There is a long list of food additives that are legal in the U.S., despite being illegal in other countries. To be fair, just because something is banned in one country doesn’t necessarily mean that the non-banning countries have it wrong. But for the most part, the influence that the food industry exerts on the Food and Drug Administration and a confusing bureaucratic process are at the heart of the problem.
The FDA curates a list of food additives that are given the designation of “generally recognized as safe," or GRAS. The GRAS list is supposed to help protect the public’s food safety, but it's certainly lacking.
The following are six common food additives that are desperately in need of much better regulation.
Perhaps the most fitting example of FDA constipation can be found in the story of olestra—brand name Olean—the product of a $200 million investment by Procter & Gamble for the development of a zero-calorie, fat-like polymer that tastes like fat but isn’t digested. Instead it passes through you.
Oh, does it ever pass through you.
Soon after the product came to market in 1996, problems were evident. The ensuing years brought nearly 4,000 complaints filed with the FDA, most of which were for something the agency and company already knew. Kessler’s FDA was at least able to affix a label to olestra-containing products that stated: “This product contains olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients.”
This carefully crafted statement was the result of a tedious push and pull between FDA and P&G. Two key words that didn’t ultimately make the cut were “anal” and “leakage.”
But even as the complaints piled up confirming this warning, the agency chose to drop the labeling requirement in 2003. While still illegal in Canada, the European Union and many other parts of the world, olestra continues to be used in some products like Lay’s Light Original Potato Chips. In 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened a lawsuit against P&G. They settled when the company agreed to relabel its olestra-containing products.
The new label came to the attention of a Reddit Wiki user with a golden pen, who goes by the handle Leadstripes. In an archived discussion, Leadstripes discusses what the label discloses:
…in tiny print you can’t read without a f--king electron microscope that the primary ingredient is something called ‘olean’ which I have since learned is Latin for ‘Unwashable & Indestructible Ass Grease.’ So today, while I'm standing in the living room debating whether laundry or dishes will get done first, I get the urge to fart. I live alone, so sweet. I let the honk loose and it’s wrong. Something just sounded wrong. I know my own wind, and I have never farted a sound that sounded like a fart wrapped in a pillow. I had just shat myself. But this evil olean makes shitting yourself sound almost like a regular fart, and had I not been particularly attentive, it could easily have gone unnoticed.
David Kresser, the FDA commissioner who complained of having 150 bosses, declined to comment on olestra, which passed under his watch. But it’s worth noting that it was finally approved a day before B&G’s patent was set to expire.
That olestra remains on the GRAS list, despite its known side effects, speaks to the inertia that Kresser complained about. A 2011 Purdue study further marginalized olestra, as it demonstrated that while it has no calories, "when rats consumed a fat substitute, learned signals that could help control food intake were disrupted, and the rats gained weight as a result."
P&G quietly phased out its line of Lay's Light Original Potato chips in 2013, but the Unwashable & Indestructible Ass Grease remained available for your consumption via Amazon and Walmart, until existing supplies ran out. Olestra is not currently being used in any food products, but it remains legal.
2. Artificial dyes.
While olestra was something of a sputtering flash in the pan, artificial dyes have been around for decades. This broad category is composed of several families of chemicals, some of which are more benign than others. But unlike olestra, even the worst of these can lurk silently in your body for years before any effects may be felt.
Azo-dyes, a large class of synthetic dyes used for coloring a wide range of consumer goods, are of particular concern. Yellow #6 and Red #40, for example, which are made from coal tar, break down in your body into aromatic amines, organic compounds that have long been known to be carcinogenic. Occupational exposure to these chemicals may be the cause of around 25 percent of bladder cancers.
If you’ve eaten Starburst candies purchased in the U.S., you’ve eaten these very same dyes. But in the E.U., those bright chewy squares are tinted with natural dyes like carotenes, because azo dyes are banned. This discrepancy points to a subtle, but massive difference in how potentially dangerous ingredients are regulated in Europe compared to the U.S. Across the pond, a rule of thumb called the precautionary principle guides the approval process. It basically means if something might be dangerous, take action.
In the U.S., the approval process is guided by what could stand up in court as proof of guilt. According to former FDA chief Kessler, most decisions at the agency are put off until a lawsuit comes around to break the logjam. The precautionary principle, in all likelihood, keeps certain things out of the food supply that probably wouldn’t have harmed anyone. The U.S. litigation-driven process, meanwhile, probably allows certain unsavory elements into our food that shouldn’t be there.
In the face of mounting evidence against artificial dyes, FDA still isn’t forcing food processors to find less toxic alternatives. Luckily for consumers, the companies themselves are realizing just how bad some of these dyes are, and are switching to natural dyes on their own.
Perhaps the American food system has transformed into a free-market utopia where benevolent companies take action proactively to make their products safer, at their own expense, out of deep concern for their customers. Or perhaps they just don’t want to get sued. There is just so much evidence out there—not just for cancer but also organ damage, birth defects, and hyperactivity—that companies like Nestle, Hershey’s and Starburst parent company M&M/Mars are leading the charge of confection companies moving away from artificial colors to easily available natural alternatives. The writing is on the wall, even if FDA is too impotent to do anything about it.
