Food Additives: The Hazardous side

Food additives have been used to preserve foods for centuries. Salt, being one of the first additives, was primarily used to preserve meats due to its antimicrobial properties. Additives have long evolved since simply being salt. Modern day food additives are complex chemical formulas in high demand due to our need to mass produce and globally transport food items while maintaining nutritional value, marketability and freshness. The food industry is a multi-billion dollar, intensely competitive market. Due to the high needs and potential high gains of the industry, some of these additives may not actually be safe as we are led to

believe. Potentially hazardous food additives, which cannot be definitively identified as safe for human consumption should be banned because of the increased risk of cancer and other associated illnesses. Manufacturers and government agencies must err on the side of safety.

The Food and Drug Administration is the agency responsible for the approval of new additives. According to Judith Foulke (1993), an FDA staff writer, each manufacturer must submit test results, which prove the additive meets the following criteria:
• the probable amount of the preservative that will be consumed with the food product, or amount of any substance formed in or on the food resulting from use of the preservative
• the cumulative effect of the preservative in the diet
• the potential toxicity (including cancer-causing) of the preservative when ingested by humans or animals

Additionally, if the additive is to be used in any new way other than the approved method, the manufacturer must submit additional testing for approval. The testing sets the standard for ppb or parts per billion of the additive allowed for safe, daily intake. The safe, daily allowance restricts amounts of preservative that the manufacturer may use. Each additive has a different threshold based upon approved rates of application (Foulke, 1993).

Furthermore, the initial testing is done by the manufacturer, otherwise known as the applicant, wanting to obtain approval for use of an additive. After testing, the documentation is submitted to the FDA for review and further testing, if needed. The current evaluation system requires the FDA to do an assessment, whether it has received all supporting documentation from the applicant or not. The FDA then determines the ‘safe’ value at which each additive can be used in food destined for human consumption. After analysis of the data submitted and further testing, if necessary, the FDA determines the reasonable certainty of no harm or the RCNH. For instance, the formula, “[The] estimated daily intake (EDI) ? acceptable daily intake (ADI)”, suggests if the additive is found to have no re-occurring adverse effects on animals during the life of the study that it can be approved for use (Brock et al., 2003).

For example, let us consider a given experiment if a study is being conducted on a particular additive. Thirty mice are divided into three equal groups for study. Group A is given the additive in high doses, group B is given a low dose and group C is given no dose. Over a period of a year or two, the groups are studied intensely. Group A and B would have to significantly differ from group C in order for the additive to be listed as harmful. Most of the Group A and some of Group B would have to show signs of adverse reactions in order for the test to be definitive (Brock et al., 2003). Uncertainty in these results is responsible for the potentially hazardous additives being approved for use.

Moreover, because food is so chemically intricate and the methods of testing vary between countries and organizations, there has been difficulty achieving validation of how much of certain additives a human has to ingest before it becomes toxic. Due to this complexity, the comprehensive effects of consistently ingesting food additives and food additive interactions with other agents are typically underestimated (Brock et al., 2003). Some of the chemical additives on the Food and Drug Administration’s GRAS (generally recommended as safe) list have been the topic of debate. However, the questionable additives still remain on the FDA’s ‘safe’ list because they cannot be definitively classified as harmful (Food and Drug Administration, 2007). Once approved for use, additives are almost never re-evaluated, although the recommended usage levels are periodically monitored by each manufacturer. The FDA’s resources and frequency of inspections and re-inspections have been affected critically by the lack of appropriate funding. Further budget cuts have been proposed (Weaknesses in FDA’s Food Safety System, 2006). To further add to the FDA’s problems, current regulations have not been updated since 1986 (Weaknesses in FDA’s Food Safety System, 2006). For instance, the FDA conducted approximately 50,000 food safety inspections in 1972. In 1986, there were only 13,567 inspections conducted (Weaknesses in FDA’s Food Safety System, 2006). The results of inadequate resources can lead to certain additives being approved based on short-lived research and monitoring.

Such is the case of butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole, commonly used as antioxidant preservatives in a wide variety of foods, which have created much discussion in the health community. The additives are used in products, such as shortening, cereals, instant potato granules, and many more. Glenn Scott, M. D., filed a petition with the FDA in 1990 requesting the ban of these additives; however, no action was ever taken. There have been several petitions submitted to the FDA requesting these additives be banned. Japanese studies conducted in 1983, show a high rate of cancerous and non-cancerous tumors being formed in mice; however, it was noted the tumors could not definitively be related to additive dosage. Basically, the amount of additive fed to mice was much higher than that to be consumed by humans. Interestingly, an FDA staff writer, Judith Foulke (1993) writes that “no cumulative or reactive studies were ever done.”

