On March 9, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its request for $7.2 billion as part of the president’s fiscal year 2024 budget—an increase of 10 percent from 2023’s approved budget.
While the agency has more money to perform its duties—including substantial funds from industry—it still leaves a lot of work for average Americans to do in terms of figuring out what is safe to eat or drink. Fortunately, there is much you can do to better protect yourself from problematic products and ingredients.
Taxpayer Funding and User Fees
FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D. says the requested increase in funding will ensure that “… our program areas have the funding they need to operate with the highest success for the good of public health.”
Between 2017 and 2022, FDA’s annual budget increased from $4,745 billion to $6,248 billion. But not all of that money comes from taxpayers. During that period, congressionally appropriated funding increased by almost 21 percent, but “user fee revenue” jumped by more than 47 percent. Those user fees come from drug companies, device makers, and other industry sources.
Taxpayers fund the FDA to protect public health and safety. The agency is supposed to ensure that products, drugs, and medical devices are safe and effective before they are marketed to consumers. It’s a big job given the scope of available foods, drugs, and other products, and there has long been a question of whether the agency can effectively balance the interests of Americans against the interests of industry.
For instance, recent studies have found high amounts of neurotoxins across multiple food sectors and the FDA continues to approve certain food additives that other countries have banned for health safety issues.
It’s important to note that the regulatory system in the United States places much of the responsibility for determining safety on the consumer. Fortunately, there are things we can do to protect our health and we may even manage to influence questionable industry practices that are overlooked by the FDA. It helps to be informed about how the system works.
Food Industry Lobbying and Big Pharma Influence
According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in U.S. politics, the food industry wields significant lobbying power in the country with over $100 million spent on such efforts in 2020.
Open Secrets says the industry has been known to lobby on issues such as nutrition labeling, food safety regulations, and agricultural subsidies. Critics accuse some actors in the food industry of compromising public health and nutrition by swaying government policies in their favor, resulting in weaker regulations and guidelines that prioritize profits over public health. Subsidies for corn that end up backstopping processed foods—considered to be major contributors to disease—are one such example.
Beyond lobbying, there is also the question of what happens when key regulators rely on industry funds. The FDA faces this issue.
Over the past two decades, user fees paid to the FDA by the drug industry have climbed from a fraction of the agency’s total budget to 45 percent of it in 2020. In other words, the FDA is funded, in large part, by the companies it regulates. This practice has been deemed by critics as a process that allows special interests to gain influence over their regulators.
Does More Money Equal Better Oversight?
Despite the significant increase in the FDA budget since 2017, scientists from Consumer Reports and other independent groups such as Healthy Babies, Bright Future have done several recent studies on possible toxins in dark chocolate, dry herbs and spices, baby foods, and canned tuna, finding astronomically high amounts of neurotoxins in many brands.
But it isn’t just tainted products that concern researchers, there is also the question of potentially damaging ingredients approved in the United States but banned in other jurisdictions.
“One key difference is that historically the United States has been more insistent in focusing on the probability or likelihood of hazards or bad things occurring, and the European Union approach has been more precautionary—they give attention to not just probabilities of something going wrong, but also the mere possibility,” says Dr. Justin J. Kastner, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
That approach may curtail the profits of some companies, but better ensures the safety of citizens. Comparing food ingredients approved in the two jurisdictions reveals some specific differences.
Banned in Europe
Here are some of the food additives that are banned or advised against in Europe and other countries but are still allowed in the United States:
Titanium Dioxide additive is used for coloring and is found in candies such as Skittles and Starburst, baked goods, soups, broths, sauces, and sandwich spreads. Studies have shown this additive to have genotoxic effects.
Genotoxicity means that a chemical substance can damage DNA and have possible carcinogenic, or cancerous, effects.
The European Food Safety Authority issued a statement on May 6, 2021, that it no longer considered titanium dioxide safe when used as a food additive.
Potassium bromate helps flour rise and increase in volume, but it’s also known to cause cancer in rats. In 1999, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban bromate. It’s currently banned in most countries including China, Brazil, India, Canada, the UK, and the EU.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene
Both butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidants used to preserve a wide array of food, including snack foods, cereals, meats, butter, chewing gum, rice—as well as cosmetic products and medications.
A previous study found that BHA caused cancer in the fore-stomach of rats and concluded that the additive should be classified in the category of “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer criteria.
Farmers often add ractopamine to their feed to plump up livestock with as much lean meat as possible before the slaughter. It’s from a class of drugs known as beta-agonists, also used to relax muscles and open airways for asthma sufferers.
The EU and dozens of other countries including China, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and India, have banned it.
Fat-free Pringles and Frito-Lay products contain Olestra, which is Procter & Gamble’s synthetic fat. Unlike natural fat, Olestra is not absorbed by the body during digestion.
Olestra is known to cause diarrhea and loose stools, abdominal cramps, flatulence, and other adverse effects, with symptoms sometimes being severe. It’s banned in both Canada and the United Kingdom.
Color Dyes (Yellow No. 5, No. 6, Red No. 40)
Artificial dyes give unnecessary color to food products like sports drinks and candy and are found to cause neurobehavioral problems in children.
A report released in April 2021 by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment found that current federal guidelines for safe levels of intake of synthetic food dyes may not be enough to protect children’s behavioral health. The agency concluded that children are exposed to multiple dyes in a day and their effects on individuals can vary.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency advised manufacturers to stop using those synthetic dyes, and you generally don’t find them in British foods currently.
Also, the EU mandated that products containing the dyes carry a warning that consumption “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” U.S. manufacturers just have to mention the presence of artificial dyes in the lists of ingredients, rather than define the specifics.
Brominated Vegetable Oil
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) can be found in soft drinks and is associated with potential health risks, including harm to the nervous system. One study found that rats that consumed large quantities of BVO showed significant reproductive harm.
The FDA still permits diluted quantities in “fruit-flavored beverages” while the EU and Japan have banned it.
How to Avoid Toxic Food Additives
Despite the ever-increasing FDA budget, the current regulatory system in the U.S. leaves a lot of figuring out about what’s safe or unsafe up to the consumer.
Here are some tips to reduce or eliminate food additives:
- Consume fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Choose minimally processed foods as much as possible as they have been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and higher rates of mortality.
- Read product labels. Select foods with a shorter list of more natural ingredients. Avoid any products with a list of ingredients that are difficult to pronounce. Look out for ingredients listed that say “artificial flavors” or “natural flavors”—these umbrella terms can be a good hiding place for food additives.
- Choose organic, if possible. Foods labeled “organic” have “fewer synthetic additives” than non-organic foods according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Synthetic ingredients added to organic packaged foods are reviewed by EWG every five years.
- Use our dollars to reduce harmful additives. We have more sway over food manufacturers than we think. If more people are choosing healthier unprocessed foods, manufacturers will lose profits on the high additive foods and will discontinue making them.
- Find helpful resources. Consumer advocacy groups such as CSPI and EWG provide great information on additives to reduce or avoid.
There are also phone apps available that help people to avoid foods, cosmetics, and cleaning products that contain toxic ingredients—you can find them by searching “food ingredients scanner” in the App Store.
Two apps currently available are Sift Food Labels and EWG’s Healthy Living, which allow you to scan the bar code on products to get a comprehensive profile of key ingredient information on additives that cause health issues.