Do you have many memories of 11th grade chemistry class? Rubber gloves, beakers, test tubes, dissolving various compounds in a host of solutions to produce chemical reactions... Well, this is the face of modern-day foods -- laced with a host of chemicals used for preserving flavor, doctoring up taste or appearance, preventing spoilage, and packaging food. While some unpronounceable food additives are fancy names for vitamins and minerals that we know of -- for example, ferrous fumarate is iron, ascorbic acid is vitamin C, and riboflavin is vitamin B2, just to name a few -- a lot of other added chemicals are not.
Look at the ingredient list of just about any pre-packaged, processed food and you will need to consult your old grammar school teacher for help with pronunciation. Polyglycerol polyricinoleate, butylated hydroxyanisole, guanosine monophosphate, and propylene glycol alginate -- sound deliciously appetizing, don't they? I think not.
Although basic chemistry has been used in the production and preservation of foods for centuries, the level and complexity used in the U.S. food industry today has grown to astronomical proportions, unreasonable in fact. Analysis by the Pew Health Group, the health sector of a U.S. public policy non-profit, found that more than 10,000 chemicals are currently allowed in human food (see more). The lack of regulation of these chemicals is alarming, scary, and angering all in one!
As we place faith in the system to protect our health and wellbeing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) operates on the honor system when it comes to our food and drug industries. By placing trust in a food (and drug) industry that is motivated by financial gains, this leaves us vulnerable to any possible risks of chemicals in our foods. Specifically, food manufacturers are independently allowed to determine whether or not a food additive is "Generally Recognized As Safe," and are not legally required to notify the FDA of a GRAS determination. Drawing parallels to the U.S. judicial system, the FDA operates on the premise that the chemicals in our food are "innocent until proven guilty," but in fact don't even carry out an objective and unbiased trial (although the validity of this statement for our judicial system is likewise questionable!).
A recently published article in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined 451 voluntary GRAS notification submitted to the FDA between 1997 and 2012, and found that none of the safety assessments were executed by an independent third party without financial interest in the study outcome. Specifically, 22.4 percent of the safety assessments were made by an actual employee of the food additive manufacturer, 13.3 percent by an employee of a consulting firm hired by the manufacturer, and 64.3 percent by a panel of experts selected by either the hired consulting firm or the food additives manufacturer itself. Based on these data, the study researchers concluded that financial conflicts of interest are pervasive in this GRAS designation process, especially considering that this study did not review GRAS food additives not submitted to the FDA.
I don't know about you, but this certainly doesn't sit well with me given that the health of me and my family, as well as that of future generations depend on this oversight. In essence, we are the testing ground for the chemical potpourri that lies in the processed foods that dominate the U.S. food industry.
Other countries across the world, especially in the E.U., are taking heed to these potential risks and the necessary precautions to protect the health of their citizens. As noted in a recent Washington Post article, the "U.S. regulators tend to rely on short-term scientific studies about safety to give new technologies a green light. European regulators tend to be far more cautious, focusing more on what they might not know than on what they do know."
For example, the cultivation of most genetically-modified foods (GMOs) is banned and labeling is required, and the use of certain pesticides and synthetic hormones are also banned throughout the E.U. A host of food dyes that have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and associated with behavioral problems in children are now virtually banned throughout the E.U. and the U.K. The European Food Safety Authority, which is the E.U.'s comparative authority to the FDA in the U.S., has lowered the daily tolerable limit of three commonly-used food dyes used here in the U.S. Because of this push from other countries, U.S.-based food manufacturers actually develop separate products made from natural ingredients for sale outside of the U.S. For example, Starbursts, Skittles, and Nutri-Grain bars sold in the U.K. don't contain artificial dyes as they do here in the U.S. For example, the Strawberry Nutri-Grain bars sold in the U.S. use Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6, and Blue No. 1, while the comparable product sold in the U.K. contains beetroot red, annatto, and paprika extract for its coloring.
Some chemists may argue that these food additives and dyes are added in such minute amounts and concentrations that their impacts are negligible. This argument is faulty indeed, especially when considering potential allergic reactions as well as internal biological responses that we are unaware of. Specifically, allergies are caused when our bodies respond to a foreign particle, triggering a cascade of responses. Even the minutest amount can elicit such a response. This argument also grossly overlooks the potential cumulative effects of consuming various food additives. Depending on one's diet, a consumer could actually ingest hundreds of chemicals each day and thousands cumulatively over the course of a lifetime.
The bottom line is that the U.S. food industry has taken an arguably unethical, extreme leap of faith in the safety of the food additives that are allowed in our food supply. We, the consumers, are unknowingly subject to a host of risks, but these potential risks can be reduced through the gradual changes in our food choices (note that I emphasize gradual, because the reality is that we can't avoid all food additives overnight). Truthful knowledge is power, and it's up to us to make decisions based on this knowledge.