The FDA Doesn't Really Know What's In Your Food

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states on its own website that it is "responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security of [...] our nation's food supply."

Yet it doesn't actually know what's in your food.

Every day, new food products deemed safe for public consumption come on to the market without government oversight, thanks to a loophole in a 57-year-old law that allows food manufacturers to circumvent the FDA approval process. In doing so, these manufacturers can declare their food additives (such as "natural" flavors and preservatives) as "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, without regulators screening for potential health risks.

This means thousands of ingredients make their way into our food supply without the FDA even knowing about them, including additives found in many common products, like carrageenan (a thickener associated with gastrointestinal inflammation) or more obscure ones that can cause severe allergic reactions, like lupin (a legume related to peanuts).

Aside from ingredients that can cause immediate harm, there are those whose long-term health effects aren't known until problems start showing up decades later.

Take partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, for instance. This much vilified GRAS additive is used to keep foods fresh for a long period of time, and is commonly found in microwave popcorn, cake mixes, fried foods, and Crisco, the first hydrogenated shortening that appeared on the market in the early 1900s. Artificial trans fats have been blamed by public health experts as a contributor to heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes, and the FDA finally announced on June 16, 2015, that the ingredient is no longer "generally recognized as safe" for use in human food. (Manufacturers now have three years to remove the ingredient from their products.)


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The Food Additives Amendment introduced the "GRAS List" in 1958 to allow food companies to use ingredients like vinegar and vegetable oil in their products without a formal review by the FDA. However, many companies have taken advantage of a loophole in the law to develop new additives and use its own employees to determine whether or not they're safe to eat. Not only is this practice a huge conflict of interest, but review by the FDA is completely voluntary.

The Center for Public Integrity has put together a great illustrative example of what the loophole means for public health.



So what can you as a consumer do to protect yourself and your family? For starters, reduce the amount of processed and packaged foods you depend on in your diet. And if you must purchase a particular product, read the label carefully. If any ingredient sounds suspicious, put it back or look for an alternative.

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