Few ingredients cause as much confusion, or consternation, as food additives. For some, it might be the long chemical names found on labels, uncertainty of how the use of additives is regulated or skepticism in testing and oversight processes. In other cases, it can be misinformation perpetuated by, at best, well-intentioned audiences or, at worst, pseudo-experts and click-baiters whose success relies on generating hype and suspicion.
A food additive is a natural or synthetic (“artificial”) substance that is added to, or comes into contact with, a food during production or processing. There are direct additives — ingredients that help to preserve flavor, enhance nutrition, extend shelf-life or enhance taste, texture or appearance — and indirect additives — typically trace amounts of residues from packaging, storage or handling.
Direct food additives may serve single or multiple functions, including preservatives used to prevent spoilage; emulsifiers and stabilizers that help keep blended ingredients from separating; anticaking agents that reduce the formation of lumps in granulated foods; humectants that help foods stay moist; thickeners that improve the texture of certain foods; and color additives used for visual appeal. Food additives also include vitamins and minerals added to replace those lost in processing (called “enrichment”) or that might not be present in the food but are lacking in most diets (called “fortification”).
Scary-sounding names is a frequently mentioned factor in anti-additive conversations, often coupled with the suggestion that the longer the name, the less “safe” the ingredient — or that using chemical names serves to obscure transparency. In fact, chemical nomenclature is designed to prevent ambiguity. When an ingredient does not have a common name, such as “sugar,” a chemical name may be used — but that doesn’t mean the ingredient is less safe.
As a rule, food labels should list the common names of ingredients. However, not all additives have succinct aliases — for example, whereas synthetic forms of vitamin B9 can be listed on a food label as “folic acid,” a synthetic vitamin B1 additive may appear as “thiamin mononitrate.” In addition, certain additives, namely preservatives, require their specific function to appear after their name, such as “sorbic acid (to retain freshness).” Furthermore, when an ingredient itself contains two or more sub-ingredients, the food label must reflect those sub-ingredients. On the other hand, some additive ingredients may be listed collectively without further specification (think “artificial flavors”) as long as they are used in quantities and purposes for which they are approved, helping manufacturers safeguard trade secrets.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, first passed in 1938, gives authority to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to oversee food product ingredients and how they must be listed on food labels. As food technology evolved and new additives were developed, Congress passed an amendment requiring premarket approval of all new additives, or Food Additive Safety Determination. Exempt from this requirement are grandfathered substances that were already in use (called Prior Sanctioned Substances) and those that have been designated by experts in the scientific community as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Although technically GRAS substances must meet the same safety standards as approved food additives, over the decades, the GRAS process has evolved into a voluntary notification program. So if a company wants to use a new substance in its food, it can either submit it to the FDA for premarket approval as an additive or, with review from scientific experts, determine it is GRAS. The company may then move forward with using the substance in its products, and it may (but is not required to) notify the FDA of the new GRAS substance. As a result, although the FDA maintains a registry of more than 10,000 food additives — of which roughly half are direct additives and more than 600 are on the GRAS list — there is an indeterminate number (one study reported approximately 1,000) of GRAS substances about which the FDA may not have been notified.
In 2010, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report concluded that greater oversight is needed to help ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations, citing gaps in information about substances currently in the food supply, and address challenges to existing GRAS substances. A 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts report echoed these findings, adding criticism over conflicts of interest arising from conclusions developed by company employees and consultants, and legislative ambiguity surrounding the FDA’s actual ability to enforce compliance. The FDA responded through the issuance of a final rule in August 2016 designed to demonstrate more stringent GRAS standards — namely clarifying criteria for and documentation of all GRAS conclusions, strongly encouraging companies to work with the FDA when considering new substances.
“Countless studies and hours of scientific evaluation go into the process of food substance safety review,” says Hilary Thesmar, PHD, RD, Food Marketing Institute Chief Food and Product Safety Officer. “However, practitioners with concerns about an additive should use the evidence-based analysis process to evaluate the literature in peer-reviewed journals and conduct their own risk analyses.”