Slipping Through the Cracks: GRAS 101

Up to this point, I‘ve made a few references to the Food and Drug Administration’s designation of some chemicals in our foods as “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS).  Since 1998, the FDA reports that 410 substances have been determined to be GRAS, and this doesn’t include those submitted between 1958 and 1998. With this in mind and the host of GRAS substances used in processed foods, most of these food-like substances could easily be thought of “as generally safe to eat!”

Aside from the inherent reasons why Americans should be alarmed about ingesting “generally” safe substances, how these determinations are made is likewise perturbing (sadly, this threat is also open to countries whose food regulations are influenced by those in America).  Unlike food additives which are evaluated by FDA scientists, GRAS substances are instead reviewed by “qualified experts outside of the government” (read more on the obscure difference between food additives and GRAS substances according to the FDA).  These “qualified” experts are required to show that the questioned chemical doesn’t cause harm at the amounts used in food and drug products.

OK, so this sounds somewhat reassuring, except for the fact that a vast majority of this research is carried out by the same company or organization that would profit from the chemical’s widespread use!!!

Can we say bias?  The blind study design where researchers are unaware of which group consumes the substance of question (experimental group) and which group doesn’t (control group) theoretically corrects for this type of bias.  However, whether or not companies actually submit the research that discredits the safety of these chemicals is the true (and scary) question.  Although I would like to have faith in mankind, I can see where a hefty paycheck could blur someone’s moral conscious when it comes to fabrication by omission (and even blatant fabrication for that matter).

Likewise, many of the mice and rat toxicology studies used to determine the safety of chemicals are alarmingly short term and most likely don’t test for the biological markers that are essential for gauging long term health impacts.  (I’m sure industry is not thinking of the animals, but sorry PETA activists, I don’t mind subjecting mice and rats for longer term studies for the benefit of mankind.)

The bottom line is that the FDA should conduct truly un-biased, long-term research before substances slip through the (very large) cracks and are permitted for use in our foods.  I hope and pray that the FDA will actually protect and promote our health as the agency was created. But taking into consideration the FDA’s budget and priorities shifted more toward the pharmaceutical industry, I will not be holding my breath in the meantime.  Hence, it’s time to take back control of our health by thinking more consciously about what we put into our mouths.

Read more on the chemicals used in our foods here.


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