Foodprints for the Future
Scariest Thing This Halloween? The Food in Your Pantry
October 18, 2023
Red Dye No. 3 was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from being used in cosmetics, namely red lipstick, back in 1990 due to concerns about it being carcinogenic. Remarkably, it wasn’t banned from our food. California’s finally taken action, ahead of the FDA, and has banned it from all food in their state too. But the vast majority of Americans are still consuming it, along with a host of other chemicals banned in Europe.
As Halloween fast approaches and we eagerly await the opportunity to eat a lot of highly dyed candy, this is cause for concern. Most Americans will go about their holiday happily consuming items we assume are safe. After all, if they contained any harmful ingredients, they wouldn’t get approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), would they? Unfortunately, the FDA is not quite as rigorous or as effective as you might think.
The FDA is a federal agency responsible for protecting the public health of Americans by regulating drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, food, and other products. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA has the power to regulate food, and later amendments extended their authority over chemicals and additives. In theory, this means the agency makes sure all our food, whether it is freshly grown produce or processed, contains nothing that can harm our health.
However, the FDA is not doing enough to adequately oversee food regulation. Their control over food additives — of which there are over 10,000 on the market today — is insufficient. Food is not the main priority of the FDA — given the size of the drug and medical supply industry, it is easy to see why food gets less of the spotlight. But this lack of attention allows the food industry to fill in regulatory gaps with their own data.
Of the 10,000 substances currently permitted in the food supply, only 66% were actually approved by the FDA. The remaining ingredients were concluded to be “generally recognized as safe” by the food manufacturers themselves. This casual self-regulation appears to have gone unchecked at the FDA, who allow these additives to be used in our food, essentially on the manufacturers’ word.
In other countries, such as those within the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia, food regulation is much more strict. These countries tend to take a precautionary approach to food safety, meaning additives must be proven safe before they are approved and sold. The FDA has even stated U.S. food exports to places like Japan are made more difficult by their stricter regulations regarding additives.
In the United States, the approach is more reactive — the FDA takes a hands-off approach to testing and inspections, and allows additives to go on the market until they are proven harmful. The U.S.’ food safety protocol is leagues behind that of other countries — for example, the EU has even banned food products deemed safe, but are linked to deforestation.
These disparate levels of regulation mean some food items that are ubiquitous in the United States are actually banned in other countries. Take a look at a few examples of these controversial foods below.
Candy and Desserts
As Halloween approaches, Americans look forward to eating our favorite candies and sweet treats. But candy contains some contentious ingredients. Skittles contain Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40. These dyes are linked to hyperactivity in children, migraines, and hives. The supposed effects have led to products containing the dyes to have warning labels. The dyes are outright banned in Austria and Norway; Skittles themselves are banned in the EU. In 2022, the EU also banned titanium dioxide as a food additive. Common Halloween candies like Sour Patch Kids, Starburst, Swedish Fish, and Trolli gummies all contain this ingredient that is linked to intestinal inflammation, immune system damage, and cancer.
Drumstick frozen desserts are also controversial. They contain carrageenan, an ingredient derived from red seaweed, for their texture. Carrageenan has been linked to gastrointestinal inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, and diabetes. The use of the ingredient for infant formula has been banned in the EU.
The little marshmallows in Lucky Charms look harmless, but they get their coloring from Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40, the same dyes found in Skittles.
Frosted Flakes are banned in the United Kingdom, Japan, and a few other European countries because they contain BHT, which helps maintain the properties of the food when it’s exposed to air. BHT is not banned in the EU and other countries, but its concentrations are highly limited in products. There is controversy around whether or not BHT is linked to cancer or blood clotting, but more cautionary countries have tried to limit it in their food supply.
Mountain Dew is an American favorite that is banned in Japan and the EU. The soda uses bromine vegetable oil (BVO) for its flavoring. Studies in animals have linked excessive BVO consumption to increased buildup of bromine in tissue, which is thought to result in health issues. The FDA is currently working on a rule to remove authorization for BVO, but for now the ingredient remains happily available in the popular soft drink. Fresca, a sparkling flavored soda, is also banned in Europe because it contains BVO. California has led the way again by banning BVO, ahead of any potential action by the FDA.
Stove Top stuffing contains the flavor enhancers and preservatives BHA and BHT, which are subject to restrictions in Europe and Japan. BHA has been used in American foods since 1947, but has been listed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “reasonably anticipated” to be a carcinogen. Other studies have claimed these additives are harmful to the circulatory system.
The fluffy, buttery Pillsbury biscuits enjoyed by many Americans are outright banned in several European countries like Austria, Norway, and Denmark. The biscuits contain trans fats in the form of hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils. In 2015, the FDA deemed that these oils, which are the main source of trans fats in manufactured food, are not regarded as safe and required the industry to phase them out of food by 2020. But foods can still be sold with half a gram of trans fat or less per serving. Trans fats are linked to unhealthy cholesterol levels and heart disease.
The scariest thing about this holiday season isn’t ghosts, vampires, or zombies — it is the food we eat. The FDA is clearly lagging behind the standards of other countries when it comes to food safety. Processed foods contain many potentially dangerous substances, not to mention the often non-recyclable plastic packaging these foods are sold in.
Allowing us all to make greener food choices is crucial — human health and the health of the planet are inextricably connected but to do it we need an FDA that puts people first. We need to be mindful of the chemicals we are often unwittingly exposing ourselves to just as much as the ones we emit into the environment.