Further test results indicate some problems exist related to BHT and BHA. These additives can cause or aggravate conditions such as asthma and hives, as well as developmental disorders in children (Lacey & Rosen, 2007). Some test results commonly include phrases like “Thus, these lung tumors in the female cannot clearly be related to the administration of the BHT” (National Toxicology Program, 2004). Ultimately, the same reports list the tumor findings as “negative” because they could not be definitely linked to the cancerous growths in the lab mice. Thus, the items still appear on the FDA’s list of safe products approved for usage at a rate of 50 to 200 parts per billion, which is considered safe (Food and Drug Administration, 2007). These additives are also used in the manufacturing of adhesives, polymer coatings, and EVA plastics. BHT and BHA continue to be widely used in manufacturing foods as a necessity of business (Monks, 1992).

Manufacturers are hard pressed to find any alternatives to BHT, BHA or other antioxidant additives. Typically, these products react to increased unsaturated fats in food products to improve their nutritional value as well as shelf life. Currently, the number of antioxidant additives available and approved for use is small; “the approval of new antioxidant additives is unlikely due to economic barriers in obtaining government approval for new food additives” (Chaiyasit, 2007). The technology is available to obtain new data concerning the toxicity of these additives but at a higher cost industry is not willing to pay currently.

Industrial views to alternatives are very costly due to the development of new technology. One such alternative would be to use natural antioxidants, such as dried plums. However, due to the cost of processing the plums into a puree and the fact that the puree completely changes the taste of the product, no one would consider using it (Chenault, 2002). Further testing with vitamin E has been attempted without reliable results (Foulke, 1993). Considering test results and the FDA’s approval based on, in some cases ‘inclusive’ testing, some of the questionable hazardous additives are still in use.

For instance, diacetyl, which creates the buttery flavor in microwaveable popcorn, has been known to cause lung irritation when the atomized mist is sprayed. This condition known as bronchiolitis obliterans or more commonly referred to as ‘popcorn lung’ has been diagnosed in several plant workers since 1998 (FDA, 2006). Documented cases relating diacetyl to the medical condition are a matter of public record. An excerpt from a medical record on file with the FDA in October of 2001 reads, “He would pour diacetyl and other liquid ingredients into a hole on the blender lid. General room ventilation was inadequate, and no local exhaust ventilation was present….His shortness of breath became more severe with dyspnea on exertion at 10 to 15 feet.” Clearly, a safety issue existed long before the banning of this product which occurred in April 2007; however, there was no consideration to ban this product. After the media exposed the problem with diacetyl, all of the leading popcorn manufacturers almost immediately ceased usage of the product. In an attempt to trivialize the issue, brand name popcorns such as Orville Redenbacher and Act II, which are part of the ConAgra foods family, removed the chemical reluctantly, stating that the condition was “rare but serious”. There is no doubt popcorn consumers watched in awe as we sat watching the morning and evening news channel. Furthermore, as a result of the problem and the widespread media coverage, stocks for General Mills and ConAgra fell (“Popcorn Additive Dropped”, Webb, T., 2007). Gambling with consumer health is a risky business and should never be allowed.

Risky business is exactly the nature of some acidic additives. Citric acid is likely the most commonly known additive other than salt. It is commonly used as a flavor enhancer or an antimicrobial agent because of its high acidic content. By itself, it is typically harmless, except maybe to tooth enamel. When combined with potassium or sodium benzoate it can react to form carcinogenic chemical called benzene (What They Wash Over, Ecologist, 2007). Such reactions with other chemicals are generally not considered, as additives are evaluated separately based on their own individual properties (FDA, 2007). Other acidic additives have potentially similar dangerous effects.

