Many Americans are aware that the processed foods lining grocery store shelves contain a variety of food additives. But most probably assume those additives have been tested for safety and approved for use in food by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This isn’t actually the case, however. While food manufacturers can submit new additives to the FDA for review, the process takes an average of two years… and some ingredients aren’t approved for decades.
Food manufacturers are in the business of bringing new foods to the market, and fast, so rather than wait for a review process that’s described as a “highway that is constantly gridlocked,” many turn to the much less obstructed “GRAS pathway.”1
The GRAS Loophole That Allows Food Manufacturers to Add Practically Anything to Your Food
GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, is a loophole created in 1958. At the time, the first law regulating food additives had just been put into place, which required food companies to submit new ingredients to the FDA for review.
Congress didn’t want the FDA to waste time reviewing common staple ingredients like table salt and vinegar, so they added the loophole that companies could prove certain ingredients to be GRAS, with no FDA review required.
However, since the 1950s the number of food additives has grown from about 800 to more than 10,000. We’re not talking only about simple natural ingredients like vinegar and table salt anymore, but countless chemical concoctions that are putting Americans’ health at risk.
There’s lupin (sometimes spelled “lupine”), for example, which was rejected by the FDA when an Australia company wanted to add it to bread, pasta, and cereal. The ingredient is made from a peanut-related legume, and therefore could cause life-threatening allergic reactions in people with peanut allergies.
While lupin must be labeled as a major food allergen in Europe, some companies are using it in US foods with no warning for people with peanut allergies. Another example are meatless “Quorn” products, which contain a GRAS fungus-based ingredient called mycoprotein.
One young boy with a mold allergy died after eating a Quorn “burger,” as the product has no label warning of the fungus-based ingredient on the package. Even synthetic trans fats, which are strongly linked to heart disease and other chronic diseases, were long considered GRAS and became a mainstay of processed foods for decades.
It was only in June 2015 that the FDA finally revoked trans fats’ GRAS status. Laura MacCleery, an attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, told the Center for Public Integrity:2
“It’s really clear that we have no basis to make almost any conclusions about the safety of the current food supply… We don’t know what people are eating.”
Food Companies Use the Same ‘Handful’ of Scientists to Deem Ingredients GRAS
One of the most alarming problems with the GRAS loophole is that food companies are tasked with determining such status for their own ingredients.
So a company can simply hire an industry insider to evaluate the chemical, and if that individual determines the chemical meets federal safety standards, it can be deemed GRAS.
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of publicly available data found that food companies rely on a limited number of scientists again and again to make such determinations. Several of the “regulars” even have ties to the tobacco industry. According to the Center for Public Integrity:3
“Food companies repeatedly turn to a handful of scientists to determine whether new food additives can be deemed ‘generally recognized as safe,’ and avoid a rigorous pre-market government safety review.”
Once an additive is granted GRAS status by the hired panel, the company doesn’t even need to inform the FDA that the ingredient is used, and no independent third-party objective evaluation is ever required.
According to CSPI, at least 1,000 ingredients are added to US foods that the FDA has no knowledge of.4
As if that’s not bad enough, if a company does choose to notify the FDA, and the FDA disagrees with the company’s determination that the item is GRAS, the company can simply withdraw its GRAS notification and go ahead and use it anyway, as if no questions were ever raised.
This legal loophole allows food manufacturers to market novel chemicals in their products based on nothing but their own safety studies and their own safety assessments — the results of which can be kept a secret.
Food Additive Safety Process Is ‘Illegal’
In 2011, the FDA re-opened the public comment period for proposed rules governing the GRAS system. Earlier this year, CSPI filed an 80-page comment that calls the FDA’s process for overseeing food additives “illegal.”
The comment, which was co-signed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union, and the Environmental Working Group, notes the process is secretive and “undermines FDA’s ability to conduct meaningful scientific assessments of the safety of food additives.”5 According to the CSPI:6
“That law acknowledged that the FDA need not require pre-market testing of substances that had long been used in foods or that were well-recognized as safe by scientists…
But in a rulemaking opened by the agency in 1997 — but never finalized — FDA weakened the standards for what could be considered GRAS and proposed making permanent what the groups say is an illegal program of GRAS determinations by the food industry, often done in secret…
‘The FDA must provide better oversight over all of the substances that are put in our food, especially those whose safety is in question,’ said EWG Research Director Renee Sharp.
‘Any safety determination should be based on publicly available scientific data, not the opinions of ‘expert panels’ that likely have conflicts of interest with food additive regulation.'”
In the comment, CSPI proposed the FDA limit which ingredients can bypass agency review, minimize conflicts of interest for scientists, and improve the quality and quantity of scientific data to back up safety decisions.7
Phosphates: Another Potentially Dangerous GRAS Additive
Phosphorus-based food additives known as phosphates are used to enhance flavor and moistness in a variety of processed foods, including deli meats, frozen food, cereal, cheese, baked goods, soda, and more.
