by Lisa Maguire
As of Friday, October 5th, the FDA banned use of six actively used food additives — benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, methyl eugenol, myrcene, pulegone, and pyridine — after two petitions claimed high doses of the ingredients caused cancer in lab animals. (They have banned a seventh ingredient, styrene, but the ingredient is no longer in use, so it was found to be moot in the petition.)
While the FDA maintains that the amounts used in products for humans do not pose a risk of causing cancer, they have banned the ingredients due to a provision enacted in 1958, known as the Delaney Clause. The Delaney Clause requires that any additive proven to cause cancer to humans or animals at any level or dosage must be barred by the FDA.
It turns out, each of these ingredients occurs naturally to some extent in food. Ethyl acrylate can be found in pineapples, and myrcene in citric juices. When synthetic versions are combined with other additives or ingredients for household products, however, they can have many uses. They are listed individually as ingredients on household products, but all six of these ingredients are covered under the “artificial flavors” ingredient listing on food nutrition labels, as are several hundred others, all of which can be found under Title 21: Food and Drugs.
Since all of the additives share similar properties, a deeper look at benzophenone gives us a clearer picture of the overall controversy.
Benzophenone occurs naturally in muscat grapes, which are used for several different types of wine, with concentrations of up to 27 times the amount used as additives in food. Additionally, low levels of benzophenone can be measured in passionfruit and detected in black tea, cherimoya, mountain papaya, and soursop.
Synthetic benzophenone is used primarily as an enhancer for flavors and scents, as well as in plastics and inks because it limits UV exposure and damage to the contents within or ink colors. Additionally, benzophenone was approved for pesticide use but isn’t currently in any of the US-approved pesticide formulas.
In a 2015 report found on the U.S. National Library of Medicine, exposure to benzophenone was associated with risk for bronchitis, allergic asthma, and skin rash in humans. Additionally, tissue damage to the liver, kidney, or nose of lab animals with daily dietary exposure was confirmed, with some of those animals developing, liver tumors, leukemia, or cancer of the liver, kidney, or other tissues.
The FDA maintains that exposure to the synthetic additive is minimal, even when combining dietary intake via food additives and contaminated water as well as leached exposure from food containers.
While the daily human intake of each individual synthetic additive is significantly lower than what was used for the two-year lab studies, and also significantly lower than what can be found naturally occurring in a serving of muscat grapes, the consideration of our long-term, repeated daily exposure to the chemical can give one pause, especially when considering how many product labels on which we find the words “artificial flavors.” Furthermore, the consideration of what effect the combined exposure of these chemicals might have together coupled with our ever-increasing rates of cancer, food allergies, and unexplained increases in behavioral and mental health disorders, is enough to really get one thinking about what’s in our food.
The FDA is providing manufacturers with 24 months to eliminate these synthetic additives from food, cleaning and cosmetic products, and packaging products. In the meantime, you can find a listing of household products containing these ingredients and others by searching the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Household Products Database.