Food additives have been used for thousands of years for preserving and for flavor. Until they were regulated in the 20th century, harmful substances were sometimes added to foods. In the 1800’s, toxic arsenic, lead, and mercury were used to color foods. Flour was diluted with chalk or limestone and preserved with borax, a substance commonly used to kill ants. Concerns grew over these dangerous practices that ultimately led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Today, the FDA regulates over 3000 food additives which are added to food to produce a desired effect like a longer shelf life, greater nutritional value or to produce an appealing color. All are classified either as intentional or incidental. Intentional are added to achieve a goal, for example, freshness and these are listed on the ingredient label; incidental are those that become part of a food though some production, processing, packaging, transport or storage method. An example is benzene, a carcinogen found in small amounts in some beverages. It forms when benzoate salts and vitamin C react. Another is bispenyl A (BPA), used in the lining of some food and beverage containers to prevent corrosion and improve heat resistance. Long –term exposure to BPA from leaching into foods is widespread. A number of adverse health effects, include damage to the liver and pancreatic cells, thyroid dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes have been linked to BPA.
The FDA is responsible for the safety of food additives. Laws designate that food manufacturers test and prove the safety of the additive and obtain FDA approval before it can be used. Safety testing must be conducted on at last 2 species, usually mice and rats.
Some ingredients are exempt if they are on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. These additives were granted this exemption if they were used prior to 1958 and include salt, spices, vinegar, vitamins and monosodium glutamate among others These additives can be reviewed and deleted if there is evidence of a safety issue. Many certified color additives have been removed because they were found to cause cancer or organ damage.
There are some concerns about some food additives.
- A study found that rats exposed throughout their life spans to the artificial sweetener aspartame had a higher risk of cancer. Other studies have failed to support this finding.
- Some artificial colors have been reported to cause allergic reactions in children and to increase hyperactive behavior.
- Sulfites can cause breathing and GI problems in some sensitive people. Because of this, they are not used in salad bars and on other raw vegetables. However, they are still found in frozen or dehydrated potatoes, wine, and beer.
- Monosodium glutamate can cause problems in some people with flushing, chest pain, dizziness, high blood pressure and headache after consuming foods that contain MSG.
Bottom Line: The more processed a food is, the more additives it is likely to contain. Check ingredient lists.