EDF Health

Did your kids have a hyper holiday? Why those vibrantly colored treats need a warning label

Terry Hyland, Communications Manager

Many parents have experienced that foreboding sense of what might come next as they watch their child indulge in a decadent treat at a holiday gathering or birthday party. All that sugar means things are about to get a little crazy, right?

While sugar has its own issues, perhaps the source of that burst of hyperactivity is another ingredient: the synthetic dyes that brighten many of our sweet treats, and many of the not-so-sweet ones too.

Last year, California government scientists at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) released a report finding that commonly used synthetic food dyes can lead to hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems in children, with some reacting very strongly to relatively small amounts of colorants. Children’s exposure is also higher compared to adults.

That stands to reason. According to OEHHA, the most common food items associated with food dye exposures include icings, fruit-flavored and juice drinks, sodas, and breakfast cereals. And it is not only the more than 6 million children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that may be particularly sensitive to synthetic dyes; kids without pre-existing behavioral disorders can also be affected. Read More »

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Broken GRAS: It’s time for FDA to wake up and protect consumers from dubious ingredients

Maricel Maffini, consultant and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

This blog is the third in our Broken GRAS series where we explore how the Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) voluntary notification system for novel chemicals added to food works in practice and why it is broken.

In this blog, we examine another voluntary GRAS notice submitted to the FDA, this one for Venetron, an extract of Apocynum venetum leaves. It is marketed for sleep improvement and anti-stress and used as a dietary supplement and food ingredient. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that FDA scientists raised safety concerns about Venetron. Under the broken GRAS system, however, the company that manufactures the ingredient was able to withdraw its notification and continue to market the chemical as GRAS, despite the questions raised by the agency.

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Japanese company Tokiwa Phytochemical (Tokiwa) voluntarily notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August 2014 that it had determined its extract of Apocynum venetum leaves was Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The extract, called Venetron, would be an “ingredient in food” at levels up to 100 mg per day, the company said in the notice (GRN 530). Tokiwa indicated that Venetron could be incorporated into “health food product[s], such as tablet[s] or capsule[s],” but did not identify specific foods to which the substance might be added.

In support of its GRAS determination, the company presented results of preclinical and clinical investigations that examined the safety of the extract in mice and healthy adult male volunteers. They also reported data on the effectiveness of Venetron to treat individuals with mild depression. It convened a panel of three experts ‒ Drs. Veronika Butterweck (Univ. of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland), Sansei Nishibe (Health Sciences Univ. of Hokkaido), and Kuo-Hsiung Lee (Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill) ‒ to review the studies, as well as a “history of human intake” of Rafuma [another name for A. venetum] leaf extract and its use as a dietary supplement in Japan and as a drug in China to treat insomnia, kidney disease, hypertension and heart palpitations.

Tokiwa said the panel “unanimously concluded that VENETRON™, when used in foods in general at levels providing a daily total intake of 100mg/person/day, is safe,” and that the GRAS determination was based on “scientific procedures supported by a history of safe use.” Read More »

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Broken GRAS: Scientists’ safety concerns are hampered by FDA’s inactions on food chemicals

Maricel Maffini, consultant, and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

A federal district court this fall ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to allow food companies to make Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) safety determinations for novel chemicals added to food without notifying the agency. The decision followed a lawsuit by EDF and others, in which we challenged this practice. The court agreed, in part, with FDA that an uptick in companies voluntarily choosing to send notices to the agency since the 2016 rule went in effect was a sign that the program was working.  We disagree with the court’s conclusion but opted not to appeal.

This blog is the second in our Broken GRAS series where we explore how the voluntary notification system works in practice and why it is broken. The first dealt with a synthetic chemical called apoaequorin and marketed as Prevagen, a chemical found in jellyfish and used in protein shakes. The company claims the substance helps memory, but FDA has repeatedly raised serious questions about its safety. Despite the agency’s concerns the company continues to sell the product as GRAS. 

In this blog, we examine another voluntary GRAS notice, this one for GABA, a neurotransmitter naturally produced in the brain and known to slow down certain nervous system activities. It is marketed as a food ingredient despite FDA’s serious concerns with the notice that prompted the company to withdraw it. The agency does not make such information publicly available. We were able to learn of FDA’s concerns through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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Companies have the option to voluntarily notify FDA when they determine that a use of a new chemical or a new use of an existing chemical is Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS. When they do notify FDA, agency scientists then review the data and supporting information and can ask additional questions. In most of the cases, FDA agrees with the company’s determination and publishes a “no questions” letter. In roughly 20% of cases, however, companies ask the agency to stop the process after receiving the scientists’ questions. FDA then stops its review and announces a “cease to evaluate” status in the GRAS notification inventory, and that’s the end of it. There is no public record of as to why the company withdrew the notice. In some cases, a brief summary is included in the agency’s response to the cease to evaluate letter published in its website. The company is free to market and sell the substance if it still believes the chemical’s use is GRAS.

