Packaged and processed foods are notoriously bad for a lot of reasons but especially because of all the chemicals used in their production. A recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found thousands of untested chemicals in packaged foods (1).
EWG is a public and environmental nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC. According to their report, the amount of untested chemicals in packaged foods is around 2,000 and they are all legal. Some of them include known carcinogens according to the World Health Organization (2) such as synthetic sodium nitrate. Others, like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), are listed as cancer-causing chemicals by the state of California and commonly used in items like frozen pepperoni pizza(3).
In addition, the food’s packaging itself is also chock-full of dangerous chemicals to both our health and the environment – bisphenol A, sulfuric acid, polypropylene are just a few examples.
Outdated Policy on Food Additives
According to Dawn Undurraga, a co-author of the study and a nutritionist at EWG, people react to news like these differently. “It really depends on what level of risk consumers are comfortable with. The more we learn about what is in conventional foods, the more evidence for concern we accumulate.”
Another example she cites, confirmed by independent laboratory tests, is that every sample of conventional oats included glyphosate, a suspected carcinogen (4).
A lot of the reason this is happening is that the laws that are supposed to protect us from abuse of power in the manufacturing process are woefully outdated.
“Unfortunately, our current policy on food additives was written in 1958 and has been completely co-opted by food and chemical companies,” Undurraga said. “Additives that are deemed ‘Generally Recognized as Safe,’ or GRAS, by a food or chemical company or trade association are exempt from the food additive petition process where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews the safety of the additive.”
The counterpoint to all these concerns is that while there are dangerous chemicals present in virtually all packaged foods, their quantities are negligible and can’t cause any immediate harm.
Originally, this GRAS exemption was created to cover ingredients widely known to be safe, like vinegar, but with advancements in food science, the provision has been applied to thousands of chemicals. As a result, questionable substances have been allowed into a host of conventional foods. In 2017, EWG joined several other public health groups to file a lawsuit against the FDA in an effort to eliminate the GRAS loophole. (5)
“Rather than close the loophole, the FDA has instead allowed companies to voluntarily notify the agency about food chemicals and to allow companies to summarize the industry science supporting their conclusions,” reads the EWG study, elucidating that many scientists who conduct these reviews have been paid by the industry. Plus, the FDA does not subsequently review underlying biological and chemical data, leaving consumers to literally do the dirty work.
“Consumers shouldn’t have to be toxicologists to be able to grab something at the grocery store that doesn’t contain questionable or dangerous ingredients,” Undurraga says.
Even so, toxicology literacy won’t help in the frozen food aisle. According to Undurraga, there are absolutely no defining signs on food packaging to indicate that any of the 2,000 synthetic chemicals approved for use in food are present in that specific item.
How To Avoid Potentially Dangerous Additives
One way to minimize exposure to these chemicals is to purchase certified organic packaged foods and look at EWG’s Food Scores, which measure nutrition, ingredient and processing concerns in more than 80,000 common foods, from frozen vegetables and baby food to packaged nuts, berries and grains across hundreds of popular brands. Another thing to look at is EWG’s Dirty Dozen List of Food Additives, which ranks the worst food additives common in U.S. supermarket food and where you’ll likely encounter them, like potassium bromate in packaged loaves of bread and propylparaben in packaged tortillas and muffins.
If additives don’t have you worried enough about what we’re legally permitted to consume, know that pesticides, found to be carcinogenic and also severely damaging to the environment, are still more than prevalent alongside the packaged food chemicals at your grocery store.
Each year, EWG reviews the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pesticide residue tests on conventional produce. “Last year, nearly 70 percent of conventionally grown produce was contaminated with pesticide residues,” says Undurraga. “This is especially concerning for pregnant women and small children.”
Organic Foods Have More Rigorous Standards
Organic packaged food and organic produce are typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts, but you’re paying for more rigorous additive standards and investing in your long-term health and the health of the environment. Currently, fewer than 40 synthetic ingredients are permitted in organic packaged foods — and this is only after each chemical has been reviewed by both independent and government experts (6).
Beyond opting for organic packaged goods when going the pre-made route, consumers can elect to buy organic versions of fruits and vegetables whose conventional counterparts have made EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list, which calls out those conventionally grown items found with the most pesticide residue: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
On the flip side, consumers can opt for conventional versions of the produce items that are listed on EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” — those with relatively little pesticide residue: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew melons.
Pressure on the government to make packaged food actually safe to eat is necessary to enact change. And with so little information readily available about what we’re actually eating when these chemicals aren’t disclosed, keeping up with research by independent groups like the EWG remains imperative to educate consumers.
Ignorance may bring peace of mind to grocery shoppers, but as more information about the hazards in our daily food purchases comes to light, it’s likely we’ll see more consumer pushback against dangerous practices that have become the norm.