“Safe” is one of those words. It means different things in different contexts. You are driving down the interstate highway at seventy-five miles per hour. You feel safe, even though you are doing one of the most dangerous things, statistically, that you routinely do. You are climbing a ladder to clean the fall leaves out of your gutters and you are being careful, so you feel safe. Unsafe is also something with a sliding scale. You relaxing in the bathtub is safe, but your toddler unattended in the bathtub is not, yet bathing is ‘generally recognized as safe’.
Eating and drinking are also safe activities. We don’t live in a country where just anyone can sell you anything and claim that it is safe. Our meat packers perform their work under the watchful eye of the US Department of Agriculture. Very small amounts of our meats are escaping the system tainted by bacteria which, because the UDSA is watching, are quickly pulled from shelves for our safety. Occasionally people are sickened by meats and dairy, but the numbers are still in the ‘safe’ range.
Processed foods are, likewise, watched and regulated by our ever-vigilant Food and Drug Administration. Processed foods and food additives are subjected to tight scrutiny so that only safe ingredients are used. The FDA is mostly known for the scientific rigor that all drugs for human use are subjected to. FDA approval is an expensive thing to get for all drugs, and the test results are the reason for all of those really long, fast-talking disclaimers found for the last thirty seconds of every pharmaceutical commercial that states every possible side effect and reaction. You just know that if you take a pill approved by the FDA that it’s effects are well documented.
Surely, you probably think, food additives are the same way. You are mistaken.
From the FDA:
In enacting the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, Congress recognized that many substances intentionally used in a manner whereby they are added to food would not require a formal premarket review by FDA to assure their safety, either because their safety had been established by a long history of use in food or by virtue of the nature of the substances, their customary or projected conditions of use, and the information generally available to scientists about the substances.
In 1958 the idea of ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) was born to allow things that we have been eating for eons to not be required to be proven ‘safe’ because everyone knew that they were safe. This makes perfect sense. In 1969 the FDA was directed by the President to review the items on the GRAS list because new scientific information was available and new methods of testing possible for the items that were given a pass in 1958.
At the time, in 1969 there were 235 items deemed to be GRAS that needed to be reevaluated. The number was big enough and the process took long enough that in had to be subcontracted out. Eventually, the FDA decided that it was too much work for them to approve these food additives, since more were joining the line every month for GRAS approval. In 1998 the FDA went away from ‘affirming’ the safety of GRAS and went to an interim rule that allows instead for the FDA to be ‘notified’ of the GRAS status of additives to foods. There are 115 additives that were ‘affirmed’ to be safe by the FDA between 1972 and 1980 that equal 370 GRAS when added to the original 1958 GRAS ingredients. There are now 539 additional ingredients that were not ‘affirmed’ by the FDA, but that they have been ‘notified’ that they are GRAS by the ingredient maker. Here is the database:
A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that there are 5,000 artificial ingredients added to our foods. THE FDA DOESN’T KEEP TRACK.
You would be forgiven for just assuming that the artificial ingredients that are listed on every label of every processed food on your grocery store shelves has been affirmatively approved by your FDA. It is not common knowledge that they merely accept ‘notices’ concerning food chemical safety. In the case of drugs they look for long term effects, side effects, do animal trials and human trials. The process takes years and years, and it is this way because it didn’t used to be this way and drugs were being used that were not safe, like opium, cocaine, thalidomide. We learned the hard way that only a neutral third party could umpire between the maker of a drug and the drug using public and properly balance ‘safety’ and ‘profit’.
One would think that you could eat any processed food product on any grocery shelf in the US and you would be ‘safe’. You would be right–none of those foods are going to kill you before you wake up in the morning. However, you would be wrong to assume that all of those food ingredients are safe in the larger meaning of the word. Eating sugar in every bite of food is poisoning us, it is crippling our youngest generation, yet sugar was on the GRAS list in 1958. Artificial sweeteners are now known to cause insulin resistance and type two diabetes just like sugar, yet they are approved substances. Artificial ‘fiber’ for your foods is also ‘safe’ but data are beginning to show that when used in a human body they react differently, depending on the microbes in the human gut.
Human trials are needed on food additives, just as though they were drugs, before we put a ‘safe’ label on them. Simply allowing the maker to claim they are safe is letting the fox watch the chicken coop. We don’t allow airplane makers to claim their planes are safe, we make them prove it to our government. Nobody wants to live in a country where the nuclear power plants get to ‘notify’ us that they are operating their plants safely. We have the government on-site all of the time, making them prove it to us. Same with our meat safety. You know that the meat packers would bring in illegal aliens to do the meat inspections for 7.25 per hour the second that the meat inspection process were turned over to the meat packers, asking them to ‘notify’ us that our meats are produced safely.
Recall that in 1998 the FDA issued an ‘interim’ rule that allowed them to forego affirming food additive safety and instead just accept notices. It’s 2014, 18 years later and there still is not a ‘permanent’ rule that lays out the process.
Go ahead and wait for the FDA to start affirming the safety of your processed foods. It might be another 18 years before they do. It might never happen. You may be perfectly happy with the current system. All of the autoimmune diseases, increase in blood pressure, diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, autism, and every other chronic ailment that has sprung up in the last twenty years may not be related to foods at all. You may feel SAFE. You would be right in the same way that someone who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day is safe.
If all of this makes you a bit uneasy though, like it does me, then maybe you will join me. Join me in banning processed foods from your pantry. Never buy another Lunchable for your kids. Make real meals out of real foods. Stop using sugar or any other sweetener in your drinks. Don’t eat anything that comes in a box or bag. The health claims on the labels are only there to attract you. Don’t fall for the bait. These things are not safe, and by safe I mean that if you eat them, they will make you sick–not today sick, but sick tomorrow.