It’s estimated that up to 45 percent of grocery store items may contain phosphates, which have been granted GRAS status. In people with kidney disease, however, phosphates can be dangerous as they build up in your body and may lead to hormonal changes, bone problems, heart disease, and an increased risk of death.
There’s also concern the additives may pose a risk to healthy adults, in part because there are so many phosphates in processed foods that many Americans are eating too much.
Alex Chang, MD, a clinical investigator and nephrologist with the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, told Medicine Net that one-third of Americans eat twice as much phosphorus as is recommended (700 milligrams is the recommended daily allowance).8
A study he co-authored further revealed that higher levels of phosphates are linked to more premature deaths among healthy adults. In 2014, the National Kidney Foundation asked the FDA to require food manufacturers to list the amount of phosphorus on nutrition labels.
The European Food Safety Authority is also currently reevaluating adding phosphates to food, but the results of their study aren’t expected until the end of 2018. If you’d like to avoid phosphates in your diet, keep in mind that it may be listed as simply “phosphate” or as part of a longer ingredient, such as “sodium tripolyphosphate.” Mona Calvo, an expert at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, further noted:9
“There is accumulating evidence that both the high intakes [of phosphates] and the poor balance of intake with other nutrients may place individuals at risk of kidney disease, bone loss, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health conditions.”
Your Favorite Processed Foods Broken Down into Additives…
Have you ever wondered what you’re reallyeating when you bite into a Twinkie or a Cool Ranch Dorito? Photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettlinger show you in their book Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products.
Leafing through the book, you’ll get the feeling you’re looking at a collection of science experiments, what with the displays of white and colored powders, clear liquids, and an occasional smattering of diced chicken, carrots, or corn. What you’re really seeing are photographs of processed foods, deconstructed into their various food additive components. Ettlinger explained:10
“When you bake a cake or make some commercial food product by the millions in a large factory with industrial machinery and ship it around the country, where it sits on store shelves for weeks, you might add something to a batter to make it easier to pump through hoses. You might add something to keep the bubbles in a batter from getting crushed at the bottom of an enormous kettle.
You might add something to keep the final product from losing moisture or flavor in storage or so it doesn’t collapse during transit. You might add something or use special ingredients so it doesn’t spoil quickly. In short, you use food additives to achieve the scaled-up goals that the home cook addresses quite differently.”
The book is not meant to expose the health risks of food additives. Although they’re organized into categories of neutral, negative, and positive, they appear generous in some of their categories (monosodium glutamate, or MSG, for instance, was initially placed in the negative category but was later moved). However, what it does provide is a glimpse into what you’re really putting into your body when you choose processed foods. If you look at the photos (Mother Jones compiled a few of them here), you’ll see it can hardly be recognized as “food” at all…
Why Risk Your Health with Processed Foods?
Most questionable food additives won’t poison you on the spot. But research shows even small amounts of chemicals found in the food supply can amplify each other’s adverse effects when combined, and some processed foods can contain a cocktail of hundreds of chemicals.11 No one knows what these exposures do over a lifetime, although some food additives (like propylparaben) are known endocrine disrupters.
When exposure occurs during critical times of development, both before and after birth for children, for instance, it can affect development of your child’s reproductive, neurological, and immune systems, and this may have far-reaching effects over the course of their life.
Even aside from the additives, a processed food diet sets the stage for obesity and any number of chronic health issues. In fact, many of the top diseases plaguing the United States are diet-related, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The answer to these health problems lies not in a pill, but in what you eat every day.
When it comes to staying healthy, avoiding processed foods and replacing them with fresh, whole foods is the “secret” you’ve been looking for. This might sound daunting, but if you take it step-by-step as described in mynutrition plan it’s quite possible, and manageable, to painlessly remove processed foods from your diet.
Remember, people have thrived on vegetables, meats, eggs, fruits, and other whole foods for centuries, while processed foods were only recently invented. Many of the top executives and scientists at leading processed-food companies actually avoid their own foods for a variety of health reasons!
I believe you, too, should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods (unfortunately most Americans currently do the opposite). This requires that you plan your meals in advance. Ideally, this will involve scouting out your local farmer’s markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales.
You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you’re short on time in the evenings (and you can use leftovers for lunches the next day).
Processed foods are addictive, so if cravings are a problem for you please see my article on “How to Eliminate Junk Food Cravings.” One of the most effective strategies to eliminate sugar cravings is intermittent fasting, along with diet modifications that effectively help reset your body’s metabolism to burn fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel.
If your carb cravings are linked to an emotional challenge, a psychological acupressure technique called the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can rapidly help you control your emotional food cravings. If you’re currently sustaining yourself on fast food and processed foods, cutting them from your diet is one of the most positive life changes you could ever make.
Written by Dr. Mercola