In practice, however, many chemicals are approved under a provision known as Generally Recognized As Safe, which states that a food additive can be forego review by the FDA if it has been deemed safe by “qualified experts.”
If concerns arise after a chemical is already approved, or if new, relevant research becomes available, “The FDA does re-evaluate the safety of ingredients,” the agency official wrote. For example, the FDA reviewed the evidence on titanium dioxide after the EU decided to ban it in 2022. The resulting report determined that there was “no evidence to suggest dietary exposure to the additive is a concern for human health.”
One point of contention is that the vast majority of the research on these additives has been done in animals because it is difficult (and unethical) to conduct toxicology research in humans. As a result, “It’s impossible to say that eliminating Red 3 or titanium dioxide from the American diet will reduce the number of people who suffer from cancer by a certain amount with total precision,” Mr. Faber said. “But anything that we can do to reduce our exposure to carcinogens, whether known or suspected carcinogens, is a step in the right direction.”
Dr. Sathyanarayana added that, “Although one individual food may not have a potentially harmful exposure concentration, the fact that we eat so many foods, it starts to add up in the body. And our regulatory system misses that entire concept.”
How can I avoid these additives if I’m concerned?
The best way to steer clear of potentially hazardous food additives is to avoid eating prepared, processed foods and instead stick to fresh ingredients. If you are buying something packaged, be sure to read the labels. Dr. Sathyanarayana said a good rule of thumb is to opt for foods with short ingredient lists and to skip foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce. She mentioned the preservatives butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, and meat with bovine growth hormone as other chemicals to try to avoid.
According to the Environmental Working Group, over the past few years, several food manufacturers and grocery store chains have stopped using or selling products containing some or all of these additives. All five of the additives have chemical substitutes that serve the same purpose and have been deemed to be safer for human consumption — but they’re more expensive. If the bills are passed, it could motivate more brands to follow suit because it might not be economically prudent to produce one batch of products for California and New York and another for the rest of the US
Some experts say the bills don’t go far enough. Instead, they say a complete overhaul of the FDA’s review process is necessary.