Chemicals that make food last longer may harm us

In the U.S., bread is whiter, cakes and cookies are brighter, and grocery food typically has a longer shelf life than in Europe. That’s the result of the more than 10,000 chemicals allowed to be used in the growing, making and preserving of foods and beverages in the U.S. — including some that are banned in Europe (and elsewhere in the world, as well) because of their links to myriad health risks, including cancers, neurological disorders and behavioral issues in children.

While chemicals do play a sometimes necessary role in food production, many experts say that some of the most commonly used ones are unnecessary and could be causing significant harm to consumers’ health. Still, as the American diet has become more processed, commercialized and synthetic over the last several decades, the proliferation of these substances has grown.

Croissants at a bakery in France, where baked goods have fewer chemical additives than in the U.S. (Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Their widespread use in the U.S. also has to do with laxer food regulation in the country, notably in comparison with the European Union. While the EU tends to take a more precautionary, protective and preventive approach to potentially harmful additives, the United States tends to take a reactive one, often removing a substance from use only if there is overwhelming evidence that it causes significant harm.

Regulation differences have come under even greater scrutiny in the last several months at least partially because of Brexit. As the U.K. attempts to move toward exiting the EU, many of its citizens and experts have expressed concern that Britain will be subjected to foods coming into the country that have been inspected and regulated by U.S. agencies rather than the EU. In an editorial published in the Lancet in March, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at the University of London, writes: “Few analysts think EU standards are perfect, but comparing EU, U.S., and other food standards, we concluded that EU regulatory standards are among the highest in the world and rightly prioritise prevention over remediation.”

The European Commission is known to take a more cautious approach to its food chemical safety analysis. When requesting the use of a new food chemical, a manufacturer must submit an application identifying the additive, its manufacturing process and methods of analyses, its chemical reaction with food, its purpose and proposed uses. Also required is toxicological data on the effects it might have on human metabolism, subchronic and chronic toxicity, carcinogenicity (the ability for a substance to induce tumors), genotoxicity (the destructive effect on a cell's genetic material), reproduction and developmental toxicity (the toxic effects of a substance on the reproductive ability of an organism and the development of its offspring) and, if required, other studies. Based on this data, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) then determines the level below which the intake of the substance can be considered safe — the so-called acceptable daily intake, or ADI. The EFSA also estimates, based on the proposed uses in the different foodstuffs requested, whether it is possible to exceed the ADI. Only if the ADI cannot be exceeded is the use of the food additive considered safe.

The EFSA was created in 2002 and tasked with reevaluating the safety of additives that had been approved before its existence. The FDA’s Food Additives Amendment was passed in 1958 to stop companies from using any chemicals that have links to cancer but, unlike the EFSA, there was no look-back program, so if a chemical had already been approved, its safety was not reevaluated, even if no or very little data was available at the time it was entered. The substances were simply grandfathered in to safety status.

“As defined in the FDA’s regulations, ‘safety’ for substances used in food means that there is reasonable scientific certainty that the substance is not harmful when used as intended,” said Megan McSeveney, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration. “This safety standard applies to uses of food additives, color additives and substances that are GRAS (generally recognized as safe).”

Jessica Garay Redmond, assistant professor in the department of food safety, nutrition and policy at Syracuse University, said: “Unfortunately, the overall health and wellness of the U.S. population is not the primary concern when food policies are created.”

Photo: iStockphoto/Getty Images


Furthermore, Maricel V. Maffini, an independent consultant on food chemicals, said that for most of these additives, long-term effects haven’t been researched at all and are not even considered in the regulation process. Information on how the substances affect chronic diseases, fetal development, how multiple chemicals can affect the same organ or susceptibility to diseases later in life is all missing from the discussion.

“The great majority of the additives purposely added in food in the U.S., when tested, are tested in adult animals,” which means that developmental effects in fetuses or in children are not considered in testing, said Maffini. “In a study we published in 2013, we found that only 6.7 percent have reproductive or developmental data in FDA’s database, and overall only 21.6 percent have feeding studies needed to estimate a safe level of exposure in the population.”

In fact, in a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018, the agency warns about the harms of these substances to health and highlights that they often are an even greater risk to children.

