Propyl paraben is the latest focus in the debate concerning additives that are “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. The overall concern of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other food safety advocates is that ingredients get defined as GRAS without pre-market review and approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When it comes to propyl paraben specifically, EWG says that the preservative used in cosmetics and foods to protect against microbial growth disrupts the endocrine system and should therefore be removed from food.
According to the Environmental Working Group, propyl paraben is an ingredient in pastries such as Cafe Valley mini muffins, Sara Lee cinnamon rolls and Weight Watchers cakes.
In 1972, FDA’s Select Committee on GRAS Substances stated that there was no information demonstrating that propyl paraben had any short- or long-term toxicological consequences, even in rats consuming amounts “greatly exceeding those currently consumed in the normal diet of the U.S.” They added that there was “no evidence that consumption of the parabens as food ingredients has had an adverse effect on man in the 40 years they have been so used in the United States.” But to support their concerns, EWG cites 2002 research at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health, which found that propyl paraben decreased sperm counts in young rats at and below the concentrations which FDA considers safe for human consumption in food. The group also points to a 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which suggests that exposure to various parabens might be associated with diminished fertility in women, and other research showing that propyl paraben acts as a synthetic estrogenic compound and can alter hormone signaling and gene expression. In 2004, the European Food Safety Authority’s scientific panel on food additives issued an advisory stating that, “While the presence of propyl paraben in the diet is limited and unlikely to represent a risk to consumers, the panel was unable to recommend a specific [Acceptable Daily Intake] for propyl paraben based on current evidence.” And the European Commission has listed propyl paraben as one of its 194 Category 1 substances — those for which evidence of endocrine-disrupting properties has been found in a least one live organism and which have been given the highest priority for further studies. The authors of the 2013 fertility study at Harvard wrote that although parabens have a GRAS designation based on FDA’s 1972 decision, “given their widespread use and ubiquitous human exposure, further research using modern toxicologic designs and end points may be warranted,” adding that the results of their own study “suggest the need for future human studies to explore these associations in other populations with a larger sample size.” Propyl paraben was on EWG’s first “Dirty Dozen” guide for food additives released last November, and on Wednesday, the group launched a petition and social media campaign demanding that U.S. food companies remove the ingredient from their products. “Propyl paraben is starting to disappear from some cosmetics, so it is a wonder that it is still allowed in food,” EWG stated. “If you browse the personal care product aisles in any drug store, you are likely to see labels advertising that certain body washes, lotions, and other items are ‘paraben free.’” The list of products containing propyl paraben released by EWG on Wednesday includes Cafe Valley mini muffins, La Banderita tortillas, Sara Lee cinnamon rolls and Weight Watchers cakes.