The loopholes for companies to put in additives in their food products are many; depending on what they’re adding, sometimes it’s up to the company itself, and not a third party, to put together scientific evidence to determine whether or not an additive is safe. With this voluntary certification system, as opposed to a more formal review process, it’s no surprise that the number of additives in food is on the rise, so much so that the FDA has no idea whether the stuff in our food is safe or not.
“We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food, told the Washington Post.
How does this affect the consumer? With companies determining what’s safe and what’s not, as opposed to the FDA, consumers have no way of being absolutely sure that those additives are safe or not.
“We aren’t saying we have a public health crisis,” Taylor told the Washington Post. “But we do have questions about whether we can do what people expect of us.”
There are now more than 9,000 additives in use, many of them banned outside of the United States, but according to the Washington Post, on average only “two additive petitions seeking formal approval are filed annually by food and chemical companies.” In the meantime, many more get added without us ever knowing about them, or their potential side effects.
Yet another problem is when the FDA does in fact approve an additive, but then it’s used in a much larger capacity than what the agency originally envisioned. Once those additives hit the market, the FDA can do little to monitor them.
A good example is caffeine, which was originally approved in 1959 and commonly used in soft drinks. These days, however, you can find caffeine in a variety of products, from energy drinks to jelly beans. The Washington Post cites yet another additive that seems to be taking a negative toll on health: carrageenan. Extracted from red seaweed, it’s used as a stabilizer. Considering the proliferation of processed low-fat and vegan foods, it’s commonly used to keep ingredients blended together and provide a smooth texture, like with almond milk.
“But doctors say the proliferation of carrageenan in the food supply is taking a mounting toll on health. As its uses have multiplied, so have gastrointestinal disorders such as diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease, according to some doctors who specialize in treating patients with gastrointestinal tract problems,” reports the Washington Post.
Beyond that, there are those people that have allergies to some of the most common additives, like MSG which is associated with headaches, and Red (carmine) and yellow (annatto) food coloring, which have been linked to anaphylaxis, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
So what’s a conscious consumer to do?
If you want to take action, there are organizations like the Center for Food Safety, who earlier this year sued the FDA over the question of food additives. To avoid unknown effects of additives, the best way is to avoid additives entirely, and that means cutting processed foods from your diet. It also means not assuming that a product that’s branded as healthy is necessarily good for you. There are plenty of health brands out there that use a lot of additives, so if you are buying a food product, make sure you read the label.
Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography
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