FDA Addresses Concerns About Chemicals in Food

A surge in media coverage of the potentially harmful health effects of certain chemicals in food has prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to explain the facts and science surrounding food safety. But is it enough?

News coverage about the potential dangers of certain pesticide residues and artificial colors or sweeteners in food has increased in recent months — driven by the release of several studies that suggest some of these chemicals may have adverse health effects.

For example, recent research from McMaster University suggests that FD&C Red 40 and Food Red 17, chemicals used to add color and texture to food, may harm gut health.

Moreover, an observational study published this year found links between emulsifiers and an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. Emulsifiers, along with other chemicals, are commonly found in processed foods.

Even health officials with the World Health Organization (WHO) have warned about food chemicals. Specifically, the WHO advised people against using artificial sweeteners based on research that showed high intake of these compounds may be linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

To address public concerns about the safety of food chemicals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a consumer update on April 2 to explain the facts, science, and safety of compounds found in food. The Agency suggests that people consider these factors when reading or hearing about potential adverse health effects from food chemicals.

Are chemicals in food safe?

According to the FDA, all food contains chemicals. Some naturally occur, like potassium in bananas, while others are added. For example, milk is often fortified with vitamin D. Moreover, manufacturers may add chemicals like artificial flavors and colors to food to enhance their product.

Chemicals can also enter food via environmental pollution or other sources, and some of these environmental contaminants are challenging to eliminate.

The Agency says that any chemical can potentially harm health at a certain level. Even consuming too much water can have adverse effects.

However, the FDA regulates dietary supplements, bottled water, food additives, infant formula, and certain other foods and monitors them to ensure they don't pose a health risk.

For example, FDA scientists examine several factors when determining food chemical safety. These include:

  • The chemical, and why it's added to the food, and what's known about its safety
  • How much of the chemical is in the food
  • The amount and types of food containing the chemical that a person would likely consume
  • Groups of people who may be particularly sensitive to the chemical, such as children, pregnant individuals, and older adults

Then, based on this information, the Agency determines an Acceptable Daily Intake of the compound. The agreed-upon Acceptable Daily Intake includes a safety margin that ensures the amount people eat daily is lower than the level known to have a possible adverse health effect.

The FDA also monitors food chemical safety through the Total Diet Study, which routinely assesses food to determine its nutrient and contaminant levels.

Mounting research questions the safety of food chemicals

Scientists outside of the FDA also investigate the safety profile of food chemicals, and some have found discrepancies in the Agency's research. In 2023, scientists from the Alliance For Natural Health USA found that most kale samples tested contained per-and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), or "forever chemicals," which contradicted FDA data.

In July of last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the WHO classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans based on risk and hazard assessments. However, the FDA disagreed with this classification, noting that the Agency's scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions.

Some food safety advocacy groups and government officials in certain states have brought their concerns about chemicals in food to the courtroom.

For example, research linking fluoride in drinking water to lower IQs in children prompted a court battle in California. The plaintiffs in the case want the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban fluoride in public water supplies.

Moreover, in 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning four food additives in food sold in the state. These include Red Dye No. 3, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, and propylparaben. Despite legislators' efforts, a fifth food additive —titanium dioxide — was not banned.

Loopholes and ineffective management

Food and color additives require FDA pre-market review and approval. To obtain this approval, a manufacturer must submit data demonstrating that their additive is safe at its intended level of use in food. The Agency will authorize the additive if it determines that the compound's intended use is safe.

However, a 2022 Environmental Working Group investigation found that safety determinations of almost 99% of food chemicals introduced since 2000 were made by food and chemical companies, not the FDA, through the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) loophole. A GRAS determination means that the food or chemical manufacturer has decided that the substance is safe for consumption.

Moreover, a 2017 study published in PLOS Biology suggests that the FDA has ineffectively managed chemicals in the food system. The study's authors say the Agency has been slow when considering scientific knowledge about the health impacts of food chemical exposures, and its "inability to effectively manage the safety of hundreds of chemicals is putting our children's health at risk."

When assessing information about the dangers of chemicals in food, the FDA says that people should consider how much of the chemical is in the food, how much of the food someone actually eats or drinks, and whether the chemical is present at a level considered harmful to humans.

In addition, chemical names may look complex, but that does not mean they are dangerous. For example, sodium chloride is salt, and dihydrogen monoxide is water.

The FDA recommends that people focus more on eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods to reduce their exposure to any one chemical.

To address the growing concern about food additive safety, the FDA has begun to take steps to remove some potentially harmful chemicals from the food supply. In late 2023, the Agency proposed banning brominated vegetable oil and is currently reviewing the safety of FD&C Red No. 3.

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