The food environment includes the FDA
Public health advocates talk about the “food environment,” referring to wall-to-wall fast-food restaurants, soda vending machines, candy ads aimed at kids, and the like. But a major, though little discussed, factor in our food environment is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It is the FDA’s responsibility to keep our food safe. Regrettably, though, FDA’s irresponsibility is contributing to more than 100,000 deaths each year.
Ironically, the FDA has accepted three of the most harmful ingredients in our food supply as being “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), even though health experts consider them to be “generally recognized as dangerous” at the high levels consumed: partially hydrogenated oil, salt, and sugar.
Partially hydrogenated oil—long the basis of shortenings and margarines—is the source of artificial trans fat. In 1990, the first good studies demonstrated that trans fat increases the “bad” cholesterol and reduces the “good” cholesterol in blood. Epidemiology studies then associated trans fat with upwards of 50,000 premature deaths annually.
Following a decade-long rulemaking, in 2006 the FDA required food labels to list trans fat content. The labeling, together with massive publicity and several lawsuits, persuaded many companies to switch to healthier vegetable oils.
As the evidence of harm became as solid as the Ivory-soap-like shortenings in which it was abundant, beginning in 2003 Denmark and several other countries virtually banned partially hydrogenated oils. But since 2006 the FDA has done nothing. That’s why Pop Secret popcorn, Church’s and Long John Silver’s fried foods in most of the country, Marie Callender pies, and other popular products still contain the nasty fat…and thousands of people are still dying prematurely.
Excess consumption of salt has been known for half a century to boost blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Yet many restaurant meals contain two or three times as much sodium as adults should eat in a single day. Studies have indicated that excess salt is causing around 100,000 premature deaths annually.
In 1979, an FDA advisory committee said that salt should not be considered GRAS. The FDA’s response was to ask industry to please reduce sodium levels. But in 2010, an exasperated Institute of Medicine committee concluded that 40 years of voluntary “action” achieved little land that it was time for the FDA to regulate. The FDA’s response? Silence.
Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are other GRAS substances. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have estimated that the refined sugars in drinks have been causing about 25,000 deaths per year from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. FDA’s response? Don’t bother asking.
It’s important to see the FDA as part of the food environment. What’s needed is aggressive oversight by Congress, adequate funding, and a wholesale renovation of the FDA’s division that is supposed to be ensuring the safety of food ingredients. And to solve problems in your local food environment, October 24, national Food Day, is a perfect time to start.
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