Is Processed Food Safe? The FDA Doesn’t Know

Those unpronounceable ingredients listed on food packages are all tested, regulated and safe, right? When a company adds a new additive to its food, they have to ask permission first, don’t they?

According to a review by the Pew Health Group’s Food Additives Project, the answer is a resounding, “No!” Of more than 10,000 chemicals allowed in human food as of January 2011, a third were approved by those with a vested interest. Either the product manufacturers themselves or the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association Expert Panel gave them a stamp of approval.

The other two-thirds got the blessing of one of the agencies charged with regulating additives. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks after pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has responsibility for all other chemicals.

It is easy to do the math. Double-blind, peer-reviewed studies are costly. Testing the safety of a new chemical requires longitudinal studies. Even those are not enough since chemicals never interact with the body in isolation. Tracking one chemical at a time or even narrow combinations is an imprecise method. So it is very difficult to be sure if something is safe or not.

Neither the EPA nor the FDA has the budget for major research projects. That leaves us in industry hands. Their version of the “precautionary principle” could probably be defined as, “a rule meant to keep our profits healthy unless we are caught making people sick, in which case we will find legal means for avoiding responsibility.”

Next: Beyond the 10,000: What the FDA Doesn’t Know

The 10,000+ identified chemicals are the ones regulators are aware of because industry petitioned them. However, the FDA offers an escape clause. The Pew Health Group describes it this way:

The manufacturer or a trade association decides a chemical’s use is “generally recognized as safe” or, in industry parlance, a “GRAS substance,” based on the opinion of experts in the field using published studies. In this case, it need not notify FDA, and the public has no involvement in the safety decision.

If the field experts were free of industry influence and had enough money to carry out independent studies, that might work. However, what that really means is that the fox is guarding the henhouse.

It is not difficult for a new ingredient to receive the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) stamp of approval if the scientists doing the research are working for or funded by the food processor. With the GRAS designation, the chemical goes straight into food. The manufacturer may run it by the FDA but is not required to do so. If they do, all the FDA can offer is a safety determination, which means no more than, “We don’t know if it is safe, but it looks as if your research was adequate.”

The Chicago Tribune characterizes the system this way:

But even when the FDA does examine safety determinations, at no point does it affirm the safety of the product. In fact, it specifically notes in each letter that the agency has “not made its own determination of the GRAS status.”

In 2010 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that took the FDA to task. Among the troubling issues raised by the report, “FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to Be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS),”were these:

  • The FDA lacks standards for how GRAS determinations should be made
  • Although they are supposed to reconsider GRAS substances in light of new research, they have not even responded to concerns about salt and trans fats, hardly new issues
  • FDA has no idea whether companies track new information about their GRAS substances
  • FDA has allowed nanomaterials to enter the food supply with no oversight

Next: What Is a Consumer To Do?

With the FDA underfunded, under the gun, and unable to keep up with manufacturers’ constant tweaking of processed foods, consumers are left to their own devices. The simplest way to avoid the whole chemical soup is to opt for the freshest food possible, preferably grown sustainably and without chemicals.

Given the might and reach of the food industry, that is not always easy to do. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a regular target of the food industry’s venom, which reassures me they are on track with their advisories. They recommend avoiding these additives as much as possible: sodium nitrite, artificial sweeteners (Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame-K), caffeine, Olestra and food dyes.

Their site includes links safety information on a long list of additives. They have also developed a mobile app, Chemical Cuisine, that makes it easy to ask questions as you shop.

Michael Pollan’s advice is probably easiest to remember: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


Related Care2 Stories

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7 Unexpected Ingredients You Might Be Eating for Lunch Today

School Hamburgers Contain 25 Ingredients That Aren’t Meat


Photo 1 from jazzijava; Photo 2: from Helge Höpfner via Wikimedia Commons; Photo 3: Thinkstock

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Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

Thank you Cathryn, for Sharing this!

Wendy Schroeder
Wendy Schroeder3 years ago

It's best to eat as little processed food as you can. It's not going to kill you but it can make you fat and sluggish.

Past Member
Dolly Navina L.3 years ago

Right On!

Past Member
Past Member 3 years ago

The FDA works for agribusiness. We all have to do our own research.

rene davis
rene davis3 years ago

IS it safe? Is it good for you?

Nr B.
N B.3 years ago

What is wrong with REAL food? We should not real dangerous chemicals.

Christine C.
Christine C.3 years ago


Mandi Rose
Amanda Adams3 years ago

Good to know.

John S.
Past Member 3 years ago

Not good.

Elaine A.
Elaine Al Meqdad3 years ago

No wonder the FDA stands for Full of Dumb Arses!