Although consumers probably assume that a federal agency guarantees the safety of ingredients in the food supply, in reality this is not the case.
First of all, many additives have not been thoroughly tested. And the vast majority of food additive safety testing is done by food manufacturers (or people hired by manufacturers), not by the government or independent labs. Second, due to a loophole in the law, companies can declare on their own that an additive is “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS), and begin adding it to food without even informing the government. These ingredients must be listed on the labels, although in some cases they appear simply as "artificial flavorings." The infographic shows the complex process that the food industry follows.
Some additives go through a more formal government approval process, but even that is no guarantee of safety. There are approved additives that have been shown in subsequent independent studies to harm health, and they are in the “Avoid” category in Chemical Cooking. But the FDA rarely reviews the safety of additives (including GRAS substances) once they enter the food supply.
The chemical and food industries have said for decades that all food additives are well tested and safe. And most additives are safe. However, the history of food additives is littered with additives that, after many years of use, pose health risks. The moral of the story is that when someone says that all food additives are well tested and safe, they should take their warranties with care.
A guide to know what we are talking about
It is used to make food more acidic for taste, preservation, or other purposes.
Slow down the oxidation of unsaturated fats and oils, coloring and flavoring. Oxidation leads to rancidity, flavor changes, and loss of color. Most of these effects are caused by the reaction of oxygen in the air with fats.
It is a chemical agent or other agent that causes cancer in animals or humans.
Traps traces of metal atoms that would otherwise make food discolored or rancid.
Keep the oil and water mixed.
They have little or no flavor of their own, but accentuate the natural flavor of foods. They are often used when there is very little of a natural ingredient present.
They are natural or chemically modified carbohydrates that absorb part of the water present in food, which makes food more dense. Thickening agents "stabilize" factory-made foods by keeping complex mixtures of oils, water, acids, and solids well mixed.
Chemicals are generally tested for their ability to cause cancer when large doses are given to small numbers of rats and mice. Large doses are used to make up for the small number of animals that can be used (a few hundred is considered a large study, although it is small compared to the US population of more than 300 million).
Additionally, large doses can offset the possibility that rodents may be less sensitive to a particular chemical than humans (as was the case with thalidomide). Some people claim that such tests are inadequate and that large amounts of any chemical could cause cancer. That is not true. Large amounts of most chemicals do not cause cancer. When a large dose causes cancer, most scientists believe that a smaller amount would also cause cancer, but less often.
It would be nice if lower and more realistic doses could be used, but a test using low doses and a small number of animals would be remarkably insensitive. It would also be nice if tests were developed in test tubes that don't use any animals that can inexpensively and accurately identify cancer-causing chemicals. While some progress has been made in that direction, these tests have not proven to be reliable.
Therefore, the standard high-dose cancer test in small numbers of animals is currently the only practical and reasonably reliable way to identify food additives (and other chemicals) that could cause cancer. Ideally, faster, cheaper and more reliable tests that do not involve animals will be developed in the coming years.
The Delaney Clause is an important part of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in the United States. That important consumer protection clause specifically prohibits any additive that "is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal." The chemical and food industries have tried, but so far have failed, to weaken or repeal that law.
With information from CSPINET (in English)