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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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
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3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
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