6 Common Food Additives Legal in America But Banned Abroad


By Ari LeVaux

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 (FDA) and a confusing bureaucratic process are at the heart of the problem.

Szasz-Fabian Ilka Erika / Shuttetrstock

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.

1. Olestra

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 (P&G) 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 Frito-Lay Light 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 P&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. Unwashable & Indestructible Ass Grease remains available for your consumption in Frito Lay Light potato chips.

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 EU, 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."

3. Ractopamine

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 EU 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.

5. rBST/rGBH

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 EU 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 and the pair have also been shown to impair blood clotting. Banned in England, Europe, Japan and elsewhere, it remains 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.

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.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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