Along with differences between agency approaches in the U.S. and EU, diet and lifestyle also play a significant role in the consumption, demand and, in turn, safety of such foods. Americans tend to eat a diet much higher in processed foods, and because of this, food additives and preservatives are viewed as highly important to the ability for manufacturers to mass produce the items, Devin Bowes, a doctoral student in biological design at Arizona State University, explained. In Europe, processed foods are not as much of a staple in the average diet, so the use of chemicals to increase shelf life is not considered as important as it is in the U.S.

A McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder and Quarter Pounder. (Photo: Mike Stewart/AP)

This could be having an impact on Americans’ overall health. When comparing life expectancies with other developed nations, the United States consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the list, and in 2018, for the third year in a row, life expectancy dropped in the nation. There are several explanations for why the U.S. ranks so poorly, but many experts say the American diet may be in part to blame.

According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the majority of Americans exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats and sodium, and three-quarters of Americans have an eating pattern that is too low in vegetables, fruits, dairy and healthy oils. The amount of processed foods, and thus food additives and preservatives, consumed tends to be greater in the U.S. than in other developed nations.

“Due to this difference, it may seem too far out of reach for the U.S. to adopt the regulatory practices the EU employs unless dramatic changes to the American diet are made, such as eating more fresh foods and less processed foods,” said Bowes. “This would considerably decrease the consumption of various [additives and preservatives], thereby decreasing exposure to the potential toxicity of these chemicals via ingestion.”

Bowes also noted the disconnect in the public’s understanding of scientific evidence in the U.S., which appears much more of an issue than in Europe. “This could be in part due to the major lobbyists who hold such great power over what information is disseminated and what is hidden,” said Bowes.

Lisa Lefferts is a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned the FDA to ban, or at the very least require specific warning labels, on various food chemicals. Lefferts said CSPI has been mostly unsuccessful because of the powerful influence of food and chemical interest groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the American Chemistry Council.

Lefferts summed up American food regulations bluntly: “The U.S. system for ensuring the [understanding and] safety of substances added to food is broken.”

While food safety experts say there are several concerning food substances that remain legal in both the EU and the U.S. -- including aspartame, BPA and nitrates -- listed below are five used in the making and preserving of mass-produced food in the United States that are otherwise banned or highly regulated in Europe and in other areas of the developed world. Critics say they are some of the most common and controversial that are found in mass-produced American food.

Potassium bromate

Potassium bromate, which is considered a “flour improver,” is an oxidizing agent that strengthens dough and enhances elasticity. It is a common additive in U.S. mass-produced breads, doughs and cookies. The chemical has been used in baked goods in the U.S. since 1914, when it was patented, and it was first approved by the FDA in 1941, according to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry. When Japanese researchers found in 1982 through a series of studies that the additive caused cancer in the thyroids, kidneys and other body parts of rats and mice, several countries, including China, Canada, Brazil, India and many in Europe, banned the substance from food. According to the Environmental Working Group, “the [baking] industry claims potassium bromate is theoretically fully converted into potassium bromide, a similar yet non-carcinogenic chemical, during baking. But testing in the United Kingdom revealed that potassium bromate remains detectable after baking, with six out of six unwrapped breads and seven out of 22 packaged breads containing measurable levels.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies potassium bromate as a category 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans).

“We petitioned FDA to ban potassium bromate in 1999, charging even then that the FDA had known for years that it caused cancer in laboratory animals,” said Lefferts. “FDA only urged bakers to voluntarily stop using it. Many have, but others still use it.”

Azodicarbonamide

Another chemical used in mass-produced breads, cereals and doughs is azodicarbonamide, also known as the “yoga mat chemical” because it is often also found in foamed plastics, like mats and the soles of shoes. It is a whitening agent that has been banned in the EU since 2005, and in other areas, including Australia and Singapore. While the chemical itself, researchers say, is relatively harmless when consumed in small doses, the World Health Organization linked it to asthma and allergies if directly inhaled. Furthermore, it can break down during the baking process into two other compounds, semicarbazide and urethane. Semicarbazide, according to the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, caused cancers of the lung and blood vessels in mice, but poses a negligible risk to humans. Urethane is a recognized carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, in association with the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Considering that many breads don't contain azodicarbonamide and that its use slightly increases exposure to a carcinogen, this is hardly a chemical that we need in our food supply,” Lefferts wrote in a statement regarding its use in the U.S.

