Dirty Little Secrets Hiding in Our Food

As you walk the aisles of the supermarket, selecting items to check off your grocery list, the basic assumption you make is that the food lining the shelves has been reviewed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and thus safe. You would be mistaken.

The majority of Americans are unaware of the disturbing realities of our food supply and the sweet poisons lurking beneath the surface.

The food we consume on a daily basis is hiding a dirty little secret, and it’s all in the additives. Shockingly, companies are given the authority to review their own ingredients to determine whether they are safe. Due to a legislative loophole that defies logic, companies are able to give their products a stamp of approval without them ever crossing the desk of an FDA official.

Though they have recognized the gaping hole in the system that is supposedly designed to protect the public, the FDA still appears unable to offer a new solution.

“We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” said Michael Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods

“We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” said Michael Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods, in an interview with The Washington Post. “We aren’t saying we have a public health crisis, but we do have questions about whether we can do what people expect of us.”

Generally Recognized as Safe

Under the loophole, known as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, manufacturers are able to deem new additives as safe and bring them to market without providing any unbiased evidence to back up the claims. Although manufacturers are technically required to verify the safety of ingredients through a team of scientific experts, it’s easy for the experts to quickly come to a consensus when they are on the company’s payroll. These “experts” are usually selected by the manufacturers and are given a financial incentive to get the products to market quickly.
Shopping basketIn 1958, the American public was gravely concerned about preservatives and additives in their food, so the first law regulating ingredients added to foods was passed. The law included an approval system that would require manufacturers to submit new ingredients to the FDA for a safety review before the products could hit the shelves. The problem arose when the FDA was consumed with reviews on common ingredients such as table salt and vinegar. Congress did not want the FDA wasting time and resources, so they created the GRAS loophole that allowed companies to bypass the agency and independently prove that their ingredients were safe.

After a manufacturer has completed its GRAS review on a new ingredient, it may either submit the review to the FDA for approval or bring the product directly to market. The FDA’s average approval time on GRAS reviews is two years with some cases taking up to a decade. Therefore, the majority of companies choose to skip this step entirely.

While some argue that no GRAS ingredients have caused any immediate harm, the long-term effects of these additives are concerning. Carrageenan, for example, is commonly added to ice cream and yogurt to provide a thick and creamy texture, but it is also believed to cause long-term gastrointestinal problems.

Perhaps the most well-known case of a GRAS ingredient posing danger is that of hydrogenated oils, or trans fats. Trans fats are typically used to keep foods fresher longer and are commonly found in fried foods, cake mixes and microwavable popcorn. Public health officials have identified artificial trans fats as a direct contributor to heart disease, Type II diabetes and stroke. The FDA is expected to revoke its GRAS status this summer.

“We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” said Michael Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods, in an interview with The Washington Post. “We aren’t saying we have a public health crisis, but we do have questions about whether we can do what people expect of us.”

The FDA has received thousands of complaints over reactions to additives in recent years, reporting everything from asthma to bouts of vomiting. And yet, the number of food additives has increased from 800 to more than 10,000 in the last 50 years. If the FDA is required to individually review and approve every additive, it would stall food innovation.

“Every ingredient that is FDA approved is science/evidenced-based for the majority of the healthy population. Science can take time, though,” says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in St. Petersburg and the national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The FDA’s challenge in policing GRAS ingredients is particularly evident in caffeinated products. Caffeine has been long recognized as safe by the FDA, however many companies have taken advantage of this by adding elevated levels of caffeine to their products and making their own GRAS determinations to bring these products to market. Today, caffeine is found in products one would never expect such as jellybeans and sunflower seeds. Canned alcoholic beverages with added caffeine were linked to several deaths and have since been banned from the market.

By having no strict review system in place, it is nearly impossible for the FDA to monitor the ingredients in any given food product. This makes it impossible to monitor or track the long-term effects that may be associated with these ingredients.

Sweet Poison

Sugar, our favorite sweet poison, is perhaps the largest culprit, lurking in nearly everything we consume at dangerously high levels. It even masquerades on food labels under many different aliases, making it nearly impossible to avoid. For such a sweet little indulgence, it sure has some nasty consequences.

While some claim that food cannot be an addiction because it is a necessity, it has been widely theorized by scientists that sugar and cocaine elicit very similar responses in the brain. When cocaine is processed down to its purest form, it becomes notoriously addictive in nature. This is because it rapidly enters the bloodstream and almost immediately triggers the brain’s reward center. Dopamine is released, and your body is taught that whatever you just did you should do again.

Scientists believe the same thing happens when we eat foods with an artificially high concentration of sugar. Foods riddled with sugar essentially hijack the feeling of pleasure, and it becomes difficult to get that feeling from any other foods.

