Chemicals in U.S. food — how safe are they?

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

How safe is the food we eat? The Chicago Tribune ran an article in its Jan. 21 issue highlighting the crusade of Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teen-ager who discovered an emulsifier in Gatorade that is banned in other countries.

The chemical, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), is illegal to be used as a food additive in the European Union, Canada, Brazil, India, Japan and Nepal. Some other ingredients allowed in U.S. food but not in other countries are some artificial colors and additives to flour.

Kavanagh, meanwhile, has started her own online petition drive requesting Gatorade to stop putting “flame retardant chemicals in sports drinks!” After doing some independent research on the ingredients in Gatorade, she was shocked to find BVO listed as a flame retardant used in some flavors of Gatorade. According to a 2011 article in Scientific American, BVO is “under intense scrutiny because research has shown that they are building up in people’s bodies, including breast milk, around the world,” as Kavanagh states in her petition. She adds, “The same article also mentions that there are ‘links to impaired neurological development, reduced fertility, early onset of puberty and altered thyroid hormones.’”

Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) has been used as a stabilizer or emulsifer to prevent separation of citric oils used to flavor drinks. It is also used in some soft drinks such as Mountain Dew, Fanta and Squirt. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that “interim” use at up to 15 parts per million (ppm) has been allowed since the 1970s, “pending the outcome of additional toxicological studies.” We don’t know whether these studies were ever performed.

Potassium bromate (bromated flour) is an oxidizing agent that enhances the performance of flour. However, the American Bakers Association says that most of its members have stopped using the ingredient, though it is still found in some bread products. So far, no adverse effects have been discovered in animals fed bread-based diets made from flour treated with KBrO3. But the agent is carcinogenic in rats and proven toxic to kidneys in both man and experimental animals when given orally. California classifies it as a carcinogen. The FDA encourages manufacturers to stop using brominated flour but has not banned it, claiming that if good manufacturing processes are followed, residual bromate does not pose a health hazard.

Azidocarbonamide is used to bleach, age and enhance flour and is found in sandwich bread and many fast-food burger buns, such as those at Burger King and McDonald’s. It is not legal in Australia and Europe. In Singapore, its use can result in 15 years in prison and a fine of $450,000. The United Kingdom Health and Safety executive said that its effects in humans have not been fully evaluated. The FDA has “found concentrations of SEM in a limited survey of domestic bread and bakery products” and has asked the baking industry “to identify production changes aimed at reducing SEM levels and potential consumer exposure.” McDonald’s says that azodicarbonamide is used in their bread, and that all their food ingredients comply with federal food laws.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) help slow the spoilage of certain fats and oils in food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. These preservatives are found in processed butters, meats, cereals, gum, baked goods, vitamins, dehydrated potatoes and beer. They are forbidden for use in European cosmetics; California classifies BHA as a carcinogen. The National Institutes of Health connects BHT to liver enlargement. An FDA agency committee called in the 1970s for research on potential risks. There is no record of any studies being conducted.

Regulations on natural foods

On the other hand, a May 18, 2010, article from the Alliance for Natural Health reported that the U.S. Institute of Medicine seems to think that healthy foods and supplements should be regulated like drugs. The article pointed out that natural products cannot be patented and so cannot go through the lengthy, expensive FDA approval process required for drugs.

“Who does the IOM or FDA expect to pay a billion dollar cost of approval for cherries or walnuts?” asks the Alliance for Natural Health. “Individual cherry or walnut growers? Will consumers buy cherries if they cost as much as drugs?”

The IOM would like to strengthen FDA authority over supplements and allow the agency to pull them off the market because of vague concerns, not just the standard of “significant or unreasonable risk.”

IOM also forbids a supplement intended for bones (containing vitamin K, D, calcium and other minerals) to cite accepted claims for vitamin D or calcium. The IOM wants the entire product to be researched as a whole and nothing said about component vitamin D or calcium benefits.

These could be some of the results of the DSHEA, passed in 1994, if carried to the extreme. This law essentially forced the FDA to stop regulating dietary supplements out of existence. But one of the little-known sections of the law required supplement manufacturers to “notify” the FDA whenever they used a new ingredient in their formulations. The details on how this was supposed to be done (called New Dietary Ingredient rules or NDI) were never published by the FDA, and they were mostly unenforced. But now, the rules are mandated under the new Food Safety Act (S. 510), so supplements will be more closely regulated, and some manufacturers may go out of business if they cannot comply.

From the March 6-12, 2013, issue

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