With states like California, Illinois, and New York questioning the safety of certain food additives and some other chemicals used in food, the public is wondering if a food is safe to eat if it contains chemicals.

The Food and Drug Administration gave one of Its long essay questions that answered that question this week. The agency did not specifically refer to pesticides or herbicides but did refer to “chemicals added to food.”

“All our food — like everything in the world — is made up of chemicals,” FDA said. “The presence of a chemical alone doesn’t determine whether a food is safe to eat. To assess the safety of chemicals in food, scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and others worldwide look at information about the chemical’s safety, how much of a chemical is in the food, and how much a person eats or drinks. It’s the amount that counts.”

The FDA continued:

Our food is chemicals: Facts, science and safety
What does it mean that food is made up of chemicals? Chemicals exist in whole foods and provide nutrition, such as potassium in bananas. The water, protein, fats, and carbohydrates we need for a healthy, balanced diet are chemicals, too.

Some chemicals are added to food for nutritional benefits, like milk fortified with vitamins A and D, or to protect food from spoiling or to prevent pathogens (germs) that could make people sick. Chemicals also add flavor and enhance food in other ways.

Some chemicals, like environmental contaminants, get into food when crops absorb them from the soil or air. Some contaminants are naturally present in the environment and are hard to eliminate, while others are in the environment because of industrial emissions and other human-made pollution.

Chemical exposure through food: It’s the amount that counts
A basic principle in science is that any chemical has the potential to be harmful at a certain level. That means a person would have to eat or drink enough to reach the harmful level. For some chemicals, that level is very low, and for others, the level is higher.

Let’s apply that to sodium as an example. Sodium is essential for maintaining blood pressure and for properly working nerves, muscles, and other body tissues. Too much sodium can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg daily for people 14 years and older and even less for those 13 years and younger. That’s why the FDA issued guidance to help the food industry make reasonable reductions in sodium across a wide variety of foods.

Determining safe amounts: The science behind FDA food chemical safety
The FDA evaluates and monitors chemicals in FDA-regulated food to ensure they don’t pose a health risk.

Scientifically assessing safe amounts of chemicals in food requires extensive calculation and consideration. This applies to chemicals used in packaging, added to food, contaminants from the environment, and chemicals that can form when raw foods are cooked and processed.

The FDA has different ways to scientifically assess the safe amount of a chemical in food by comparing the amount someone is likely to consume daily with other safety data. For example, the FDA determines an Acceptable Daily Intake when evaluating a chemical as a food additive, such as aspartame. That’s the amount safe to consume daily throughout a person’s lifetime. The FDA intentionally determines an Acceptable Daily Intake at a level that includes a safety margin that ensures the amount people eat daily is much lower than the level known to have a possible adverse health effect. The difference between the safe level and the harmful level is called the safety margin, a term used worldwide by scientific experts working to protect consumers from the harmful effects of too much of any chemical.

Here are some of the many factors FDA scientists weigh when looking at food chemical safety:

  • The chemical, why it is in the food, and what’s known about its safety.
  • The amount of the chemical in food.
  • The amount and types of food include the chemical a person would likely eat or drink.
  • Groups of people who may be particularly sensitive such as children, pregnant people, and older people.

One way the FDA monitors our food supply to help keep it safe is through the Total Diet Study, which is a routine survey that began more than 60 years ago. FDA researchers buy food from the same retail outlets that people buy food from, then prepare the food as people typically would to provide realistic estimates of the nutrients and contaminants in food. The information the FDA gets from this study and other monitoring programs guides us and informs our public health initiatives, such as working to get the levels of environmental contaminants children may be exposed to Closer to Zero.

While the FDA and industry share the responsibility of ensuring food is safe, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to make sure they market food that meets the FDA requirements that apply. The FDA will act when chemicals are in food at unsafe amounts.

Points to consider when reading about chemicals in food

Reading or hearing about chemicals in food, when combined with words like “toxic,” “extremely dangerous,” and “cancer-causing,” may be scary, especially if you aren’t getting all the facts.

Here are a few points to help you navigate information about chemicals in food:

  • More complete information from a credible medical and scientific source would likely explain how much of the chemical is in the food, how much of the food someone eats or drinks, and whether the chemical is present at a level that is harmful to people.
  • Chemical names may sound complicated, but that does not mean they are unsafe. Some may be ingredients you are familiar with. For example, tocopherols are vitamin E, sodium chloride is salt, and dihydrogen monoxide is water.
  • Some chemicals safely used in food may have other non-food uses. Vinegar, for example, is used as a household cleaner and in small amounts in food. A chemical must meet the FDA’s safety standards if used in food.

Making food choices

Eating various nutrient-dense foods can help reduce exposure to any one chemical. Whether you cook from scratch or buy some prepared or packaged items, remember:

  • Eat various vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lower-fat dairy, protein food, and certain oils.
  • Eat and drink fewer foods and beverages high in saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars.

Food choices are yours to make. The FDA wants to help ensure you have sound information to make the best choices for you and your family.

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