to that strange sandwich: Why not just buy block cheese and grate it yourself? Usually, I would. But try asking that of a busy mom with young kids or the workaholic who toils 80-hour weeks. When time is money and convenience trumps all, prepackaged foods make sense. Sometimes, you just wanna make a quesadilla.
While food additive experts admit that it’s difficult to pinpoint exact numbers—the American diet is varied across demographics, and health food stores selling “preservative- and artificial-free” products are booming—they estimate that Americans consume about 120 pounds of sugar, 15 pounds of salt, and 5 pounds of additives annually. The jump in use of food additives began in earnest between 1960 and 1970, reportedly doubling in that decade at a rate faster than that of the U.S. population.
Of course, the manufacturing industry maintains that all food additives in the national supply are safe. And many are. In a recent issue of “Nutrition Action,” a Consumer Reports-like monthly magazine published by CSPI, senior scientist Michael Jacobson notes that, even to his surprise, most food additives are, in fact, safe.
“Just because an additive is artificial doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe,” said Jacobson, who began researching food additives in 1971. “That said, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done nearly enough to police the preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, sweeteners and other chemicals many of us eat every day.”
The CSPI and other groups involved in suing the FDA are pushing for more rigorous scientific testing and stricter standards in years to come. CSPI publishes an annual list of the most commonly used food additives, “Chemical Cuisine,” which ranks “according to recognized benefits and possible hazards.”
Among the more commonly recognized ingredients deemed unsafe: artificial sweeteners including Acesulfame potassium, Aspartame, and Saccharin; partially hydrogenated oil, which contain trans fats, now slowly exiting the fast-food industry; and potassium bromate, added to flour to help strengthen dough and similarly being phased out by bakers.
Additives considered safe include the starch-derived thickener maltodextrin; Sucralose (Splenda); and Thiamine Mononitrate, a form of vitamin B-1 that helps to fortify cereals and flour.
Jacobson reminds us that, as in most things, moderation is key. Sugar, for instance, is a naturally occurring substance, but one shown to produce detrimental effects in high doses. Health epidemics such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure are a direct result of the poor American diet. We are “eating way much more sugar and salt than our bodies can handle,” Jacobson said. “They’re both perfectly ‘natural’ ingredients but everyone should cut back.”
One more thought: If it tastes weird or feels funny, don’t eat it! Shredded cheese might save a few minutes of food prep, but considering all of those chalky add-ins, I’ll buy a block and grate my own, thanks.
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