FDA bans cryptically-labeled carcinogenic compounds


Just in time to lend Halloween festivities a bitter twist, the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month banned seven artificial additives widely used to flavor processed foods including candies, baked goods, booze, soda, and gum. It all started with a first-of-its-kind 2016 petition and resulting lawsuit from a coalition of public health and environmental groups. Based on independent tests that showed the flavors were causing cancer in laboratory animals, the Center for Food Safety, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Working Group, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice in May 2018 asked a court to order the FDA to make a final decision about banning the offending agents. The resulting regulatory decision is widely considered a win for consumers.  

The petition drew on the decades-old Delaney Clause, an amendment to the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act of 1958 that stipulates that if a substance is found to cause cancer in humans or animals, then it cannot be used as a food additive. Caroline Cox, senior scientist with the Center for Environmental Health, explains that Congressman James Delaney of New York proposed the amendment due to personal circumstances—his wife was dying of cancer and he didn’t want the rest of the country to suffer the same fate. “There’s something so beautiful, so simple about this rule,” Cox says. “If tests show that something causes cancer, then don’t put it in our food.”  

Now, the FDA  is giving food manufacturers 24 months to fully phase out the offending flavors and reformulate their packaged snacks and drinks—which means that in the meantime, we should all remain vigilant about the carcinogenic additives likely lurking in packaged treats.

The newly prohibited synthetic compounds—benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether, myrcene, pulegone, pyridine, and styrene—are used to help mimic natural flavors like mint, cinnamon, and garlic. What’s most scary about them is that you can’t simply memorize this list and scan food labels for those additives. That’s because none of those words are typically included on ingredient lists, as they fall under the umbrella of proprietary “artificial flavors” that manufacturers don’t have to release. As a result, it’s impossible to know how widely these flavors have been used, or in which products. During its investigation, the FDA concluded that the substances are “typically” used “in very small amounts” and that their use “results in very low levels of exposures and low risk.”

“There’s something so beautiful, so simple about this rule. If tests show that something causes cancer, then don’t put it in our food.”

“If you see ‘artificial flavor’ written on a product, it’s a sign it may contain any among the seven artificial flavors that were recently banned,” says Caleb Backe, a wellness expert with Maple Holistics in Los Angeles, who explains that such flavors tend to form carcinogenic compounds when combined with other vitamins and minerals in the body. “Artificial flavors are not a natural source of nutrition, and therefore they do not react with the body in the same way that other nutrients do,” he says. “During the next two years, it’s important to read ingredient labels and avoid these—they’ll usually be at the bottom of the list.”

Cox adds, “There’s so much proprietary trade-secret information about flavoring, it’s frustrating for consumers.” She also recommends sticking entirely clear of artificial flavors—and being wary of flavors listed as “natural,” too. “It’s a really fuzzy distinction, because maybe the flavors started out natural, but they often aren’t once they end up in your food. So look for snacks that don’t have added flavors, that contain ingredients that are flavorful enough to begin with.”

Why do food manufacturers use so many artificial flavors? Backe explains that breaking flavors down into their chemical components is cheaper than sourcing the real thing. “So as suppliers look to replace artificial flavors with either legal chemical replacements or their natural flavorings, we may be seeing small increases of food product prices,” he says.

Ryan Talbott, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety, hopes the FDA’s recent decision paves the way for consumers to ask the larger fundamental question of why so many flavors and foods don’t have to be properly listed. “This petition process shows a way forward for making similar changes. Because the more the public knows about what’s in the food they eat and the beverages they drink, the better off we all are.”

“Consumers’ awareness is increasing all the time, and this is just part of that larger trend,” Cox says. “More and more, I think people just want real food.”