First, the good news! The FDA has announced that it will ban the use of seven, synthetically derived chemicals currently being used by the food industry as artificial flavorings/flavor enhancers due to their carcinogenic nature. (Win!)
Now the bad news. They’ve given manufacturers 24 months to come up with suitable replacements and to reformulate products. (Wait, what?)
Six of the flavoring substances include synthetically-derived benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether (methyl eugenol), myrcene, pulegone, and pyridine. The seventh, styrene, has already been permanently abandoned by the industry.
So, Why The Ban?
Their decision comes in response to a petition brought by environmental and consumer groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Food Safety, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“Our petition laid out the science” linking these flavoring chemicals to cancer in animals, Olson says. “The law is very clear that any chemical that causes cancer is not supposed to be added to our food supply,” Olson told us.
The federal law (that Olson refers to) is spelled out in the decades-old Delaney Clause, which is an amendment to the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. It stipulates that if a substance is found to cause cancer in humans or animals, it cannot be used as a food additive.
“We think this is a win for consumers,” says Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
However, a recent statement by the FDA says they’ve concluded these flavoring compounds do not pose a health risk to consumers. “The synthetic flavoring substances that are the subject of this petition are typically used in foods available in the U.S. marketplace in very small amounts and their use results in very low levels of exposures and low risk.”
What they fail to address, however, is the cumulative or combined effects from multiple food additives. As you could imagine, anyone eating a mostly processed, Standard American Diet (SAD) will be potentially consuming multiple chemical additives per meal (and who knows how many per day) most of which they are completely unaware. We are the guinea pigs.
Why Are Cancer Causing Artificial Flavors In Our Food?
The GRAS loophole was born in 1958. Americans were growing concerned about the increased use of preservatives and other additives in food, so Congress passed — and President Dwight Eisenhower signed — the first law regulating ingredients added to food. To restore confidence, the law set up a system requiring companies to submit new ingredients to an extensive FDA safety review before going to market.
The 1958 law exempted from the formal, extended FDA approval process common food ingredients (like vinegar) that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). At the time it may have made perfect sense, but that exemption has been stretched into a loophole that has now swallowed the law. It allows manufacturers to make safety determinations that the uses of their newest chemicals in food are safe without notifying the FDA.
While the FDA has asked the industry to voluntarily inform them about their chemicals, this just isn’t enough to ensure the safety of our food supply. In fact, it’s incredibly naive to think that would work in the first place.
“Congress had a clear understanding of what ‘generally recognized as safe’ means, but that’s not the understanding that basically prevailed,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group seeking reforms to the GRAS system. “There are plenty of ingredients that are receiving GRAS status, the safety of which are in dispute.”
Meanwhile, the FDA’s food additive approval system has slowed to a crawl — the average review takes two years, but some drag on for decades. So a growing number of additive manufacturers are just skipping the lengthy process and claiming GRAS status so their product can be used right away. Some don’t even bother to inform the FDA at all.
This obviously leaves us, the general public, at the mercy of the food manufacturers and their integrity. An industry-regulated system.
The fox is in charge of the hen house. What could possibly go wrong… ?
How Can You Avoid These Chemicals In The Meantime?
Due to the lack of transparency, it’s going to be difficult. As of now, the FDA allows food manufacturers to display an enormous amount of chemicals simply as “synthetic flavors” on the ingredients label. This leaves us, the consumer, virtually in the dark.
In the past five decades, the number of food additives has skyrocketed — from about 800 to more than 10,000. They’re added to everything from baked goods and breakfast cereals to energy bars and carbonated drinks. If you’re eating processed foods, there’s no way to avoid them.
The only way to really protect yourself is to adopt a fresh, whole food diet that you cook from scratch.