“Additives:” most foods at your local grocery store contain some combination of these, to add color or texture or to preserve shelf life. A recently published study in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that, in very many cases, evaluators employed by food manufacturers have been the ones to pronounce an additive as safe even though its risks to humans are yet unknown.
Currently, there are about a thousand substances thought to be in the food supply without the Food and Drug Administration’s knowledge. Manufacturers have, for instance, added caffeine to alcoholic beverages without informing the FDA. They have been also been putting substances called nanoparticles (molecular-sized particles) in foods and food packaging, though their risk is unknown.
Manufacturers say that nanoparticles are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). But this notion of “GRAS” needs to be reevaluated. Right now, the FDA allows food manufacturers to decide whether additives to food are GRAS, as determined by studies in which lab rats are fed the additive. But manufacturers are not required to notify the government when they make a GRAS decision or when they start using a new additive unless the additive affects food color.
Many Conflicts of Interest in Decisions About Food Additive Safety
Researchers from the food-additives project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington D.C. have found that much more regulation of food additives is needed. As they have discovered, more than 35 percent of additives judged harmless for consumption between 1997 and 2012 were determined to be so by employees of food manufacturers or by consultants selected by the companies.
After studying 451 GRAS notifications, the researchers found that a “standing expert panel selected by a third party made none of these safety assessments.” Rather, in 100 percent of cases, the safety assessments were conducted by an employee of an additive manufacturer, an employee of a consulting firm selected by the manufacturer or an expert panel selected by either a consulting firm or the manufacturer. Conflicts of interest are simply “ubiquitous” in determining whether an additive is GRAS.
These conflicts of interest have been observed before. As the study notes, in 2010, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinized the GRAS program, concluding that the FDA should strengthen its oversight. Among other recommendations, the GAO said the FDA should “minimize the potential for conflicts of interest in companies’ GRAS determinations.”
The researchers also discovered that the same experts repeatedly served on a number of panels, suggesting that the “range of knowledge and experience on the panels” has been overly limited.
On finding such extensive conflicts of interests, the researchers say that the FDA needs to update its policies. In particular, food manufacturers must notify the FDA of “all GRAS determinations and the financial conflicts of interest of those who make these determinations.” The FDA must also “routinely make public all notifications of GRAS determinations…and all the information that it receives about conflicts of interest in these determinations.”
How “Safe” are Food Additives?
Food manufacturers contend that it is appropriate for them to evaluate the safety of additives as it would not be in their interest for consumers to become ill from their products. But what is meant by “safe”? Other research has shown that food manufacturers exert copious efforts to make their products (not that they would use this word) addictive. Too often, this involves adding salt, sugar and fat, along with additives that are there to ensure a food is edible long after it was created.
As Dr. Marian Nestlé, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University writes, the JAMA study “does a great public service,” alerting us to all the additives in commonly available foods that are “safe” only if you completely trust the companies who are selling them.
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