Coalition petitions FDA to ban 8 synthetic flavorings known to cause cancer

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CC BY 2.0 Procsilas Moscas

Eight synthetic flavorings, which have been found to be carcinogenic in animals, should be banned in foods in the U.S., according to a petition filed with the FDA.

Food safety and labeling regulations, which are meant to protect consumers from unknowingly eating substances that are either considered to be toxic or could cause allergic reactions, can sometimes have loopholes in them, essentially allowing food manufacturers to use food additives that are sketchy at best, and dangerous at the worst.

Some labeling regulations, such as those which require the listing of ingredients that may include common food allergens like peanuts, are obvious in their necessity, as anyone with serious food allergies can attest to. But when it comes to food additives such as flavorings, the same level of consumer disclosure is not required, which could mean that some of the foods we eat may contain substances known to be carcinogenic.

As Margaret pointed out recently, the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) loophole allows hundreds of ingredients that may not actually be safe to end up in our food, without any oversight from the FDA. And some of those food additives that are considered to be safe are synthetic flavorings, which are now coming under fire from a group of concerned organizations.

A coalition of leading health and consumer watchdogs, including the NRDC, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Food Safety, the Consumers Union, and others, is calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the use of eight synthetic flavorings in food meant for human consumption. While current regulations require the FDA to prohibit the use of food additives that are known to cause cancer in lab tests on animals, the regulatory loophole keeps both the general public, and the FDA, in the dark about which flavorings, and how much, are added to which food products intended for human consumption.

The petition (PDF) to the FDA seeks two basic actions, including the revocation of a 1964 approval that allowed for seven synthetic flavorings to be added to foods, the removal of a 1975 industry "self-approval" that let an eighth flavoring slip through the loophole, and the enactment of a formal ban on all eight of the flavorings from their use in human foods.

"Consumers are vulnerable, the government isn’t doing its job and the food industry is calling the shots. The FDA should be doing much more to ensure our food is safe, and that should start with obeying the law by banning these synthetic flavorings known to cause cancer in animals, rather than just continuing to let the food industry have its way." - Erik Olson, director of the Health Program at the NRDC

According to the NRDC, each of the flavorings listed on the petition have been found by the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program to cause cancer in animals and humans, and other organizations, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California, have also designated most of these synthetic flavorings as carcinogens.

The following are the synthetic flavorings in question:

  • Benzophenone (also known as diphenylketone)

  • Ethyl acrylate

  • Eugenyl methyl ether (also known as 4-allylveratrole or methyl eugenol)

  • Myrcene (also known as 7-methyl-3-methylene-1,6-octadiene)

  • Pulegone (also known as p-menth-4(8)-en-3-one)

  • Pyridine

  • Styrene

  • Trans,trans-2,4-hexadienal
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