The good news: The FDA recently banned six artificial flavors that have been linked to cancer. The bad news: You’re still eating them, and you might be for a long time.
How could that be? First, as is common with such bans, food manufacturers have two years to actually remove the banned chemicals from their products. Second, because manufacturers are still permitted to label all chemicals used to simulate natural flavors as, generically, “artificial flavors,” there’s no way to know which products contain these particular offenders. And that’s why, unless you do what we recommend below, you may be chowing down on benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, methyl eugenol, myrcene, pulegone and pyridine for a while to come.
How can this be happening? The ban came in response to a 2016 citizen petition from consumer and environmental groups, including the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council, after the six chemicals were linked to cancer in laboratory animals by the National Toxicology Program.
Despite the lab findings, the FDA’s position remains that these chemicals don’t pose a health risk to consumers and that the animals in the study were exposed to much higher doses than people would ever consume. Fortunately, there is something called the Delaney Clause of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act—it stipulates that if a substance is found to cause cancer in humans or animals, it cannot be used in food.
How to protect your health now: Of course, the obvious answer would be to avoid all foods and beverages containing any artificial flavorings. This is easier said than done for many people, however, because sometimes a convenience food is the only food available. But here’s a trick you can use: Many of the banned additives are used to mimic or enhance the flavors of mint, citrus or cinnamon—so just say no to any food or beverage with these flavors and artificial flavoring. And don’t forget to check your chewing gum—the banned artificial flavorings are used in gum, too.
In general, knowing which food additives are safe for you and your family is no easy task. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s safety ratings of a wide variety of food additives, Chemical Cuisine, can help you determine what’s ok to consume and what to avoid.