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New Food Ingredients

Apr 24, 2014 - 0 comments

Many Americans are unknowingly eating a plastic yoga mat chemical routinely used in bread and had the news that trans fats once thought "safe" are causing 20,000 heart attacks a year. But recent food-safety politics don't end there. A new investigation from a national watchdog group just identified a gaping loophole that's allowing hundreds of new and questionable chemicals into the food supply, possibly endangering public health.

According to Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), some food companies are using a loophole in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 allowing manufacturers to hire their own experts—sometimes their own employees to perform safety reviews of new chemical food ingredients. Many are using their own tests to say that a new food ingredient meets the "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, requirement of the law. Companies aren't even required to submit the company-sponsored safety data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review.

That's right, companies are allowed to determine if an ingredient is safe before pumping it into processed foods. Can you say conflict of interest? Ultimately, Congress has final power in closing the loophole that lives in the federal GRAS law. Until then, NRDC is asking the FDA to limit the activity, urging the federal agency to require a mandatory alert if a company is self-approving a new chemical to be used in food.

The problem stems from an outdated law that doesn't align with the modern world's level of chemical development for new food ingredients. Originally passed in 1958, NRDC says the exemption was designed to prevent a lengthy FDA approval process for common ingredients like vinegar and vegetable oil—things generally recognized as safe in the scientific community. Decades later, companies are using the exemption loophole to approve hundreds—or even thousands—of new chemicals to be used as food ingredients, NRDC says.

Here are some other findings from the report:

Currently, 275 chemicals used by 56 companies appear to be marketed as GRAS and used in many food products based on the companies' own safety determinations.

When FDA does catch wind of a chemical proposed for use in food, the agency often asks tough questions, according to information NRDC received through a Freedom of Information Act request. Under the loophole, companies aren't required to answer them and may continue to sell the chemical for use in food.

Companies have sometimes certified their chemicals as safe for use in food despite potentially serious allergic reactions or adverse reactions in combination with common drugs.

If a company does take the voluntary step to have FDA review its safety data, it's able to withdraw the request if it appears the FDA might reject it.

That seems to be what happened in four NRDC case studies. FDA had serious concerns about these four ingredients' safety, but they went on to be marketed to the public anyway:

Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG)

A company determined it as safe for use in beverages including teas, sport drinks, and juices, despite FDA's citation of evidence that it may cause leukemia in fetuses in human cell tests. Animal studies showed it affects the thyroid, testes, spleen, pituitary, liver, and gastrointestinal tract.

Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA)

A company determined it as safe for use in beverages, chewing gum, coffee, tea, and candy, despite FDA concerns that estimated exposure was much higher than what the company itself considered safe.

Sweet lupin protein, fiber, and flour

A company determined it as safe for use in baked goods, dairy products, gelatin, meats, and candy, despite FDA-raised questions about whether the chemicals would cause serious allergic reactions in those with peanut allergies.


A company determined as safe for use in bread, cereal, beverages, chewing gum, tea, soy milk, gelatin, candy, and yogurt and fruit smoothies, even though FDA thought the amount people would actually eat could be five times higher than the safe consumption level reported by the company.

The best way to avoid these questionable additives is to eat organic and cook from scratch as much as possible


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