All six of the artificial flavoring ingredients are also found in nature. But the natural versions aren’t banned.
The US Food and Drug Administration has just banned seven chemical food additives you might have consumed if you’ve ever eaten anything from a grocery store containing “artificial flavor.” Six of the chemicals, which most consumers wouldn’t recognize by name, have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals at high enough levels, and the seventh is no longer in use. The FDA’s ban is a response to a handful of groups petitioning to have the chemicals more tightly regulated and could affect a number of popular products.
In the petition, groups including the Breast Cancer Fund, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, cited studies showing that six of the banned chemicals can cause cancer in lab animals. The seventh, styrene, is no longer used in the food industry and was separately petitioned to be banned as well.
The full list of chemicals includes synthetically derived benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether (methyl eugenol), myrcene, pulegone, pyridine, and styrene. Naturally derived versions of these compounds are still legal. These names may sound unfamiliar to most consumers, as their full names don’t actually appear on ingredients lists and are lumped together under the umbrella term “artificial flavor.” These ingredients won’t be on shelves anymore, but that doesn’t mean people agree about the risk they pose.
In the official announcement, the FDA says the compounds are by law considered unsafe but asserts that they are actually safe to consume.
“These substances are being removed from the food additive regulations under the Delaney Clause of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) (section 409(c)(3) of the FD&C Act),” wrote FDA officials. “This clause, enacted in 1958, requires that the FDA cannot find as safe; i.e., cannot approve, the use of any food additive that has been found to induce cancer in humans or animals at any dose.”
The statement goes on to say that the studies cited in the petition only show health issues at extremely high doses, but since FDA guidelines specify that no food ingredient that has been shown to cause cancer in humans or animals at anydose can be considered safe, the regulators’ hands are tied.
It continues: “As such, the FDA is only revoking the listing of these six synthetic flavorings as a matter of law,” they wrote. “The FDA has concluded that these substances are otherwise safe.”
The consumer advocacy groups who pushed for the change don’t see it that way, though.
“We think this is a win for consumers,” Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council told NPR. “Our petition laid out the science” that links the chemicals to cancer in lab animals. “The law is very clear that any chemical that causes cancer is not supposed to be added to our food supply.”
And to show just how commonly these chemicals occur in the food supply, here are a few places where each one shows up:
Benzophenone is used as both a flavoring ingredient and a food packaging additive. As an artificial flavor, it adds a rose-like, aromatic scent to desserts, and as a packaging ingredient, it helps protect foods from the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays. Benzophenone occurs naturally in grapes and some other fruits, but the artificial form is found in soft candy, gelatins and puddings.
Like almost of the chemicals that the FDA banned, ethyl acrylate is a volatile compound that can be derived naturally or synthetically. In the natural world, it’s found in passionfruit. However, it’s used a lot less as a food flavoring and more often as an adhesive or coating, like the polymer coatings that make some pills shiny and slick, or in frozen food packaging. It’s also found in envelope adhesives
Eugenyl Methyl Ether (Methyl Eugenol)
Most commonly known as methyl eugenol, eugenyl methyl ether has a clove-like scent that makes it a suitable artificial flavoring ingredient for ginger snaps, cinnamon-flavored oatmeal, vinaigrette salad dressing, cinnamon-flavored mints, chewing gum, cake doughnuts, and cola beverages. It’s found naturally in Kogyoku apples, as well as in rose oil and basil.
Myrcene, which naturally occurs in cannabis, mango, and cardamom, has an earthy aroma and is pretty uncommon as an artificial ingredient. Artificial formulations of myrcene aren’t often found directly in food, but it’s often used to prepare artificial menthol- and lavender-flavored food items.
Pulegone is found naturally in several mint plant species, so unsurprisingly, artificial versions of it are found in mint-flavored gums and candies.
Pyridine is found in cooked bacon, fried chicken, and even tobacco smoke, and when used in small quantities as an artificial food additive, it imparts a slightly bitter flavor.
Styrene is usually used in food packaging, so any styrene found in food would typically just be migrated from the packaging through direct contact with food. But in recent years, the material has fallen out of favor, so a separate petition by the Styrene Information and Research Center ended up getting lumped in with the other six ingredients.
Are They Actually Dangerous?
According to the FDA and the available data, large quantities of each of these chemicals have been shown to cause cancer and other health problems in lab rats and mice. Under normal circumstances, though, they don’t pose significant risks to your health since they’re usually used in very small quantities to flavor food. But as the FDA specified, these ingredients can’t be legally considered safe if they cause cancer at any level, despite the FDA’s assurance that they’re all safe.
Food manufacturers have two more years to find suitable alternatives before the rules officially take effect, though, so don’t expect your packaged cookies to start tasting differently any time soon.