Almost 100% of rats who are hooked on cocaine chose to switch to sugar when it is introduced

Cardiovascular scientist James DiNicolantonio conducted a number of experiments on rats in relation to the addictive natures of both refined sugar and cocaine. He found that almost 100% of rats who are hooked on cocaine chose to switch to sugar when it is introduced, suggesting that refined sugar is even more addictive that cocaine, at least in rats.

Humans are biologically programmed to seek out sugar. In the Paleolithic Ages, it helped the human body store fat and survive the harsh winters. This pre-programmed neurological response is now particularly dangerous as we are ingesting far more refined sugars than ever before. The more often our brain’s reward center is triggered, the more of the stimulant is required to get the same response.

Fear of GMOs

It’s not just hidden additives and sugars that consumers eat on a daily basis. Many healthy and convenient foods we consume – and feed our children – include genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMOs were first introduced into our food supply in the mid-1990s and are now present in most of our foods. They make up 95% of the nation’s sugar beets, 94% of soybeans, and 88% of feed corn, according to the 2011 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications report. In addition, about 90% of the papaya grown in Hawaii has been modified. While the U.S. is the world’s top food supplier in corn and soybean production, we also produce about 10% of the world’s wheat supply and 30% of the world’s cotton supply.

The promise of genetically modified seeds to farmers guarantees herbicide tolerance. Seeds were designed to survive applications of pesticides on crops, target pests and disease, and withstand extremes, like droughts and rainy weather. Scientists also discovered the modification process could introduce new nutrients and vitamins into foods, making them enriched in the essentials most Americans are lacking in their diets today.

GM seeds have found their way into the food supply around the world, including the U.S., Canada, China, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. To date, there are more than 14 million farmers in 25 countries producing GM crops. That’s an 80-fold increase since 1996 when the seeds were introduced, according to the International Service for the Aquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit that monitors GM crop usage.

GM seeds allow farmers to plant the crops year-round, instead of seasonally, to produce more bushels and foods with enhanced taste, size and color. The feed that grows year-round is ingested by the chicken and cattle, thereby, making its way to the table in the form of red meat, chicken and eggs.

Scientists theorize the added hormones ingested by children in the U.S. consumed through dairy products are contributing to epidemic early onset of puberty in young children as early as age 9.

In addition to GMO’s, the rBGH hormone, developed by Monsanto, is injected into cows to produce more milk and appears in a wide variety of dairy products for adults and children. Scientists theorize the added hormones ingested by children in the U.S. consumed through dairy products are contributing to epidemic early onset of puberty in young children as early as age 9.

Apples to Oranges

Like comparing apples to oranges, the GMO regulations on modified foods in the U.S. and Europe are very different. The European Union is widely regarded as having the strictest GMO regulations in the world. Public attitudes towards genetically altered food, often known as “Frankenstein foods” has become a public campaign. All GMOs and irradiated food is considered on a case-by-case basis through the European Food Safety Authority and must undergo a rigorous review and authorization process before it is allowed. To date, only 49 GMOs have been authorized for use in Europe. Here in the United States, more than 80% of all of our foods – from corn to grain to soybeans – has been modified in some form.

Apple and Orange difference

But how do you know what you’re getting and whether it has been modified? The hard truth is you don’t. There is no truth in advertising when it comes to food. While consumers are bombarded with labels promoting “healthy,” “no additives,” or “made with natural ingredients,” there is no current requirement by FDA to uniformly label all foods that contains GMOs. Genetically engineered foods are ruled as the equivalent to conventionally produced foods by the government. The FDA does not test genetically engineered crops before they are allowed on the market and have ruled that they are no different from other foods and recognized as safe.

Buyers are concerned about the ingredients in their foods and want clearer labels. According to a study by Consumer Reports, 72% of consumers say it is important to avoid GMOs

Buyers are concerned about the ingredients in their foods and want clearer labels. According to a study by Consumer Reports, 72% of consumers say it is important to avoid GMOs, 40% look for GMO claims on packaging and 92% want genetically engineered food to be labeled. Most concerning is that more than 60% of consumers believe seeing the word “natural” on packaging means that GMOs were not used. Biotech seed and chemical giant Monsanto spent millions in elections in California, Colorado and Oregon to defeat initiatives that would have required food labels on all genetically modified foods.

While consumers can now enjoy a bountiful array of foods once only available during select seasons, the hidden dangers of GMOs in the food supply remain unknown. There are no long-term studies that show the effects of the modification process, but the debate over GMO safety continues. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has urged doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for patients, citing examples from human studies that showed a transfer of GMO material in our DNA passing between pregnant women and their unborn fetuses. Numerous health problems including food allergies and disorders like autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems and other illnesses were reported at higher levels after GMOs were introduced in the food supply, but there is not sufficient research to confirm that GMOs are a contributing factor. Regardless of the scientific proof, in a New York Times poll in 2013, almost a quarter of respondents say they believed GMO foods were unsafe to eat or toxic.

