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Humans have been using food additives for millennia. Chinese scholars first wrote about using salt as a food preservative or antibacterial agent in 2700 B.C., but the practice of preserving meat with salt is known to be much older than written language. Turmeric was cultivated as a domestic crop in India before 3000 B.C.; the Egyptians and Sumerians used a variety of spices to preserve food at least that early in history. The Babylonians used vinegar to preserve foods and the use of honey as a food additive is almost as old as humans.

In our modern culture, the terms “food additive” and “preservative” often have a strong negative connotation, but in reality we employ time-honored food additives almost every time we prepare a meal. The food additives we wonder about are those multi-syllabic items that show up in food ingredient lists, but seem more appropriate to a science experiment. Is ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA) really allowed in a bottle of salad dressing? If I swallow it will I grow an extra arm or harm my brain? Isn’t salicylic acid the same as aspirin-why is it in my root beer? And sucralose is just sugar, so no worries there, right?

According to the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition ( the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees “...all domestic and imported food sold in interstate commerce, including shell eggs, but not meat and poultry” as well as reviewing food additives and coloring agents, developing use guidelines, inspecting facilities and more. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps an eye on meat and poultry and the processed products made from them such as frozen meals or canned stew, as well as processed egg products. The USDA also has responsibility for inspecting slaughter and processing plants and establishing production standards for additives and other ingredients used in preparing and packaging meat and poultry products. And, not to be left out, the duties of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include the regulation of pesticides and setting tolerance levels for pesticide residues in food. Our food oversight system sounds like alphabet soup and is sometimes accused of being as sloppy!

The FDA grew out of the government’s Division of Chemistry, which was started in 1862 as a part of the (then) Department of Agriculture. Food industry leaders began advocating for laws against the adulteration of food soon after and in 1879 the head of the Division of Chemistry first proposed legislation that would make it a crime to tamper with food. At that time, states had widely differing laws about food production and enforcement was sporadic. Chemical additives and coloring agents were virtually uncontrolled; sanitation was almost non-existent in some processing plants. When Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle exposed the horrendous conditions in meat packing plants, Federal food safety legislation was quickly passed. The Food and Drugs Act of 1906 gave the renamed Bureau of Chemistry the power to mandate inspections, perform chemical analyses and create regulations. The legislation was broadly worded and difficult to enforce and the difficult times of the Depression would eventually shine a spotlight on the failures of the law. In 1927 the Bureau of Chemistry became the Federal Food, Drug and Insecticide Administration following a reorganization that separated research from enforcement duties; in 1931 it was renamed the Food and Drug Administration. Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a revision ofthe Food and Drugs Act very soon after his first inauguration as President. The new Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was signed into law five years later. The “...Addition of poisonous substances to foods was prohibited except where unavoidable or requiredin production. Safe tolerances were authorized for residues of such substances, for example pesticides,” according the CFSAN website. Amendments were added in 1954, 1958 and 1960 that covered investigating the safety of chemical pesticides, food additives and food coloring agents. This was really the first time that the law specifically required that substances be tested for safety before they were used in the food supply. The 1958 legislation created four legal categories of additives other than pesticides and animal drugs; the legal language according to the FDA’s website is:

  • Food additives--substances that have no proven track record of safety and must be approved by the FDA before they can be used.
  • Generally recognized as safe (GRAS)--substances for which use in food has a proven track record of safety based either on a history of use before 1958 or on published scientific evidence, and that need not be approved by the FDA prior to being used.
  • Prior-sanctioned--substances that were assumed to be safe by either the FDA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture before 1958, to be used in a specific food. (For example, while the preservative nitrate can be used in meat because it was sanctioned before 1958, it cannot be used on vegetables because they were not covered by the prior sanction.)
  • Color additives--dyes that are used in foods, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices and must be approved by the FDA before they can be used.

The fact that the FDA allows certain substances in the GRAS and prior-sanctioned categories to be grandfathered in does not guarantee that those substances are safe, it just indicates that they have been commonly used-some for many decades-without major or obvious problems. It is interesting to note that while the FDA actually approves new additives and sometimes restricts their use to certain foods or consumer populations, the manufacturer does the actual testing. Long periods of animal tests are common; human tests happen less often. There is a provision that allows the FDA to revoke any item’s status or require additional testing by the manufacturer if situations arise which question the safety of any additive. The FDA can also require manufacturers to monitor products on an ongoing basis after approval.

One other significant proviso of the 1958 legislation became known as the Delaney Clause, named after the Congressman who chaired the legislation. The Delaney Clause stated that no additive could be considered safe if it had been found to cause cancer in humans or laboratory animals; these substances could not receive FDA approval. Curiously, the Delaney Clause only regulated cancer-causing agents, mostly pesticide residues, in processed foods, but not in raw foods.