This happened with gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). As you will see, the GABA case is a prime example of the 1) importance of FDA’s scientific review of safety data, and 2) profound implications for health risks when the agency takes no action in response to safety concerns raised by its own experts. A product with the safety concerns we describe below warrants closer examination, regardless of its current market share. Where serious health effects are found, it is important for FDA to act quickly before a specialty product like this one becomes more popular, and its health risks amplified. Read More »

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Eight steps to strengthen FDA’s Closer to Zero plan to reduce toxic metals in children’s food

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals

EDF this week submitted comments to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), applauding the agency’s recent activities related to its Closer to Zero Action Plan for reducing toxic elements in children’s food and outlining specific steps to strengthen the FDA’s action.

The agency’s November 18 public meeting on the action plan included excellent presentations by scientists as well as an extended public comment period and an opportunity to provide written follow-up comments. We also appreciate the December 1 colloquium focusing on the latest evidence showing the significant risks posed by arsenic to the development of children’s nervous and immune systems.

Our primary takeaways from these meetings are that:

  • There is an urgent need for FDA and industry to do more to reduce lead, arsenic, and cadmium levels in food that children eat, given the evidence that there are no safe levels of exposure;
  • FDA faces a challenge in effectively communicating to the public about the risks from even relatively low-level, short-term exposure to lead and arsenic;
  • Folic acid and iron play an important role in reducing – but not eliminating – the harm from these toxic elements; and
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) play a critical supporting role in the overall effort to protect children from these toxic elements.

The Closer to Zero plan is a step forward because it commits FDA to specific actions and general deadlines for the first time. In our comments, we identify eight areas for improvement with specific suggestions for each that we think the agency can and should adopt to strengthen its efforts. These are:

  • Reduce the maximum daily intake level / IRL for lead from 3 to 2 µg per day for children and from 12.5 to 9 µg per day for adults as the next step towards the Closer to Zero goal.
  • Reverse the flawed practice of evaluating lead content of each food in isolation and allowing those with high levels to remain in commerce. Instead, FDA should focus on comparing the product to other lot numbers or private brand to its competitors as recommended by 22 state attorneys general.
  • Release the Total Diet Study results for 2018-19 cycle and investigate outliers.
  • Define “as low as possible” based on best performing ingredients or products in a class.
  • Define “children’s food” to include foods commonly consumed by children younger than six years of age.
  • Be consistent on public health messaging and avoid phrases like “no immediate health hazard.”
  • Move up deadlines for arsenic and cadmium action levels.
  • Add milestone for compliance verification with action levels and preventive controls.

We look forward to continuing to work with FDA to ensure that levels of toxic metals in children’s food really do get closer to zero.

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FDA and industry continue to ignore cumulative effects of chemicals in the diet

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made no apparent progress to comply with the legal requirement that it consider the cumulative effect of chemicals in the diet that have similar health impacts when evaluating the safety of an additive. A year ago, on September 23, 2020, EDF and 11 other organizations[1] filed a formal petition with the agency documenting the problem and asking it begin complying with the law.

We reviewed FDA and industry actions since the petition was filed and found that both continued to ignore the requirement 100% of the time in:

  • Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notices in which companies were required to consider the cumulative effect as part of their determination that a substance’s use was safe;
  • FDA’s responses to those GRAS notices where it found “no questions” with the flawed safety determinations; and
  • FDA’s revised guidance to industry on use of recycled plastics in food packaging.

The agency’s only response to our petition was a March 2021 letter saying it “has not reached a decision due to competing priorities” and that the “petition is currently under active evaluation by [its] staff.”

From what we can see, FDA and industry continue to make safety determinations about chemical additives without regard to their overall effect on individuals’ health and their legal obligations. Is it any surprise that consumers continue to rate chemicals in food their #1 food safety concern? Read More »

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Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The latest annual food industry survey demonstrates that U.S. consumers continue to have significant concerns about chemicals in food. Specifically, the survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found:

  • 29% of consumers rated chemicals in food as their top food safety concern, more than any other issue, including foodborne illness from bacteria. Everyone rated chemicals in food among the top three concerns. Chemicals in food has been the top concern every year since 2017, tying risk from COVID-19 from food last year. It has been a significant concern back to the first IFIC Food and Health Survey in 2009.
  • 69% of consumers did not realize that the U.S. government is responsible for reviewing the safety of low-calorie sweeteners, which are among the most well-known food additives.
  • 54% of consumers reported it is important that ingredients do not have “chemical-sounding names” including 26% that rate it “very important.” Their opinion is primarily based on food safety and healthfulness concerns.

Our takeaway is that consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in food, partly because they are not confident that the federal government is actually ensuring additives are safe. Therefore, they do their best to try and protect their health and safety by avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals – the only way they see to control the perceived risk. In reaction to consumer concerns, food companies have undertaken “clean label” programs that either remove these ingredients (which can be helpful) or use names that do not sound like chemicals (which obscure the fact and can be misleading).

A better approach is to actually ensure the chemicals in food are safe and healthy rather than leaving consumers to judge products based on the sound of the ingredient names. Actual safety is the outcome that Congress intended when it adopted the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency with both the responsibility and the authority for food safety, allows companies to decide in secret that additives are safe, fails to consider the cumulative health effect of chemicals in the diet, and lacks any systematic reassessment of past decisions even when new evidence shows potential harm.

FDA needs to step up and address these shortcomings to make our food safe and restore consumer confidence. This involves not only improving its approach to addressing ingredient safety but also their approach towards contaminants that enter our food from the environment, from the packaging, or from food processing.

Read More »

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