In 1958 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed the Safe Food and Drug Act. The act specifically detailed a list of food additives that the government scientists determined could be ‘generally regarded as safe’ (GRAS). Today research assaults the thinking of those innocent times, framing the scientists and regulators as either clueless, evil, or rather naive.
THE STORY WITH TRANS FATS
At the time the FDA grandfathered in partially hydrogenated fats (also known as trans fats) with GRAS status since little data showed harm and they had been around since the early 1900’s–what one researched called “a really long time.” No one seemed to distinguish that “little evidence of harm” didn’t mean evidence of no harm.
Currently FDA charts a course for these fats to lose their GRAS status, but not quite yet. First they are gathering public comments.
FDA is well aware of the harmful effects of trans fats, having proposed labeling of trans fats in 1999 and finally mandating labeling in 2006. Is it any wonder that health professionals and the public alike question FDA’s alliances?
MORE QUESTIONABLE ADDITIVES: EMULSIFIERS
As science advances, researchers are sounding the alarm regarding several other additives in food, especially as consumers purchase more highly processed food according to a 2012 NPR report.
A recent study claims two commonly used emulsifiers in food, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose may interfere with gut health. In essence, when fed to mice in amounts approximating human consumption, the emulsifiers “changed the species composition of the gut microbiota and did so in a manner that made it more pro-inflammatory.”
Emulsifiers basically keep components in a sauce or food from separating over time. You can tell when an emulsifier breaks down. The oil and water components of mayonnaise, salad dressings, pudding and sauces separate. It’s no surprise that food producers use emulsifiers in a variety of processed foods, and when Americans consume more highly processed and pre-prepared food they consume more emulsifiers.
The researchers from Georgia Tech suggest that the emulsifiers promote the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. These conditions are increasingly linked to poor metabolic health, obesity, diabetes and many gastro-intestinal diseases on the rise today.
The emulsifiers are thought to influence microbiota exhibiting an enhanced capacity to digest and infiltrate the dense mucus layer that lines the intestine which is normally largely devoid of bacteria. A compromised intestinal barrier results. Today the researchers are investigating other emulsifiers and directly looking at their impact in humans.
ANOTHER ADDITIVE IN QUESTION
Last year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) turned the spotlight on propyl paraben in its Dirty Dozen Guide To Food Additives because the federal Food and Drug Administration listed its use in food as “Generally Recognized As Safe.” EWG specifically notes evidence that propyl paraben disrupts the endocrine system, and that the FDA has failed to take action to eliminate its use in food or reassess its safety.
Propyl paraben alters hormone signaling and gene expression, and consumers are exposed to propyl paraben in a variety of cosmetic, baby and food products. The researchers conclude that although the parabens enjoy GRAS designation based on a 1972 decision by the FDA (FDA 2013). Maybe FDA should reconsider that standing. In 2006 regulators removed propyl paraben from the list of food additives authorized for use in the European Union.
HOW CAN CONSUMERS TAKE ACTION?
The FDA struggles meet the needs of consumers as many of their actions defer to the interests of business. I lost my trust in the capacity for the FDA, USDA, and EPA–our nation’s primary regulatory agencies impacting the food supply and environment–years ago.
When confronted with our increasingly abundant and adulterated food supply, I have a simple recommendation for most of my clients. Eat close to the earth. Purchase mostly whole fresh food, and take time to prepare meals from scratch. If you’re not a cook or just want a night off, purchase foods from suppliers who are cooking with ingredients you would find in your own kitchen. Sometimes that will mean enjoying prepared food from trusted purveyors at a farmer’s market, your neighborhood grocery, or a favorite restaurant.
The Georgia Tech researchers suggest that current means of testing and approving food additives may not be adequate to prevent use of chemicals that promote diseases driven by low-grade inflammation and/or which will cause disease primarily in susceptible hosts. With the advent of mapping our microbiome, my sense is that we need to revisit everything. I can’t help but wonder, what else is the FDA missing?