In addition to the health consequences of GMOs, the awareness of our food supply has been the subject of several books and movies. In recent years, the spotlight on healthy food from proponents like filmmaker Michael Moore, author Michael Pollan and blogger Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe, has raised awareness about our food system and what exactly we are putting on our plates.

Consequences of Convenience

The technological advancements that propelled the food industry forward have also made calories cheaper and easier than ever before. But making food more plentiful and affordable has come at a high cost — our health.

According to a study of U.S. grocery store purchases, highly processed foods account for more than 60% of the calories in foods. Highly processed foods are defined as those with multi-ingredient, industrially prepared mixtures like chips, cookies, soda, candy, prepared meals and white breads.

Not only are these foods typically higher in fat, sugar and salt than unprocessed food, but they are also stripped of important vitamins, minerals and fiber during processing. Eating processed foods leads to overeating because the food is digested quickly and you do not feel full for nearly as long.

As a whole, Americans are deficient in Vitamins A, D, E and C, folate, magnesium, potassium, calcium and fiber, but over consume sodium and saturated fat. The average American diet does not meet federal recommendations of intake of vegetables, fruits, dairy or whole grains.

Poor nutrition has also led to a dramatic increase in digestive and intestinal issues nationwide. About 70 million Americans suffer from a digestive issue related to poor consumption, 1.3 million have a form of inflammatory bowel disease, and 34% are impacted by metabolic syndrome, which increases a person’s risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. People suffering with these illnesses have bacteria in their intestinal tract, which makes them prone to inflammation and irritation.

Scientists believe that the sudden and dramatic increase in pro-inflammatory stomach bacteria is caused by an environmental factor, more than likely modern additions to the food supply. An experiment was conducted on mice in which they were fed two common additives found in processed foods. The mucus layer that protects the intestines was infiltrated with bacteria that contained a high level of two molecules known to cause the immune system to elicit pro-inflammatory responses. This is strong evidence that additives impact metabolism and may be a key factor in intestinal diseases.

Many have turned to probiotics, which stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the gut, as a solution to their digestive and intestinal troubles. The probiotic market in North America is projected to grow by 7.7% by 2019, to become a $584 million market. With the unprecedented rise of additives and processing in recent years, this is no coincidence.

A government subsidy on healthy foods would certainly help matters. Currently our government subsidizes corn, which makes high fructose corn syrup extremely cheap and has become the secret ingredient in many packaged food items. In our backwards food market, a candy bar is cheaper than a piece of fruit. But if you dig a little deeper, that candy bar has a much higher price.

“Fresh and healthy foods actually do save a lot of money in the long run – on health costs,” says Abigail Dougherty, a registered licensed dietitian and nutritionist in Tampa and the founder of The Soul of Health.

Over the next 10 years, it is estimated that 95% of American adults will be overweight. The obesity epidemic costs us roughly $190 million per year in medical costs, which is more than 10% of the U.S. health care budget, and this number is expected to skyrocket in the near future.

“Every time we shop for our families, we choose what we purchase,” says Krieger. “If we stick with the basics—fruits and vegetables in season, protein foods in as whole a form as possible, whole potatoes, raw rice without seasoning and bread that is as fresh as possible —that is the start to nutritious meals.”

Educate Yourself

Experts agree that the only way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic or foods in their natural state without any additives. Eating whole foods will retrain your brain to crave real foods rather than the salts, sugars and oils that are used in most processed foods.

To avoid GMOs, research a company’s practices, ask questions and read labels. Choose grocery stores like Whole Foods that focus on a bevy of organic options and only sells products that meet their high natural standards without artificial colors, sweeteners, preservatives, and others.

“Every time we shop for our families, we choose what we purchase,” says Krieger. “If we stick with the basics—fruits and vegetables in season, protein foods in as whole a form as possible, whole potatoes, raw rice without seasoning and bread that is as fresh as possible —that is the start to nutritious meals.”

“It is not about being on or off your diet but realizing that it’s trying to eat your best one meal at a time,” Dougherty adds. “I always advise my clients to start adding one fruit or veggie at each meal or snack.”

Naviating our food supply can be overwhelming and labels can often be deceiving, but there are resources available to help you. The USDA National Nutrient Database and the USDA SuperTracker Food-A-Pedia provide unbiased, science-based nutritional information that consumers can rely on, and they’re both available online at no cost.

“We need to start educating ourselves on what we are eating. Being aware of what we are putting in our bodies,” says Dougherty. “Just turning over the box of crackers and checking to see what is in the food. Often people are surprised when they start reading ingredient lists of foods and these foods read more like a science experiment than a recipe.”

By Juliane Beard and Katherine Ferrara Johnson

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