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A variety of food additives in various dishes.

There’s a technicality in the food oversight process. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates many food ingredients to ensure your safety. But there are spices, preservatives, and other additives that the agency deems so commonplace that it exempts them as “generally recognized as safe,” or “GRAS.”

The GRAS rule was set by Congress in 1958, when additives primarily included basics like salt and vinegar. Since then, the world of processed food has exploded: More than 3,000 additives — chemical preservatives, flavorings, thinning or thickening agents, and emulsifiers — now appear in everything from premade meals to bread.

This problem has been growing for some time. In 2014, then FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor warned, “We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals.” And more additives continue to be developed.

The food industry regularly bypasses the FDA’s lengthy review process by introducing new food additives through the GRAS loophole. And though the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended numerous changes after auditing the GRAS rule in 2010, Congress has been slow to respond.

Meanwhile, food manufacturers continue to insert numerous untested ingredients into foods without alerting the FDA.

When companies actually do submit GRAS notices, critics contend that the agency allows additive-maker employees or consulting firms and expert panels selected by the company to handle the safety assessments. A 2013 JAMA report found that such financial conflicts of interest were “ubiquitous.”

Among the common GRAS additives that raise concerns:

  • Caffeine, which is prolifically added now to a wide range of foods to provide an energy jolt.
  • Carrageenan, a seaweed extract used as a conditioner that has been linked to dangerous gastrointestinal inflammation and even cancer.
  • Partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats that are prevalent in processed baked goods and cake mixes and have been cited as a contributor to type 2 diabetes, strokes, and heart disease.

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