Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paying Attention to Food Additives

The New York Times ran an article last week about a teenager who started an online petition asking PepsiCo to remove an ingredient called brominated vegetable oil from its sodas and sports drinks.

Even if you avoid these types of drinks, the article is an eye-opening account of the almost total lack of oversight of food additives in the U.S. Since 1997, the vast majority of new food additives, including flavorings, dyes, and preservatives, never received a safety determination from the government. What's more, since 1958 at least 1,000 new ingredients have entered the food supply without the knowledge of the government officials responsible for ensuring food safety. Manufacturers are not required to submit even basic information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before including a new additive in their products.

How is this possible? For the past 15 years, the FDA has ceded its responsibilities to the food manufacturers themselves. If a a company can get a hand-picked "expert," that is, one of its own employees or contractors, to say that an ingredient is safe, the company doesn't even have to alert the FDA that it is putting the ingredient into food.

This almost complete lack of regulation stands in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the developed world. It is so troubling that many ingredients that have been banned from the food supply in other countries remain in products sold in the U.S. Food manufacturers, instead of removing a banned ingredient from all versions of a product, will manufacture two versions: one free of the banned chemical for sale in the rest of the world and one containing the banned chemical for sale in the U.S.

Why? Because in those instances, it is cheaper to use the potentially harmful additive, rather than a safe alternative.

      Brominated Vegetable Oil

The case of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in sodas and sports drink is a good example of the major food companies' tactics. This ingredient is added to drinks to keep the flavoring ingredients from separating. BVO contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, and it is patented as a flame retardant for plastics. Only limited studies of BVO have been conducted in humans and animals. However, it has been found to build up in fatty tissue, raising concerns because overexposure to bromine causes a host of neurological and reproductive effects.

The European Union has long banned the use of BVO in food. Sodas sold in the EU market use alternative, natural ingredients to achieve the same stabilizing effect. Why don't companies replace BVO in drinks sold in the U.S.? The companies say that switching would be too costly.

      Artificial Food Dyes

Petroleum-derived food dyes are added to a myriad of products, many of them designed to appeal to children--products such as macaroni and cheese, candies and fruit snacks. Some of these dyes are known carcinogens. British studies have linked consumption of artificial dyes to hyperactivity in kids.

European Union regulations require a warning label on food containing artificial dyes; the warning must state that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." These regulations have prompted U.S. companies, including Kraft, Coca-Cola and Mars to remove artificial colors from products distributed in other countries, but not from their products sold in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Nestle completed the process of removing all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from all of its candies sold in the U.K. In that market, Nestle uses concentrates of fruits, vegetables and edible plants to provide colors to it products. At the same time that the company was announcing these changes, it announced that it had no plans to make similar changes in its products sold in the U.S.

Avoiding Harmful Food Additives

  • I've linked to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's guide to food additives before. It is a useful guide with safety ratings for a large number of additives.
  • Read labels. (Also be careful with children's medications; many contain artificial colors and preservatives).
  • Choose organic products whenever possible, by law they may not contain artificial dyes and preservatives.
  • Avoid brightly colored candies and other foods. Eat chocolate!

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