FDA Bans Cancer-Causing Food Additives, but Won’t Enforce Until 2020
By Melissa Kravitz
Americans are no strangers to food additives: the preservatives, coloring and flavoring agents that keep foods looking fresh and taste better. A product of our desire for fast, cheap and satisfying eats that underscores our detachment from actually fresh, locally sourced foods, they are found in everything from nutrition-boosting salad dressings to McDonald's French fries. But are they safe?
In ancient times, additives may have been used not only to make food more flavorful but to keep it safe for consumption, too. Bruce Eaton, a retired professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder, points out that "the proliferation of the spice trade, which began as early as 3000 BC, led to increasing demand for additives to enhance the taste of food," adding that, "historical records … include the use of spices to preserve meat and inhibit the growth of bacteria."
Fast forward to the 20th century. As the U.S. diet became more synthetic, processed and commercialized, food additives became more common. In 1958, Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve all additives used in food production. To date, there are hundreds of FDA-approved food additives, ranging from vitamin D3 (a nutritional supplement found in beverages like orange juice) to sulfaquinoxaline (an antibiotic used for livestock and poultry), and another list of approved color additives.
Though these additives exist in trace or larger quantities in nearly every packaged food we consume, after they are approved, there isn't enough research to understand their long-term health effects. Now, however, regulators are moving in.
Following pressure from several environmental and consumer safety groups, the FDA in October 2018 opted to ban seven synthetic food additives known to cause harm—synthetically derived benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, methyl eugenol, myrcene, pulegone, pyridine and styrene—ingredients you typically don't see on food labels since they're grouped together under the term "artificial flavors." Food companies have 16 months to remove the additives from their products. While that's welcome news for food safety advocates, it means that the newly banned ingredients, which have been proven to cause cancer in lab animals, will still be ingestible in the United States for all of 2019.
But don't panic just yet. Like so many terms in nutrition, the word "additive" isn't inherently negative. "Additives can come from natural sources, can be mimics of natural products or they can be synthetic," said Emma Beckett, a molecular nutritionist at the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at Newcastle University in Australia. She points out that plenty of poisons are, in fact, 100 percent natural, such as mushrooms.
"There are rules about testing additives and limits to their use so that even if someone ate lots of processed foods with additives, they wouldn't be exposed to large amounts," Beckett said. "That said, 'no known risks' doesn't mean 'no risks.' Foods and additives—and their role in health and disease—are constantly under scientific investigation and review."
A banned additive could be lurking in your favorite processed snack, but before purging your kitchen, Beckett recommends reframing the way you think of the FDA-approved food labels. "'Banned' makes it sound scary, but rather, the [additives] were 'delisted,'" she said.
Styrene is an example. Classified as a "reasonably anticipated" human carcinogen in 2011 by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, it was delisted in this recent batch as the additive is no longer used in the food industry.
The other six additives the FDA removed from the approved list are often used in trace amounts, like pulegone, used to flavor mint gums, and methyl eugenol, found in commercially-baked goods, vinaigrettes and more. The amount of methyl eugenol found to cause liver cancer in lab rats would likely never be present in similar proportions in human food, but additives as a buzzword get special attention due to the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, which requires any food additive known to be carcinogenic to subsequently be banned. Sugar, processed meats and alcoholic beverages are all food products linked to cancer risks, but they still remain rampantly available in U.S. supermarkets.
"The phaseout is safe because [these additives] are only in foods at very low levels, levels much lower than will cause cancer," Beckett points out about the additives still on shelves for the next year or so, though she believes food companies will be eager to phase out the additives sooner, thanks to the bad PR and public perception of risk. "Remember that the dose makes the poison. The phaseout will allow time for manufacturers to change their products, but it is likely many will change sooner to avoid losing customers." Removing the additives is "unlikely to change the taste of foods dramatically," Beckett said, though the texture, appearance or shelf life may be altered.
Common nutritional guidance points to eating whole foods; that is, food that hasn't been tampered with in any way (i.e., a piece of fruit rather than a "fruit snack") to avoid any potentially dangerous additives, but Beckett points out that the advice is classist and not always implementable. "Advice like that comes from a very privileged position; many of us need to buy processed foods that won't perish to keep within our food budgets," she said.
So while our food system heals and hopefully moves toward a time when everyone has access to fresh, healthy, local and whole food that's affordable, it's best for consumers to know how to read package labels, avoid unfamiliar ingredients when possible and stay informed on current food policies. As food scholar Michael Pollan recommends, don't eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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The Washington Redskins will retire their controversial name and logo, the National Football League (NFL) team announced Monday.
By Alyssa Murdoch, Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle and Sapna Sharma
Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.