Potassium benzoate, which is typically used in sodas and other acidic formulations, can present the same carcinogenic hazard. Some people are more sensitive to this chemical than others. By itself, potassium benzoate can aggravate asthmatic conditions and cause hives. Over time, benzoates also break down into the very same known carcinogen benzene. Shockingly, “studies have shown soft drinks can be up to 40 times higher than recognized ‘safe’ doses” ( What They Wash Over, Ecologist, 2007).
Sodas have been a constant source of discussion, whether diet soda or regular. A study was conducted on more than 75,000 men and women who were cancer and diabetes free. This group was monitored for seven years. What is interesting is the significant increased risk of diabetes and cancer were only seen in people who consumed two or more sodas per day (“To Reduce Pancreatic Cancer Risk, Can the Soda Pop and Sugar”, 2007). In 2004 the annual consumption of soda for the average American was approximately 37 gallons, totaling approximately 59,000 calories (“Warning Labels on Soda?”(CBS News, 2005). The FDA (2007) states, “Because of the limited survey data to date, we cannot yet understand the sources of variation in measured benzene levels, such as variability between different product lots and the effects of storage and handling.” There is a ‘suspected’ problem but further action is pending collection of more data and samples (FDA, 2007). However, the problem seems important enough for the FDA to restrict the amount of detectable benzene in sodas to less than five parts per billion. In spite of this restriction, some products still exceed the maximum recommend safe dosage. The elimination of benzene would a better alternative to prevent possible hazardous consumption. However, elimination of such a widely used additive would have an immediate negative impact on soda manufacturers and investors. This could also damage the stock market.
“To Reduce Pancreatic Cancer Risk, Can the Soda Pop and Sugar”, Tufts University, Health and Nutrition Letter, dated May 2007, suggest the consumption of soda is related to pancreatic cancer risk because extra blood sugar forces the pancreas to work excessively to produce extra insulin. This heighten insulin production is referred to as hyperinsulinemia, which causes “increased blood flow and cell division in the pancreas.”Such high levels of insulin promote production of a similar insulin growth hormone (IGF-1), which has been shown to increase the production of cancer cells. Diet soda or not, soft drinks may deliver much more than the consumer bargained for even though they may contain artificial sweeteners.

Sucralose also known as ‘Splenda’ is used as an artificial sweetener in soft drinks and is also sold in powder form for use as a sugar substitute. It is produced by actually adding chloride to sugar. Does this sound good? There are studies that show at high doses animals developed thyroid, kidney and liver damage. Appallingly, at half of the approved usage dose over a period of six months humans showed blood glucose increases. Associated issues with this additive are gastrointestinal problems, cramping, and bladder problems. As a sugar alternative, sucralose, is widely used to assist in weight loss by removing the caloric value of sugar from the daily diet, but at what cost? (What They Wash Over, Ecologist, 2007). Some of the mentioned sugar substitutes have been suspected to cause problems for a long time, though they still remain on the FDA’s ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) list (University of California, 2005)(FDA,2007).

Furthermore, another artificial sweetener, acesulfame K, also known as Sunnet and Sweet One, is as hazardous as the previously mentioned chemical additives. It is primarily used as a component, in combination with other sweeteners, to hide bitter taste. Although there are no current studies to list effects of the additive being combined, acesulfame K remains an issue. The breakdown of the additive causes cancer in animals and also has been shown to causes changes in the thyroid glands of dogs, rats, and rabbits (What They Wash Over, Ecologist, 2007).
Sulfates, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and other similar additives have been either restricted or the manufacturers labels must clearly list the associated additive. Allergic reactions to such additives range from harmless hives to death. Attention to label detail is becoming a mandatory part of daily grocery shopping. Each time a consumer takes an item from the shelf in the local grocery store, they should check to see if the product contains a warning remark and ingredients listed. Examples of these warnings are similar to the following:
• Contains phenylalanine (diet soda)
• Contains sulfites
• Contain MSG

These warnings should be red flag reminders to avoid these products. More and more, consumers need to educate themselves on what they are feeding to their families. Again, BHT and BHA, which are in a vast majority of products we consume, play a large role in some of these adverse effects; however, collectively, the effects of additives can have serious consequences (Metcalf, Dean, 2003).

While cancer treatments are becoming more successful, the disease itself is becoming more prevalent. Years ago it was rare hearing about a friend who had been diagnosed with the disease. Unfortunately, these days it seems everyone knows someone with some form of the dreaded disease. In fact, studies suggest that cancer rates have been rising since 1981 and soaring at a rate of 4.1% increase per year (Begley, S., 2002). Furthermore, a study of cancer, heart disease and other chronic disease risks in India suggest the increase risk of these diseases was due to the adaption of Western diets. Indian diets are traditionally higher in vegetable content and additive enriched foods are minimal (Sinha, R., Anderson, D., McDonald, S., & Greenwald, P, 2003).

Food additives indeed are of great value to our society. Some are without a doubt very essential to the preservation of food. To completely remove additives would impact us globally, affecting stocks, health, and food supplies. Our societal demands on suppliers are great and growing greater day by day. The need to advance our technological processes and the technology to develop better additives should be a constant endeavor. However, the food should not be adulterated with potentially hazardous additives. The FDA must be our watch dog and never unlock the gate for such compromised additives to be used. If additives cannot be definitively determined to be ‘safe’, they should be banned from use. The FDA recommends safe levels of additives to be used in foods. However, few studies are conducted to show the long-term effects of constant consumption. Unless test results can indisputably conclude the additives are safe, the additives should not be used. Our health may indeed depend on sound moral decisions based totally on safety for all.


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