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If you’ve taken a good look at the food ingredients on your local grocery store shelves lately you know the number of processed food items has mushroomed. We could live on foods from cans and boxes and never have to open a refrigerator or heat up the oven again.  Recently, NPR ran a story about the decline in cereal eating—it apparently takes too long to fix a bowl of cereal now days.  As we consume these prepared foods and drinks we may think they have been approved by the FDA, and, therefore, they contain safe ingredients.  You would be wrong.

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food, admits that the FDA does not know about many of the new additives showing up in our foods. “We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” said Taylor.

The FDA used to spend more time reviewing food additives,  but back in 1997, due to complaints from staff and industry, it moved to a shorter, voluntary certification process. This seems reasonable until you realize that the onus is on manufacturers to certify their products as “Generally Recognized as Safe” – GRAS. That worked, back in the day, when additives like vinegar were the new additives. Today all kinds of supplements—funguses, caffeine, seaweed—are being added to our foods and no one is paying any attention.

The Washington Post story gave a few examples of companies that admit to ignoring the legislation: One Iowa-based company, Kemin, produces a line of diet and sport drinks containing the chemical Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which has previously been linked to “toxicity in the liver, kidneys and intestines”. The president of Kemin’s human nutrition and health division, Anita Norian, said the company chose “not to participate in the FDA’s voluntary GRAS determination notification process.”  (The Wash. Post, 8/17/14)  Norian said to do so would potentially undermine the company’s work, allowing other firms to discover ‘proprietary’ information about its product.”Kemin, along with many other unscrupulous companies, continues to sell products to American consumers outside of FDA guidelines.

Since the change in guidelines, the supplement business has changed drastically. Five decades ago there were about 800 additives commonly added to foods.  Today that number has grown to more than 9,000. And we – consumers – are driving this market by increasing our consumption of processed foods.  We are buying the caffeine-infused products, diet products and other supplemented items in record numbers.

Today the FDA gets an average of two petitions a year for approval of additives, filed by food and chemical companies. There are dozens of GRAS notifications—again these are the profit-makers, the manufacturers, determining the safety of their own foods. In other words, the fox is guarding the hen-house.  And, unaccounted for, are the unreported numbers of new chemicals and other supplements bypassing the FDA process completely. In other words there are no guarantees as to the safety of what we are eating, no oversight, and no sense of responsibility by food manufacturers to produce food with 100% safe, healthy ingredients. This extends to so-called “good for you foods” like energy bars and health foods.

Everyone agrees that there are problems. Voluntary disclosure, based on the premise that food manufacturers would use scientific research to ensure safety, is not happening and the FDA does not have the resources to adequate supervise or regulate. For now, there are no clear answers.

Consumers may need to be more diligent with regard to reading package labels more carefully.  But, that assumes we would know what the ingredients are, since many of them cannot be pronounced and have 7 syllables.  Should we have to pull out our smart-phones to look up the long, unrecognizable chemical ingredients in an effort to understand what we are about to consume?  Even then, we will not know the amounts of the product being used and we will not know the effect of one serving versus a daily diet of those same chemical additives. And what happens 10 years down the road when researchers find a correlation between “X” ingredient and “Y” illness or abnormality?   The manufacturer knows the most about the product, and has the ability to make it healthy and safe – that is the bottom line.  Somehow, we need to move the industry in that direction – the whole industry, not just the ones selling their produce at Whole Foods.

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