A Good News Story?<p>On the surface, the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13569" target="_blank">results from our study</a> appear to provide a "good news" story. Warming temperatures were linked to higher numbers of fish, more species overall and, therefore, potentially more fishing opportunities for northerners.</p><p>Initially, we were surprised to learn that warming was increasing the distribution of cold-adapted fish. We reasoned that modest amounts of warming could lead to benefits such as increased food and winter habitat availability without reaching stressful levels for many species.</p>
Photo of Arctic grayling (left) and Dolly Varden trout (right). Alyssa Murdoch / Lilian Tran / Nunavik Research Centre and Tracey Loewen / Fisheries and Oceans Canada<p>Yet, not all fish species fared equally well. Ecologically unique northern species — those that have evolved in colder, more nutrient-poor environments, such as Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout — were showing declines with warming.</p>
Fish Strandings and Buried Eggs<p>Recent news headlines run the gamut for Pacific salmon — from their increased escapades <a href="https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/more-pacific-salmon-showing-up-in-western-arctic-waters/" target="_blank">into the Arctic</a> to <a href="https://www.juneauempire.com/news/warm-waters-across-alaska-cause-salmon-die-offs/" target="_blank">massive pre-spawning die-offs</a> in central Alaska. Similarly, results from our study revealed different outcomes for fish depending on local climatic conditions, including Pacific salmon.</p><p>We found that warmer spring and fall temperatures may be helping juvenile salmon by providing a longer and more plentiful growing season, and by supporting early egg development in northern regions that were previously too cold for survival.</p><p>In contrast, salmon declined in regions that were experiencing wetter fall conditions, pointing to an increased risk of flooding and sedimentation that could bury or dislodge incubating eggs.</p>
Headwaters of the Wind River within the largely intact Peel River watershed in northern Canada. Don Reid / Wildlife Conservation Society Canada / Author provided<p>Interestingly, we found that certain climatic combinations, such as warmer summer water temperatures with decreased summer rainfall, were important in determining where Pacific salmon could survive. Summer warming in drier watersheds led to declines, suggesting that lowered streamflows may have increased the risk of fish becoming stranded in subpar habitats that were too warm and crowded.</p>
The Fate of Northern Fisheries<p>The promise of a warmer and more accessible Arctic has attracted mounting interest in new economic opportunities, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103637" target="_blank">including fisheries</a>. As warming rates at higher latitudes are already <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">two to three times global levels</a>, it seems probable that northern biodiversity will experience dramatic shifts in the coming decades.</p><p>Despite the many unknowns surrounding the future of Pacific salmon, many fisheries are currently <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/03632415.2017.1374251" target="_blank">thriving following warmer and more productive northern oceans</a>, and some <a href="https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic68876" target="_blank">Arctic Indigenous communities are developing new salmon fisheries</a>.</p><p>As warming continues, the commercial salmon fishing industry is poised to expand northwards, but its success will largely depend on extenuating factors such as <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060023067" target="_blank">changes to marine habitat and food sources</a> and <a href="https://www.yukon-news.com/news/promising-chinook-salmon-run-failed-to-materialize-in-the-yukon-river-panel-hears/" target="_blank">how many fish are caught during the freshwater stages of their journey</a>.</p><p>Even with the potential for increased northern biodiversity, it is important to recognize that some northern communities may be unable to adapt or may <a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/searching-for-the-yukon-rivers-missing-chinook/" target="_blank">lose individual species that are associated with important cultural values</a>.</p>
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By Joni Sweet
If you get a call from a number you don't recognize, don't hit decline — it might be a contact tracer calling to let you know that someone you've been near has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Interviews With Contact Tracers<p>Contact tracing is a public health strategy that involves identifying everyone who may have been in contact with a person who has the coronavirus. Contact tracers collect information and provide guidance to help contain the transmission of disease.</p><p>It's been used during outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Ebola, measles, and now the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.</p><p>It starts when the local department of health gets a report of a confirmed case of the coronavirus in its community and gives that person a call. The contact tracer usually provides information on how to isolate and when to get treatment, then tries to figure out who else the person may have exposed.</p><p>"We ask who they've been in contact with in the 48 hours prior to symptom onset, or 2 days before the date of their positive test if they don't have symptoms," said <a href="https://case.edu/medicine/healthintegration/people/heidi-gullett" target="_blank">Dr. Heidi Gullett</a>, associate director of the Center for Community Health Integration at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and medical director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in Ohio.</p>
“You’ve Been Exposed”<p>After the case interview, contact tracers will get to work calling the folks who may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the person who tested positive.</p><p>"We give them recommendations about quarantining or isolating, getting tested, and what to do if they become sick. If they're not already sick, we still want them to self-quarantine so that they don't spread the disease to anyone else if they were to become sick," said Labus.</p><p>Generally, the contact tracer won't ask for additional contacts unless they happen to call someone who is sick or has a confirmed case of the virus. They will help ensure the contact has the resources they need to isolate themselves, if necessary. The contact tracer may continue to stay in touch with that person over the next 14 days.</p><p>"We follow the percentage of people that were contacts, then converted into being actual cases of the virus. It's an important marker to help us understand what kind of transmission happens in our community and how to control the virus," said Gullett.</p>
Why You Should Participate (and What Happens If You Don’t)<p>A <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30457-6/fulltext" target="_blank">Lancet study</a> from June 16, which looked at data from more than 40,000 people, found that COVID-19 transmission could be reduced by 64 percent through isolating those who have the coronavirus, quarantining their household, and contacting the people they may have exposed.</p><p>The combination strategy was significantly more effective than mass random testing or just isolating the sick person and members of their household.</p><p>However, contact tracing is only as effective as people's willingness to participate, and a small number of people who've contracted the coronavirus or were potentially exposed are reluctant to talk.</p><p>"Contact tracers have all been hung up on, cussed at, yelled at," said Gullet.</p><p>The hesitation to talk to contact tracers often stems from concerns over privacy — a serious issue in healthcare.</p>
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NASA scientists say that warmer than average surface sea temperatures in the North Atlantic raise the concern for a more active hurricane season, as well as for wildfires in the Amazon thousands of miles away, according to Newsweek.
By Andrea Germanos
Oxfam International warned Thursday that up to 12,000 people could die each day by the end of the year as a result of hunger linked to the coronavirus pandemic—a daily death toll surpassing the daily mortality rate from Covid-19 itself.
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By Jun N. Aguirre
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