Luke Haffenden, a flavor chemist in Montreal, doesn’t have an innate fear of hard-to-pronounce ingredients. But he’s well-aware of the potential issues with fake dyes, and hesitates to let his own kids consume products that contain them. Many others in the industry quietly feel the same way, he told me. A dye, by its very nature, he explained, is designed to attach to things and permanently change them.
“In the food industry, in the last couple of years … you go to any of these huge conventions, and a significant portion of companies are manufacturing, selling and or distributing natural color options,” Haffenden explained. “Some of these companies are making lots of noise because they think that it will be a marketing advantage. And some are quietly reformulating and hoping nobody notices.”
The food additive ractopamine, which has been dubbed “FDA approved pork roids,” is banned in Russia and even China—but not here. The chemical, which forces animals to pack on lean muscle mass in their final weeks before slaughter, is illegal in 160 countries.
For those who swing toward the precautionary principle end of the spectrum in their personal consumption decisions, the snubs from Russia and China might be reason enough to avoid ractopamine-fed meat.
Most of the studies on which FDA has based its approval of ractopamine were done by Elanco, the drug’s maker. The majority of these studies focused on its efficacy in promoting lean gains, not safety. The safety data that does exist primarily focuses on the impact ractopamine has on the animals themselves—and finds that yes, it causes major problems. Studies on the impacts of ractopamine on humans, meanwhile, are virtually nonexistent. Instead, safety concerns were apparently outsourced to Canada, as an FDA link brings us to a Health Canada web page.
Health Canada extrapolates that ractopamine-fed meat is safe for humans because it accumulates in very low levels in the animal parts that humans typically consume. The E.U. has chosen to err on the side of caution. But U.S. pork eaters don’t have that choice.
4. Brominated vegetable oil.
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is banned in the EU, Japan and elsewhere. In the U.S., BVO is often found in sugary beverages with citrusy flavors like Mountain Dew, where the chemical helps these citrus flavors stay mixed together. Originally developed as a flame retardant, BVO has been used as a food additive since 1958, and spent a decade on the Generally Recognized as Safe list, before being removed in 1970. Although removed from the GRAS list, it has nonetheless been permitted in small amounts. In 2014, PepsiCo announced it would cease adding it to Mountain Dew, but at present it remains an ingredient.
There have been documented reports of people who consume obscene amounts of BVO containing soda (2-4 liters per day) experiencing skin and nerve problems, memory loss and other issues. There is also evidence that bromine, from BVO, can accumulate in the body. But the total body of research on the effects of BVO on human health is small.
While it may be a while until more definitive information is available on the health impacts of BVO, given its typical stomping grounds in sugary beverages, it seems like a no-brainer to avoid those products. Because even if BVO turns out to be completely harmless, the drinks where it’s found are not.
Bovine somatotropin (BST) is a hormone found naturally occurring in the pituitary glands of cows. The functions of this growth hormone include regulating the production of milk. The biotech company Genentech patented a process to produce large quantities of BST in the lab. This product, called rBST (the r stands for recombinant) is banned in Canada, Japan, Israel, the E.U. and many other places out of concerns for both human and animal health.
Cows that are on rBST (also called rBGH) do indeed produce about 10-15 percent more milk, but studies have shown they also have a 25 percent higher chance of developing mastitis, a 40 percent decrease in fertility and a 55 percent increase in the likelihood of becoming lame.
The human health impacts are less conclusive, but nonetheless concerning. Milk from rGBH-treated cows has been shown to have higher levels of IGF-1, a growth hormone in humans. The American Cancer Society has determined that more research is needed, but of course, we have no timeline as to when this research might occur. If you’re not comfortable waiting an undefined period of time while researchers figure out just how toxic the stuff is to people and animals, it’s relatively easy to avoid rBST/rGBH, as producers and processors who don’t use it in their milk products tend to make this very clear on their labels.
6. Butylated hydroxytoluene.
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), as well as the closely related butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), are often added to cosmetics and foods to prevent fats from going rancid. They are antioxidants, a buzzword that sports a heath halo these days, but in the case of these two chemicals there may be cause for concern.
Some breakdown products are suspected of being carcinogenic, including by the and the pair have also been shown to impair blood clotting. Banned in Japan, the EU recently lifted its prohibition against it, they remain on the GRAS list in the U.S.
But it’s also worth noting that these compounds are also in use as health supplements, for their antioxidant activity as well as their suspected antiviral activity. Some people use BHT/BHA to treat herpes. It’s also widely used in cosmetics.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has placed it on the “Caution” list, based on the health concerns and because it is so easily replaceable with other preservatives that are proven safe.
If the former FDA commissioners are to believed, until that agency is given the freedom and resources it needs to do its job, there will probably always be some wacky—and potentially dangerous—items on the list of foods that are “generally regarded as aafe.” And even a functioning FDA will probably not be erring on the side of caution, like they do on the other side of the pond.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated that BHA and BHT were banned in Europe. In fact, the EU recently lifted its prohibition. It also misstated that olestra remains available in Frito Lay Light potato chips. In fact, olestra is not currently being used in any food products, but remains legal. Thanks to close reader Jill Hamilton for pointing out these errors.