Food Additives are “Generally Recognized as Safe”… Are They?

What is the process for approving the ingredients that go into the food we eat?

I have been asking myself that question for years but to be honest, I’ve only have nibbled at the edges. Recently however I’ve wanted to delve deeper and find some answers. Why are there questionable or harmful ingredients in our food in the first place, and what can I do about it? For some, the first question may be what food product can they buy that is safe. It’s a good question and one I’ll answer in this series.

But first I want to take a trip back into history to learn a little about a phrase that worked in 1958 and is now a major loophole in our processed food system: Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

What’s the deal with the phrase “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS)?

If you’ve been following news and research about chemical food additives, you’ve likely come across the term GRAS. In addition to sounding clunky when you say it (I can’t help but think it sounds like the word “gross”), this phrase was first developed in 1958 for the Food Additives Amendment signed into law by President Eisenhower.

The idea behind GRAS is that food additives, mostly ingredients like salt and sugar (known natural preservatives) and vinegar were “generally recognized as safe” and didn’t therefore need to have approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in processed food. Seems pretty reasonable.

But as we know, it’s no longer 1958 and the amount of chemicals used in both our consumer products, homes and food has exponentially grown since then.  In our modern age, GRAS has turned out to be a giant loophole for food companies to get a free pass to use whatever chemical additives they want in our food with little to no oversight. Even worse, there is no other developed country in the world that has a system as archaic as GRAS for approving food additives.

The researchers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest created this great infographic to tell the story about what a food company needs to do (or not do) in order to use a chemical additive in our processed food. This is the first infographic I have seen on GRAS that really breaks down just how broken this system is.

If you start on the right side of the graphic you’ll see the process most food companies use to use food additives. You’ll quickly notice that even if the FDA raises concerns about the additive, they still get carte blanche to use the additive. The system is a joke.

What we can do about GRAS

I’m a solutions kind of lady, I like to learn what I need to know about broken systems like GRAS and let it inspire me to act. Here are a few important steps you can take to help change the system:

Part II –  Did you know over 5,000 chemical food additives are NOT required to be listed on ingredient labels?

Part III – How to avoid harmful food additives when you’re at the store.

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