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by changing the EPA’s evaluation and regulation of pesticides. The way pesticides used for food commodities are now assessed requires “reasonable certainty of no harm.”


Pesticide residues in our food supply are certainly cause for concern; their use is known to be a health hazard to agricultural workers and their families as well as to consumers and the environment. But what about the strange-sounding additives that show up on the labels of packaged foods? While purists look for products with no additives at all, many health experts tell us that some of those ominous sounding ingredients may not be all that bad, but others are more suspicious. The FDA maintains a database of more than 3,000 food additives called EAFUS or Everything Added to Food in the United States ( It is impossible to cover them all here, but let’s take a look at some of the more familiar substances.


Artificial sweeteners have long been on the list of additives to avoid and the FDA has banned a few in the past 50 years; cyclamate may be the most recognized. Cyclamate was banned in 1970 after being identified as a cause of bladder cancer; cyclamate may also intensify the effects of other carcinogens. Consumers can buy hundreds of products containing saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame-K. All of these artificial sweeteners have been linked to cancer in lab animals; aspartame seems to cause migraine headaches in many people. Sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda, is the newest artificial sweetener and has been added to more than 4,500 products since it was first approved for food use in 1991 by the Canadian government. In 1976, scientists were working to formulate a new pesticide and discovered that replacing three hydroxyl groups in a sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms yielded an end product that was 600 times sweeter than sugar. Experts seem to be divided about its safety and several tests have had inconclusive results; it should be noted that there have been no long-term human studies done by the manufacturer and independent studies have lasted no longer than six months and included no more than 128 people. In laboratory tests, extremely high doses of sucralose had a detrimental effect on the thymus gland of rats; a Duke University study performed on rats also found that very high consumption of sucralose resulted in a decrease in healthy gut bacteria and an increase in intestinal pH levels and body weight.

If you are looking for a sugar substitute you may want to read up on the herb stevia. Stevia has been used as a sweetener by indigenous societies for centuries, but the FDA, ignoring its own definition for GRAS substances, banned stevia in 1991, but then approved it as a supplement in 1994. In December 2008, the FDA seemed to reverse itself again and gave GRAS approval to rebiana, a stevia-based sweetener used in two new products: Cargill manufactures Truvia in partnership with Coca-Cola, which uses it in sugar-free drinks including Odwalla juices; PureVia is made by Whole Earth Sweetener Company and initially marketed to PepsiCo for use in SoBe Lifewaters and Trop50 orange juice. Health and nutrition experts seem to remain divided in their opinions of stevia.


Preservatives are another controversial category of additives. Some, like salt, sugar or vinegar are relatively benign unless you have a chronic disease like hypertension or diabetes. Many preservatives commonly used in processed foods have shadier reputations. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are often found in cereals, crackers, breads, shortenings, and a wide range of mixes. In high doses BHA appears to promote cancer, even though it seems to act as an antioxidant at lower doses; the FDA limits the amount of BHA that a food can contain. BHT is responsible for allergic reactions in some people and often irritates the liver and kidneys; it may convert to a carcinogen in the body. BHT has been banned in Britain; the FDA gives it GRAS classification.

Propyl gallate

Propyl gallate is a preservative used with fats and oils. A recent Italian study identified it as a xenoestrogen and recommended it be used cautiously; xenoestrogens are synthetic chemicals that act like estrogen in the body. They have been implicated in breast cancer and as a cause of low sperm counts in men. Propyl gallate is often used in combination with BHA and BHT and is on the GRAS list.

Sodium benzoate and benzoic acid

Sodium benzoate and benzoic acid have been used as preservatives since the beginning of the twentieth century and are among the safest preservatives, though not without negative effects for some people. They have been implicated in allergic reactions in a small percentage of people. Sodium benzoate may have a negative effect on behavior in some children who have ADHD. Since the early 1990’s the FDA has recommended that sodium benzoate not be paired with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). Mixing the two in an acidic solutioncan result in the formation of small amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen.

Calcium and sodium propionate

Calcium and sodium propionate are preservatives that prevent mold in baked goods. They occur naturally in butter and cheese. These additives have been used for decades and are considered safe.

Sodium nitrate and nitrite

Sodium nitrate and nitrite are used as preservatives and coloring agents, most often in processed meats. They are effective against botulism-before the days of refrigeration and freezing they were used extensively for that reason-and also maintain the color of bacon, ham, hot dogs, bologna and similar products. When sodium nitrite mixes with naturally occurring protein amines in the body, nitrosamines, which are potent carcinogens, are formed. Most experts now recommend avoiding the consumption of nitrates and nitrites, even though the FDA still allows their use.

