The FDA Dumps Its Recipe for Disaster

The agency finally nixed its approval of several cancer-causing food additives after years of advocacy and an Earthjustice lawsuit.

A child drinks a soda.
The words “artificial flavor” on the ingredient labels of sodas and other processed foods can refer to chemicals that are known to cause cancer in animals. (Dundanim's / Shutterstock)

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Ever wonder what “artificial flavor” means when you look at the list of ingredients on a packaged food? In some cases, it means chemicals that are known to cause cancer in animals and could cause cancer in humans.

For years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed food manufacturers to use seven such flavor additives. These flavorings can be used in a wide variety of processed foods and are found in everything from baked goods and alcoholic beverages to candy and ice cream to make them fruitier, tangier and nacho-cheesier.

Any food that didn’t grow directly from the ground could easily contain one of these potentially harmful flavorings. That’s why we sued the FDA in May to force them to finally take action to ban the cancer-causing additives.

Three months later, in October 2018, the agency took the long-overdue action and revoked its approval of six of the seven flavor additives. (The industry had agreed to abandon all food uses of the seventh.) This decision delivered a resounding win to a wide range of organizations we represented in the case. These include the Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Environmental Health, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Seven food additives listed as "artificial ingredients" on packaged food.

The seven carcinogenic food additives and the flavors they contribute. Open a larger version.

The groups had originally petitioned the FDA to revoke its approval for these ingredients back in 2015. But after years of inactivity, which we argued was illegal under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, the FDA finally took action shortly after we filed our lawsuit.

“Though it is unfortunate we had to resort to litigation to get FDA to act on the food additive petition, it is gratifying that FDA ultimately made the right decision to protect public health against these carcinogenic flavors,” says Earthjustice attorney Carrie Apfel.

Since the agency first approved these ingredients in the 1960s, multiple scientific authorities like the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer have linked these food flavorings to cancer.

So why are flavorings added to foods in the first place? After all, doesn’t food already have flavor?

Humans naturally crave foods that taste salty or sweet, probably because in our evolutionary habitat those tastes signaled high calorie content. Food scientists have created flavors that mimic those nutritional signals, stimulating our cravings. That’s why it’s so easy to find yourself finishing off an entire box of cookies, desperately scooping up every last chocolatey crumb, before you’ve even realized what you’ve done.

We certainly don’t want to deny anyone the convenience of processed food and drinks. We all have that choice, and we’ve all likely indulged in these products at least once in our lives. But we should also have the ability to choose foods that are safe for us to eat. The FDA’s refusal to do its job makes that choice harder than it should be.

This blog post was originally published May 2, 2018.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.