What Are We Eating, Anyway?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

The Food and Drug Administration, the main regulatory body for what we eat, has divided food substances into 10 categories. However, there are two that are important for us to know about. The first is called GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), which accounts for 99% of all substances added to the foods we eat. These have historically been used in foods with no proven ill effects.

“Once in GRAS, food manufacturers have much more latitude. They’re allowed unrestricted use of the substance,” says Stephen Pintauro, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Vermont. According to Ruth Winter, author of “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives” (Three Rivers, 2004), instead of petitioning the FDA for affirmation, manufacturers simply have to notify the agency of their additive’s GRAS status and provide some evidence to support that claim.

The second category we ought to be aware of is “food additives” (ones that don’t have GRAS status). These include substances that could become a component of food or otherwise would affect its characteristics, such as certain gums you see listed in the ingredients of many ice creams. Food additives require FDA approval for each and every use within a food. The burden is on the food manufacturer to show the FDA that a particular food additive doesn’t cause cancer and isn’t harmful, but the FDA determines the amount of the substance allowed. There are more than 2,000 food additives approved for use.

And here is something else we need to know about the safety of substances added to our foods — it’s called the Delaney Clause. It states, “No additive shall be deemed safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal.” The problem is determining which substances are “toxic” and which are not. According to Pintauro, “All food substances or additives are toxic — it’s just a matter of dose. Dose determines whether a substance is a poison or a remedy.”

Here are some of the more common food substances to keep in mind:


What is it? Carrageenan is a seaweed extract derived from Irish moss.

Where do you find it? Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream; Coffee-Mate Fat-Free French Vanilla Creamer; Morningstar Farms Better’n Burgers; Progresso Chicken Noodle Soup.

What does it do? Primarily used as an emulsifier, stabilizer and thickener, this gum is popular as a fat replacement in low-fat foods because it provides a “fat feel” to the food.

Is it safe? It is being studied because it has been shown to cause cancer and ulcerative colitis in lab animals, but the FDA regards it as 100 percent safe in the allowable amounts. According to Barry Swanson, Ph.D., professor of food science at Washington State University, it’s not broken down in the stomach and is a pretty safe additive. The Center for Science In the Public Interest (CSPI) agrees, rating it “safe.”


What are they? Xanthan gum is a naturally occurring carbohydrate made by fermenting corn sugar with a microbe called Xanthomonas campestris. Guar gum is made from the seeds of the guar plant (Cyamopsis tetragonolobus) cultivated in India.

Where do you find them? Edy’s Whole Fruit Bars; Ben & Jerry’s Fudge Central Ice Cream; Wish-Bone Deluxe French Dressing; Thomas’ Cinnamon Raisin English Muffins; Quaker Regular Instant Oatmeal; Light n’ Lively Fat Free Cottage Cheese.

What do they do? They act as thickening and emulsifying agents; they prevent sugar crystals from forming in candy; they form the gel-like consistency in pudding; and they keep oil and water mixed together in salad dressings. In fact, guar gum has five to eight times the thickening power of cornstarch and is used not only to thicken our food and livestock feed, but also in paper manufacturing, textiles, printing, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, explains Winter.

Are they safe? Yes, relatively, because they are not digestible and are, therefore, not absorbed by the body. But the FDA banned guar gum from use in drugs and weight-loss products in 1997 because it swells when wet, adds Winter. In fact, in large doses they have been shown to cause intestinal distress in animals. According to CSPI, gums “are derived from natural sources (bushes, trees, seaweed, bacteria) and are poorly tested, though probably safe.”

Swanson adds that a 150-pound person would have to eat about 1.25 pounds of guar gum for it to be toxic, which would be very hard to do. The government allows only about one or two drops per 4 ounces in food products. Xanthan gum is even less toxic, and the government allows up to eight drops per 4 ounces. “You wouldn’t want to eat too much — it’s a gummy, slimy substance,” adds Swanson.


What is it? Potassium sorbate is a potassium salt version of sorbic acid, a polyunsaturated fat.

Where do you find it? Smucker’s Low Sugar Red Raspberry Preserves; Land O’Lakes Light Whipped Butter; SnackWell’s Devil’s Food Cookies.

What does it do? It is used as a preservative, particularly to inhibit mold growth in bakery products (cakes, cheesecakes and pie fillings), cheese, fruit preserves and some margarines. It’s also found in beverages, chocolate, soda fountain syrups and salads (potato, macaroni, coleslaw, gelatin).

Is it safe? Although somewhat controversial (certain Web sites and splinter groups feel it’s unsafe), it is safe when eaten in allowable doses, according to Swanson. The FDA limits its use to about a tenth of a drop in 4 ounces of food. CSPI has also rated it “safe.”


What is it? Phosphoric acid is a naturally occurring organic acid found in all plants and animals in some form.

Where do you find it? Coke, Pepsi and other carbonated beverages.

What does it do? It is primarily used as flavoring to impart a tart, acidic taste to soda. In potato products and cheeses, it adds flavor and stabilizes color.

Is it safe? In pure form, it is a strong acid, but it’s diluted for use in food. “Bleach is a strong solution also, but when it’s put in small concentrations in our drinking water — it’s safe and effective. Think of this acid in the same context,” says Swanson. There are other foods that are acidic as well. Take a look at vinegar that’s used for salad dressing: It’s also corrosive in its pure form, but that’s not how it’s used. CSPI gives it a safe rating and adds that, “While excessive consumption of phosphates could lead to dietary imbalances that might contribute to osteoporosis, only a small fraction of the phosphate in the American diet comes from additives. Most comes from meat and dairy products.”


What are they? Butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole are metabolizing enzymes that act as antioxidants.

Where do you find them? Kellogg’s Rice Krispies; Quaker Chewy Granola Bars; Celeste Pizza for One Pepperoni Pizza.

What do they do? They keep the fats and oils in foods from turning rancid.

Are they safe? While BHT and BHA do not themselves cause cancer, there is still some debate about their actual effects in the body. Some animal experiments have shown that these compounds reduce the risk of cancer, while other studies point to an increased risk. The FDA considers them GRAS. But other groups, such as CSPI, recommend avoiding them.

“One question that is difficult to answer is whether or not an animal study translates to humans, because when BHA was injected in rats in large doses it did cause cancer and produced tumors,” says Swanson. One of the main reasons BHT and BHA stay on the GRAS list, even though they are controversial, is because they have been around for so long without creating any known problems.

Rate this post

You may also like

Subscribe To The Weekly Food & Nutrition News and Research Digest
Our weekly email news and research digest is everything you need to know about food, nutrition, fitness and health.
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will NEVER be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.