Brominated vegetable oil

Brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, acts as an emulsifier in citrus-flavored beverages, preventing the flavoring from separating during distribution. The substance contains bromine, which is the element found in brominated flame retardants and which appears to build up over time in the body. In high amounts drunk over long periods, BVO-laced beverages have been linked to loss of memory and muscle coordination, headaches and fatigue. BVO is banned in Japan and Europe but legal in the U.S. and can be found in several types of citrus sodas and drinks, including Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew. In 1970, the FDA took the chemical off of its “Generally recognized as safe” list, saying it was allowed only on an “interim” basis pending additional study. Nearly 50 years later, it still has interim status. No major studies have shown links between BVO and human health outcomes, although anecdotal accounts have circulated on social media. Still, because of public outcry about the chemical in 2014, PepsiCo did remove the additive from Gatorade, but it continues to use it in Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew. PepsiCo declined a request to comment on its use of BVO for Yahoo News.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH)

Unlike the other substances listed, recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, is not an additive but rather a synthetic hormone that is used by many American dairy farmers to increase milk production in cows. The FDA approved Monsanto’s patent for its hormone, marketed as Posilac in 1993, and it is now owned and produced by Brazilian company Union Agener. The hormone is banned for use in the EU, Canada and several other countries around the world.

While scientists say that rBGH likely does not have specific negative effects on humans because it is mostly destroyed during the pasteurization process, its use stimulates in the cow another hormone, insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1. Cow’s milk that is treated with rBGH has higher levels of IGF-1, which is not broken down in the pasteurization process, and some studies have shown that IGF-1 can make its way into the human bloodstream after digestion. According to the American Cancer Society, IGF-1 levels at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of tumors in the breastprostate and colon in humans.

Furthermore, cows that are administered the hormone suffer significantly more than their nonhormone-fed counterparts from reproductive issues and mastitis, an inflammation of the tissue that can cause infections in udders due to overproduction of milk. Critics say the use of rBGH is animal cruelty, and in 1999, an EU science report on animal health and welfare noted that the use of hormones causes "severe and unnecessary pain, suffering and distress" for the animals. Finally, because of the additional infections, farmers administer significantly more antibiotics to the cows, often in a preventive manner, before an infection even occurs. The practice has left the medical community particularly concerned because of the continuous rise of antibiotic resistance in humans, according to the CDC.

Color dyes (including Yellow No. 5 and No. 6, Red No. 40)

Color dyes are those seemingly innocuous ingredients listed on many brightly packaged cakes, cookies and cereals that are often marketed to children. While many color dyes aren’t completely banned in Europe, several common ones in the U.S., including Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5 and 6 (which make up about 90 percent of the dyes used for certified food use in the United States) require a warning label on European packaging. By law in the EU, foods that contain the dyes must state that the food “may have an adverse effect on attention and activity in children.” That’s because, in several studies, including research published in 2018 in the journal Pediatrics, color dyes have shown links to behavioral issues in children, including hyperactivity, learning impairment and aggressiveness. A 2012 meta-analysis on color additives reviewed 24 studies related to the topic and concluded that the substances affect a child’s hyperactivity, and that when foods that contain color dyes are removed from a child’s diet, hyperactivity is reduced.

In a statement to Yahoo News, General Mills, which is the umbrella company for dozens of food brands that use various additives, including color dyes, said the company has at times removed artificial food dyes where it was able to find natural coloring ingredients that consumers found acceptable. But some substitutions ultimately didn’t last, because consumers preferred the original formulas.

“We have had at least one situation — Trix cereal — where consumers said they wanted natural coloring. We provided it and then we received many complaints,” said Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman. “We brought back the artificial coloring in a Classic Trix variety using the traditional recipe, and the positive consumer response has exceeded our expectations, so our approach is to provide consumer choice, always following the latest FDA regulations on food safety.”

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