Pick up any packaged item in the grocery store, and there’s a pretty good chance there’s at least one ingredient you don’t recognize – it’s probably one of the 10,000 chemicals that are currently used in our food supply (despite the serious lack of good safety research, more on that later). Of those, about half aren’t even required to be listed on labels but make it into our food anyway – coatings on bags or cereal boxes that help keep food fresh, for instance. When it’s all said and done, the average American consumes about 100 additives each day.
A slippery slope
It wasn’t always this way – an apple used to be, well, an apple. Today, the apple you buy in June has most likely been picked when unripe, sprayed with a gas to stop the ripening, waxed to preserve its luster, stored for 11 months, and finally removed from storage and allowed to ripen fully before hitting the supermarket shelf. This is a relatively benign example of the use of chemicals in our food, but it goes to show how so much of our food touches compounds or ingredients that we may never know about.
As our food system becomes increasingly complex, relying on highly processed ingredients, the need for additives to color, flavor, add texture, stabilize, preserve, and whatever other sorcery is involved in turning powders and liquids into “edible food-like substances” grows and grows.
While 77% of consumers believe that the FDA tests the safety of each, the sad truth is that over half of the chemicals in our food supply do not have published feeding studies – in fact, it is fairly easy to put a brand new additive into the food supply without notifying the FDA at all. The testing of an additive’s safety is largely left up to the additive manufacturer – hardly an unbiased approach.
It wasn’t meant to be this way – we consumers demanded more testing and transparency back in the 50s when the additive industry took off. The FDA then created a lengthy approval process wherein new additives would need to be studied by a third party – unless the additive was something like salt or vinegar that had been around for a while and was “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS). Unfortunately, the FDA did not classify which new additives might or might not fall under this category, inadvertently creating a loophole through which thousands of highly functional but barely-tested additives enter our food supply, and our bodies, each year.
Human guinea pigs
This means we are often left guessing at which of the 10,000 ingredients are potentially dangerous, an impossible task – not only because you would need to learn thousands of new vocabulary words, but also because they are guaranteed to be different tomorrow as the additive industry continues to create new products (the global food additive market was valued at $33.5 Billion in 2016).
When it really comes down to it, we consumers have two options. We can either devote our lives to food science, personally investigating the synthesis and safety of each new additive, or we can start avoiding ingredients that we don’t recognize (we recommend the latter). You don’t have to be perfect – going from 100 additives a day to 0 is asking a lot. You just have to consume less – instead of the bag with 15 ingredients you don’t recognize, find one with 10. As each of us starts opting not to buy the very worst offenders, demand for them will dry up and our options will improve.
If you do want to learn more about additives, here are some resources:
- Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
- Want to check the safety of a particular additive? Visit CSPI’s “Chemical Cuisine” list, arranged alphabetically.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Food Additive Project” – A collection of in-depth reports and analysis exposing the problems with the current FDA system of regulating chemicals in food.
- Ingredients, by Dwight Eschliman and Steve Ettlinger – A beautiful visual exploration of 75 additives and 25 food products. A coffee table book for the food nerd.