Food companies use the four-letter acronym GRAS to put food additives in their products without interference from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It stands for “generally regarded as safe” but do not count on the additives as being safe.
Eleven-year-old Miles Bengco died after eating a Quorn Turk’y Burger which contained an additive related to fungi. His parents would not have allowed it if they had known because he had preexisting respiratory problems. Quorn Foods processed and sold the burgers with added fungi-derived mold called mycoprotein. Although the FDA agreed it was GRAS in 2002, people with mold allergies like Miles may have allergic reactions similar to those who have peanut allergies.
Reports by consumers of reactions like nausea and anaphlactic shock after eating foods containing mycoprotein caused the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in 2011 to urge the FDA to revoke GRAS status of mycoprotein. GRAS ingredients are supposed to be treated the same as fully FDA reviewed food additives, that consuming them will cause no harm as understood by qualified scientific experts.
Rebecca Fattell was rushed to an emergency room when her body became beet red and covered with hives after eating a roll containing lupin (or lupine) flour. Knowing she is allergic to peanuts, she is very careful about what she eats. Lupin is made from a peanut-related legume considered a “major food allergen” in Europe requiring labeling. The FDA has been aware of it since 2008 but does not require labeling it as an allergen on products sold in the United States.
The additive carrageenan often found in yogurt, ice cream and non-dairy milks like soy and almond has been shown in studies to be associated with gastrointestinal inflammation in humans and animals with resulting diarrhea and constipation. The nonprofit Cornucopia Institute sent a letter with a petition signed by nearly 39,000 people seeking revocation of carrageenan’s GRAS status by the FDA.
Public health experts have named the GRAS additive partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fats, added to fried foods, cake mixes and microwave popcorn to keep them fresh for a long time, as a contributor to heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. The food industry fought it but the FDA is expected to officially revoke trans fats GRAS status in summer 2015.
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a food additives report that the “FDA’s oversight process does not help ensure the safety of all new” food ingredients. It pointed out that companies are allowed to add new ingredients under the GRAS umbrella without reporting it to the FDA. From their six recommendations of steps the FDA should take to improve GRAS oversight, only one was taken. They wanted the FDA to require companies’ submission of basic information from their safety evaluations, including a substance’s identity and use. Dennis Keefe, director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, said it would be sued if it tried to make the testing reports mandatory.
The GRAS loophole in the 1958 law signed by President Eisenhower lets thousands of ingredients get added to foods with little to no FDA oversight, even with substances like lupin that the FDA knows poses danger. The law was intended to exclude common ingredients like vinegar and table salt. With the number of food additives skyrocketing to over 10,000, consumers are now eating foods with added flavors, preservatives and ingredients not reviewed for danger or long-term health effects.
Write and tweet the FDA to protect consumers by fixing the 1997 proposal to the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 as CSPI recommends which allows streamlining the backlogged review process.
Read ingredient lists for yourself and avoid foods with substances under investigation like carrageenan and trans fats. Keep in mind that a food may be labeled zero trans fats and still contain .5 grams. Growing your own foods and avoiding processed ones is the best way to ensure that you are eating safe food.