Potassium bromate

Potassium bromate is used as a dough improver and conditioner. It helps bread to rise higher and gives it a finer crumb. Bromate is a known animal carcinogen and has been banned everywhere in the world except the U.S. and Japan, although the FDA does limit its use in this country.

Artificial colors

Artificial colors are widely used in snack foods, candy, beverages, gelatin desserts, breakfast cereals and similar foods that are appealing to-and often marketed to-children. Many artificial coloring agents are allergens and have been implicated in learning and behavior disorders. Allergic reactions can range from fatigue or simply feeling unwell to skin rashes and breathing difficulties including asthma. Artificial colors have often been suspected as carcinogens; some of the worst are known to cause cancerous tumors in lab animals. On product labels, artificial colors are usually listed as “FD&C Red No.40” or Yellow No. 3. The “FD&C” used with a color and number indicates that the color has been certified by the FDA, in accordance with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Red 40 is used more than any other coloring agent; the FDA has said that evidence against its use has not been consistent, though the National Cancer Institute has labeled one of its components as a carcinogen. Yellow 5 is second in usage, it is known to cause mild allergic reactions. If you have a sensitivity to aspirin Yellow 5 should be avoided. The third most widely used dye is Yellow 6. Results from industry testing implicated Yellow 6 as a cause of tumors in the kidneys and adrenal glands in animals, but the FDA approved its use as a food additive for humans. Studies of Blue 1 and Blue 2 indicate that both may pose health risks, but the since the proof was not conclusive, both dyes are approved for food use. Following a 1983 review the FDA said there was “convincing” evidence that Red 3 caused thyroid tumors in lab rats and recommended a ban. That recommendation was overturned by the Reagan administration. Red 3 is used mainly in fruit cocktail, candy and bakery items. Many experts recommend avoiding all artificial colors if possible. Read the labels on processed foods and treats and consider choosing those with natural colors. Some natural colors are made in laboratories-beta-carotene used as a coloring agent is almost always manufactured-many come from plants or minerals, some from fungi or insects. There are no FDA-approved natural sources for blue or green colors. Carmine and cochineal are two natural colorings that are used for red, pink and purple hues; although some people experience allergic reactions of varying intensities, carmine and cochineal are thought to be quite safe for most of us. Cochineal is derived from an insect, which makes it an additive that many vegetarians choose to avoid.

Ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid

And what about the EDTA or ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid in your salad dressing or soda? EDTA is a chelating agent widely used in cosmetics and carbonated beverages for its sequestering properties, which simply means that it bonds with metal particles to prevent them from bonding with your body. In salad dressings and other condiments EDTA also acts as a preservative. While the Center for Science in the Public Interest ( considers this to be a completely safe additive other sources aren’t as convinced. According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives by Ruth Winter, M.S., EDTA can cause irritation to skin and mucous membranes, and other allergic reactions including asthma. Ms. Winter also states that consumption of EDTA can sometimes cause false results in lab tests. According to Elson M. Haas, M.D. author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition, EDTA may cause depletion of the body’s stores of copper and zinc, or upset their proportions in the body. Conversely, he says that EDTA may be somewhat helpful for people suffering from metal toxicity. In any case, the FDA has imposed limits on how EDTA is used.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is indeed the basis of aspirin and is also a component of the food coloring Yellow 5 and used as a preservative. It occurs naturally in several plants. In high doses it can cause side effects including stomach pain, nausea, vomiting or skin rashes, but the amounts added to food are considered safe except for people sensitive to salicylates, including those used to make aspirin.

Enjoy the goodness

The freedom to choose foods that are free of chemical additives is something that Co-op shoppers relish. And this month marks the point of summer when the best “free” foods-locally grown produce-are showcased at the Co-op in great variety and abundance. While we take pride in always having excellent organic produce available, it is our local farmers and their hard work that really contribute the maximum “deliciousness” factor. From berries, basil, and beans to eggplant, summer squash and new potatoes, the racks in the Produce aisle are beginning to overflow! Tomatoes, peppers, corn and melons will quickly follow, and before you know it the fall harvest will begin to roll in. Every bit of it is completely free of any additives or coloring agents.

When you move into other areas of the store you will find other “free” local choices, including milk, tofu, meat, cheese and bakery items. There’s granola, crackers, bread, salsa, pesto and pasta-and let’s not forget the ice cream and locally made chocolates!

This is a great time of year to celebrate freedom in Wisconsin-especially foods free of anything except goodness!