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FAQ's on Food and Drug Safety
General Questions About Food Additives
General Questions About Color Additives
General Questions About Foodborne Illness and Food Preparation
In its broadest sense, a food additive is any substance added to food. Legally, the term refers to "any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result-directly or indirectly-in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food."
Food packaging manufacturers must prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that all materials coming in contact with food are safe before they are permitted for use in such a manner.
Additives perform a variety of useful functions in foods that are often taken for granted. Since most people no longer live on farms, additives help keep food wholesome and appealing while en route to markets sometimes thousands of miles away from where it is grown or manufactured. Additives also improve the nutritional value of certain foods and can make them more appealing by improving their taste, texture, consistency or color.
Some additives could be eliminated if we were willing to grow our own food, harvest and grind it, spend many hours cooking and canning, or accept increased risks of food spoilage. But most people today have come to rely on the many technological, aesthetic and convenience benefits that additives provide in food.
Additives are used in foods for five main reasons:
Many substances added to food may seem foreign when listed on the ingredient label, but are actually quite familiar. For example, ascorbic acid is another name for Vitamin C; alphatocopherol is another name for Vitamin E; and beta-carotene is a source of Vitamin A. Although there are no easy synonyms for all additives, it is helpful to remember that all food is made up of chemicals. Carbon, hydrogen and other chemical elements provide the basic building blocks for everything in life.
Additives are not always byproducts of 20th century technology or modern know-how. Our ancestors used salt to preserve meats and fish; added herbs and spices to improve the flavor of foods; preserved fruit with sugar; and pickled cucumbers in a vinegar solution.
Over the years, however, improvements have been made in increasing the efficiency and ensuring the safety of all additives. Today food and color additives are more strictly regulated than at any other time in history. The basis of modern food law is the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938, which gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over food and food ingredients and defines requirements for truthful labeling of ingredients.
The Food Additives Amendment to the FD&C Act, passed in 1958, requires FDA approval for the use of an additive prior to its inclusion in food. It also requires the manufacturer to prove an additive's safety for the ways it will be used.
For information about the following specific types of additives, see the FDA's Food, Nutrition, and Cosmetics Questions and Answers.
The Food Allergy Network's Anne Munoz-Furlong suggests keeping a food diary as a first step, writing down everything you eat or drink for a one- or two-week period. Note any symptoms and how long it took for such symptoms to develop.
But Furlong and other experts agree that those who suspect food allergies also need to be evaluated by a physician with intensive specialty training in allergy and immunology. Be sure to discuss what diagnostic and treatment plan is anticipated, and the costs.
Since absolute safety of any substance can never be proven, decisions about the safety of food ingredients are made on the best scientific evidence available. Scientific knowledge is constantly evolving. Therefore, federal officials often review earlier decisions to ensure that the safety assessment of a food substance remains up to date. Any change made in previous clearances should be recognized as an assurance that the latest and best scientific knowledge is being applied to enhance the safety of the food supply.
Technically, a color additive is any dye, pigment or substance that can impart color when added or applied to a food, drug, cosmetic or to the human body. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating all color additives used in the United States.
Although this theory was popularized in the 1970's, well-controlled studies conducted since then have produced no evidence that food color additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children. A Consensus Development Panel of the National Institutes of Health concluded in 1982 that there was no scientific evidence to support the claim that colorings or other food additives cause hyperactivity. The panel said that elimination diets should not be used universally to treat childhood hyperactivity, since there is no scientific evidence to predict which children may benefit.
Color is an important property of foods that adds to our enjoyment of eating. Nature teaches us early to expect certain colors in certain foods, and our future acceptance of foods is highly dependent on meeting these expectations.
Color variation in foods throughout the seasons and the effects of food processing and storage often require that manufacturers add color to certain foods to meet consumer expectations.
For more information about color additives, see the FDA's Food Color Facts, from which this text was excerpted.
Follow the food safety rules listed below:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has a toll-free Seafood Hotline for consumers. The hotline offers information to consumers in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Over 20 recorded informational messages are offered, as well as almost 75 publications, which may be mailed or automatically faxed to callers. Information is available on safe seafood purchasing, handling, cooking, and storage, as well as on nutrition, labeling, economic fraud, additives, pesticides, contaminants, and general food safety. Public affairs specialists are available from noon to 4 p.m. EST Monday through Friday to answer specific questions. If you call the Seafood Hotline, because you saw it here on the Internet, please mention that when calling.
The FDA Seafood Hotline: 1-800-332-4010 (or 202-205-4314 in the DC Area)
For help with meat, poultry, and egg products (examples A and B): Call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555.
For help with restaurant food problems (example C): Call the Health Department in your city, county or state.
For help with non-meat food products (example D): For complaints about food products which do not contain meat or poultry--such as cereal--call or write to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Check your local phone book under U.S. Government, Health and Human Services, to find an FDA office in your area.
If you think you are ill, see a physician.
The bottom line: If you sense there's a problem with any food product, don't consume it. "When in doubt, throw it out."
New consumer products make it possible to thaw food without electricity, cook it with sunlight, determine its doneness and warm it at a picnic. But are these products "too good to be true"? Will they contribute to foodborne illness?
Some may; some may not. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline checked with microbiologists and other government agencies and reports findings and thawing trays, solar box cooking, disposable temperature indicators, and thermoelectric cooler/warmers.
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