FDA Bans Trans Fats - More Chemicals to Consider?

Trans fats are a good first step, but many food safety advocates are looking for a bigger leap.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that food companies have three years to phase out the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of artificial trans fats in processed foods, from their products. Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to label any trans fat present in food products, and both companies and consumers have been shifting away from products containing these fats. The FDA's announcement underlies the point that trans fats are unsafe at any levels. Trans fats contribute to coronary heart disease, and the FDA asserts their elimination from foods will save thousands of lives every year. The agency's move to ban trans is welcome news for public health proponents, but there are a number of other potentially unsafe food and chemical additives that food and product safety advocates would like to see taken out of goods sold for consumer use. Chances are you can find many of these chemicals in products in your kitchen or bathroom.

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Bisphenol A (BPA) is a frequently used component in polycarbonate drink bottles and metal can coatings, and so traces of BPA inevitably end up in the container's contents over time. The overwhelming majority of Americans in fact have traces of BPA in their bloodstream. BPA is an endocrine disruptor and mimics the hormone estrogen. Even in low doses, BPA has been linked to various diseases and conditions, including

breast cancer


prostate cancer


birth defects

and more, according to several studies. Over the last few years, the FDA amended its regulations to no longer allow for the use of BPA in baby bottle, sippy cups and infant formula packaging. The move, however, came not out of safety concerns, but because the industry already phased out use of the compound in these products due to consumer demand. BPA is still present in other food packaging, however.

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In 2012, high school student Sarah Kavanagh of Hattiesburg, Miss.

launched an online petition

calling for the removal brominated vegetable oil (BVOs), an ingredient she discovered after reading the label of her Gatorade bottle, from soft drinks. BVO, patented as a flame retardant, acts as an emulsifier in drinks, evenly distributing flavoring throughout the contents. The compound has already been banned in the European Union, Japan and India. Last year, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo committed to removing BVO from their product lines, though both companies stood by the safety of the ingredient. In laboratory studies, BVO has been linked to impaired neurological development and reduced fertility, among other health issues.

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Potassium bromate contains a familiar compound, bromine, which also appears in BVO. The compound is used as a food additive in pizza dough, chips and other baked goods. Potassium bromate has been banned in foods in the European Union, China, Canada, Brazil and other nations. U.S. food companies and the FDA, however, maintain that it is safe to use as a food additive, because it converts to harmless potassium bromide during the baking process. The food additive has been shown to cause thyroid, kidney and other cancers in mice. While it's true that no potassium bromate should be present in a finished product, some food items aren't baked long enough or at high-enough temperatures to remove all of the potentially toxic compound,

as reported by LiveScience


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Known as the "yoga mat" compound, in part due to a campaign by a popular food blogger, azodicarbonamide (ADA) is more than an mouthful both figuratively and literally given that it appears in nearly 500 foods and over 130 brands of bread,

according to a report by the Environmental Watchdog Group

. An industrial "chemical foaming agent," ADA is used by plastic makers manufacturing yoga mats, flip flops, foam packaging and more to make materials spongy but strong. Starting in the early 1960s, the FDA approved its use as a bleaching agent and "dough conditioner" in breads. During the baking process, ADA

partially degrades into semicarbazide

, a carcinogenic compound shown to cause tumors. Whether enough semicarbazide emerges from baking to be toxic is an open question. ADA is not permitted as a food additive in the European Union or Australia, but the FDA asserts the it is safe in food in concentrations up to 45 parts per million.

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Olestra is an additive that has appeared in and out various lines of potato chips since shortly after FDA approved its use in 1996. First available on the market in the what were essentially diet potato chips, Olestra promised no fat and no cholesterol, and experienced a brief surge in popularity before the snacking public learned about its potential downsides. In addition to preventing the absorption of much needed micronutrients into the body, Olestra also triggered some pretty messy side effects, including "abdominal cramps and loose stools," that the FDA once required be printed right on the packaging. Despite a ban on it outside of the United States, the FDA permits Olestra's use to this day.

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Traces of pyridine can be found in variety of foods as a result of processing, from fried chicken to coffee to potato chips and more. It also turns up in ice cream, albeit in trace amounts given its bitter flavor. Limited evidence suggests potentially carcinogenic effects as a byproduct of consumption, which is why

food safety advocates called for it and seven other compounds to be banned earlier this month

. Pyridine has the potential to cause damage to the liver,

according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

, and may have neurological and renal effects as well. The FDA designates pyridine as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), however, and it can be legally used in concentrations up to one part per million in ice cream.

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Not all chemicals used in food additives deserve the ire they engender. Food dyes, for example, give today's processed foods their appetizing, technicolor brilliance. Although various dyes have drawn scrutiny over their safety, Yellow No. 5 (Tartazine), used in processed foods like mac and cheese as well as pharmaceutical products, may have the worst reputation. An urban legend falsely suggested that Yellow No. 5 affected reproductive health, lowering sperm counts in men who drank Mountain Dew, oddly singled out even though other processed foods had comparable levels,

as LiveScience recalls

. The stigma even reduced soda consumption, though others took advantage of the imagined side effect and tried to use Mountain Dew as a form of birth control. Yellow No. 5 isn't totally in the clear, however.

A 2011 study found

a limited effect of tartazine on learning and memory in an experiment conducted on mice.

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The same compound used in embalming dead bodies also pops up in products meant to keep the living looking their best. Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients appear in cosmetics and other personal care products, including nail polish, hair straightener and more. Nearly one in five cosmetic products contain the cancer-causing agent,

according to the Environmental Working Group

. Although the industry's ingredient safety panel, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, issues voluntary guidelines modeled after European Union policies, the FDA places no restrictions on the amount of formaldehyde allowed in these kinds of products.

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Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a synthetic compound marketed to dairy farmers as a means to increase milk production. The hormones sure aren't doing the cows any good, and they may carry health risks for humans as well. Cows treated with rBGH are more likely to develop udder infections, which require antibiotics. Both the hormones and the antibiotics come back to humans in our milk. People who drink milk from rBGH-treated cows have higher levels of IGF-1 than those who don't, and higher-than-normal IGF-1 levels have been linked in some studies to the development of breast, prostate and other cancer,

according to the American Cancer Society

. Some states have laws regarding labeling of milk from rGBH-treated cows, but dairy farms have been pushing back against these regulations, pointing to the lack of conclusive evidence that rGBH poses any safety threat to humans.

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