We are all focusing on and working toward being healthy and lean, mean, fighting machines. We are also concerned about the health and safety of our families. You can’t walk a mile or a grocery store aisle anymore without tripping over something “organic” or “all natural”. I know, we’re all kinda sick of it.
One good aspect to everyone freaking out over their food is that we are getting serious. We want to know what is in our food, why it is so special (organic, all natural, or refried potato droppings, whatever), how it was made and what the heck is it going to do to our bodies if we eat it?
Recently I was named the Food Truth Diva – a leadership role with Mamavation. You know you hear me go on and on about how awesome Mamavation is (and seriously, it is, check it out and apply for the next round! I totally would if I had a Wii and could stay awake past 10pm EST!) Part of this awesome responsibility is to contribute to the group the truth about food. Starting on this quest, I’m digging today into what Food Additives really are, how they are regulated, and what it means to us.
What is a Food Additive and Why is it Used?
The legal definition of the term “food additive” according to the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) is: “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result — directly or indirectly — in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.” A mouthful, right? So basically a food additive is anything that changes or wants to be changing our food. For example, when I can peaches I use an ultra light syrup. That sugar that I’m making my ultra light syrup with, although it is a small amount, is a food additive – it’s sweetening up my peaches. Yes, you can raw pack peaches with no syrup. In fact, I highly recommend it. But if you do, make sure you eat them up quick because peaches canned without syrup of some kind will lose their color, quality and texture over time.
That brings us to the question of why food additives are used. In the previous example, the sugar reacts with the chemistry of the peach in the can and keeps it looking, tasting and feeling good. We don’t want to open a jar and have a quart of mush to deal with – you know there’s no 2 year old on the planet who will eat that, unless he or she opens the jar personally and thinks you don’t want him or her to eat it… But that’s beside the point. The point is, what we add to our food is supposed to make it taste better, look better, smell better, eat better, keep longer, cook faster, cook easier, need less preparation, make us look like kitchen goddesses even though we’ve spent less than 10 seconds pushing a button on the microwave… You get the idea.
How are Food Additives Regulated?
With all the recent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, I’m sure you are wondering who is on the other side of this (aka whose butt needs kicking!) – and the answer to that is the US Food and Drug Administration. Since I live in the US, this is the regulating party for me. If you are not from the US, thank you so much for visiting my site, and I’m sorry but at this point I don’t have details for your home country. Ok, back to the business. Early on in food additive regulatory history, states started passing laws about not lying to people about what’s in their grub. That was around 1850 or so, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service. And they should know! In 1906 the first Federal law was passed (Federal Food and Drug Act), and in 1938 the law was revised to include new technologies. Now we are at the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Fast forward to 1958, and the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act comes in to play. And now we have specific regulations to follow (yippy! 🙂 ) and enforce. Before a substance can be approved as a food additive, it has to go through the FDA’s approval process in which they test and fiddle with the substance to make sure it is safe for human consumption and will not cause cancer. Anything that causes cancer is straight out. There is a list of GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe for human consumption) items which do not go through the approval process (like yellow or white beeswax or gelatin etc.), but they are also continually under revision and can be removed from the list at any time. Now if this substance is going to be used on meat, poultry or eggs, then the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) steps in and can say if it is safe or not.
What Does All This Malarky Mean To Me?
So now we know how a substance is approved to be used in our food, and generally why a substance is trying to be used in our food. But what does the FDA and/or FSIS approval mean to us as consumers? Well, this is the information that we find on our food labels. Those spices and what not that are on the GRAS can be declared on meat and poultry labels as “natural flavor”, “flavors” or “natural flavorings” without the specific names on the spices on the label. You can check out what the GRAS substances are by going to the database that the FDA provides online. Click here to go to the FDA’s site explaining the GRAS database, read the information and scroll to the bottom of the page and then click the “Launch Database” link.
But what about the stuff that has to be approved first? How do I know what I’m eating won’t kill me? To some extent the only way to have that confidence is to place trust in the FDA and FSIS. I know, it’s tough and it hurts. But it doesn’t have to be blind faith! The FDA also provides online information about food additives, including those under review here. And what about those substances that aren’t put into the food but touch our food through the packaging, are those safe? Well, check them out on the FDA’s Food Contact Substance section here. There is a ton of information to sift through. And after you read it all, they still may come out tomorrow and say that food additive that you thoroughly researched on the FDA’s site is toxic and poisonous and just might kill you. Unfortunately, it can happen. So if you don’t want to put blind faith in these guys and you also don’t want to have them change their minds on you, then you’ll be eating clean, raw food. Probably for the rest of your life, or you know, until you start wearing diapers and someone else is making your food choices.
But for now my friends, the best defense is a good offense. Inform yourself (or let me inform you), and make your own decisions about what you do or do not want to put into your body. Tomorrow there will be another foodborne illness outbreak somewhere, another food recall, another newly discovered “problem” with what we eat. But if you use your own research, intellect and make cautious decisions about what you and your family eats, then you’ll be putting your best food (or taste bud, as it were) forward. And that’s the best we can do.
Until we meet again, this is the Food Truth Diva – signing off. I hope you enjoyed this article and I look forward to bringing you more news, not as it breaks, but you know, pretty soon after. Or later. Or, you know, whenever. 🙂 Oh, and check out hashtag #foodtruth on Twitter!