How Food Additives Get Approved

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how food additives get chosen

Thanks to a report published last month by the Center for Public Integrity, word is starting to spread about yet another danger present in processed foods: flavor additives that have not been approved by the government – only by a panel funded by the companies that make the additives.

It’s quite shocking to learn how food additives get approved. The group responsible for verifying the safety of new flavor additives is the Flavor and Extract Manufacturer’s Association, or FEMA, a trade group that, according to the Center of Public Integrity, has no in-house employees of its own, but that represents dozens of artificial flavor manufacturers. The association is managed by a Washington, D.C. based consulting firm that also helps run similar trade organizations, such as the International Association of Color Manufacturers.

FEMA’s member companies send their new additives to a panel of FEMA scientists for safety approval. Then, if that panel decides that the new additives are safe, food companies can simply start adding them to food.

The FDA never needs to approve anything – or even get notified of the existence of the new additives. This is due to a law passed in 1958 with the intention of letting obviously safe food additives, such as baking soda and vinegar, bypass the rigorous review of the Food and Drug Administration.

This law gave companies the power to determine whether their ingredients were “Generally Regarded as Safe,” or GRAS.

According to the Center for Public Integrity,

GRAS ingredients are supposed to meet the same safety standard as food additives that undergo a full FDA review — a standard of “reasonable certainty” that no harm will result from consuming them. For a company to determine that an ingredient is “generally recognized as safe,” it must establish that qualified scientific experts commonly understand the additive’s safety.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Consumers Union, Environmental Working Group, and Natural Resources Defense Council filed an 80-page regulatory comment to the FDA in April stating that the FDA’s process for determining the safety of food additives was in violation of the 1958 law, alleging that the FDA has “let companies completely abuse that limited exemption and hide the use of new food chemicals from regulators and the public.”

CSPI regulatory affairs attorney Laura MacCleery said:

“It’s quite extraordinary for a federal agency to basically subcontract its regulatory work to a trade group designed to protect the business interests of its member companies. […] It’s a process that does not inspire consumer confidence in these chemicals, and it’s certainly not what Congress intended when it required the FDA to issue pre-market approvals of novel and inadequately tested food additives.”

processed food additives

Since the law was originally passed, the amount of food additives has skyrocketed, and the safety of many of those additives that have been identified as GRAS have since been disputed.

Plus, according to the Center for Public Integrity, there has been increasing criticism that FEMA is not transparent enough about its additive review process; scientists and other groups have reportedly had trouble getting the safety and product information that they have requested from the group.

Food corporations use many other sly tactics to hide their actions and mislead consumers, such as:

  • Intentionally changing ingredient names to seem more palatable or “natural” to consumers who have started to avoid “chemical sounding” ingredients, even when the ingredients are NOT more natural
  • Not disclosing enzymes or other chemicals used in the production process of the food
  • Dangerous chemicals used in food packaging

Again, this is more evidence to pay close attention to food labels, and especially to replace the processed food in your diet with as much fresh, whole food as possible, such as fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. When possible, use organic products!

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