Not all chemical additives in our food supply are disclosed to either government regulators or consumers. (2) A loophole in U.S. law regulating food additives allows some chemicals to be exempted from the regulatory process. For example, “common food ingredients like vinegar and vegetable oil that are ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS)” do not have to be disclosed. (3) 

A report critical of this practice notes, “that exemption has been stretched into a loophole that has swallowed the law. The exemption allows manufacturers to make safety determinations that the uses of their newest chemicals in food are safe without notifying the FDA.” (4)

What Are Food Additives?

A food additive is “any substance added to food,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA “maintains a list of over 3000 ingredients in its data base.” However, the actual numbers of food additives may be much higher — upwards of 10,000. (5)

The legal definition of a food additive “includes any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food,” the FDA goes on to explain. (6) 

Such a broad definition is meant to encompass the enormous scope of the problem. 

Why Are Chemicals Added to Food?

The complexities presented by food additives leads to the question: Why do chemicals need to be added to food in the first place?

More than 2,500 chemicals are added to food to “modify” color, cost, flavor, stability, or texture. (7) One study notes, “an estimated 12,000 substances are used in such a way that they may unintentionally enter the food supply.” (8)

Food additives vary and are used for many reasons: (9) (10)

  • Preservatives — These keep food fresh and prevent spoilage by bacteria, mold, fungi, yeast, or chemical changes. (11)
  • Nutrients — Vitamins and minerals are used to boost the “nutritional quality” of the food. (12) For example, fortifying milk with Vitamin D or adding vitamins to cereal products.
  • Processing aids — They make products more appealing by improving consistency, providing body, or adding stability. Processing aids help oil and water mix, prevent lumping, or retain moisture. (13)
  • Flavors — These can magnify or modify the taste and aroma of food. For example, spices and sweeteners. (14)
  • Colors — Pigments are intended to give foods a desired or appetizing characteristic. (15)

Indirect Food Additives

Known additives are not the only problem. Indirect or unintentional additives can also pose serious health consequences.

Indirect food additives usually move from food packaging to the food itself. One research study on migrating substances says, “food contact materials (including adhesives, dyes, coatings, paper, paperboard, plastic, and other polymers)” (16) may be indirect additives to foods.

Another study notes, “food contact materials and articles are a relevant exposure pathway for known hazardous substances… both intentionally and non-intentionally added.” (17)

Yet another study points out, “Effects of chemical contaminants in food are associated with acute episodes with a single exposure…or chronic due to repeated long-term exposure.” (18)

The same study warns, “the health effects caused by chemicals in foods such as aflatoxin, causing liver cancer, or lead, causing kidney cancer, may not be observable until years after exposure.” (19) 

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Why Chemical Additives Should Always Be Disclosed

Chemical additives in foods should always be disclosed, so you can make informed choices to protect your health. No one can protect themselves from exposure to harmful substances if you do not even know those substances are present.

Also, while many chemical additives may be safe for most consumers, this does not hold true for everyone. For example, if you have an allergy, you may experience a life-threatening reaction if exposed to a chemical in a food product.

What Types of Chemicals Are Included in Food? 

Contaminants and food additives enter our food supply from the environment, through food processing, and by migration. (20)

Environmental contaminants may be introduced by humans or occur naturally. These contaminants often exist in air, water, or soil. (21) 

Environmental contaminants may consist of heavy metals such as: (22) (23)

  • Cadmium.
  • Copper. 
  • Mercury.
  • Lead.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).
  • Zinc.

Additionally, naturally occurring environmental contaminants may be: (24)

  • Bacteria.
  • Fungi.
  • Parasites.
  • Viruses.

Food processing contamination can occur during heating, baking, roasting, canning, fermentation, or hydrolysis. Migration results when harmful substances transfer from packaging materials to food products. (25)

Chemicals may also enter the food supply through animal feed and injections given to livestock or poultry. Or even from pesticides sprayed on crops. (26) 

Health Consequences of Chemicals in Food

No matter the type or source, chemicals in our food supply can have serious health consequences for humans. Among these are:

  • Allergic reactions: digestive, nervous, respiratory, skin disorders. (27)
  • Gastrointestinal illness. (28)
  • Idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI). (29)
  • Liver cancer. (30)

PFAS Causes Health Problems

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) “are a group of manufactured chemicals.” (31). This group includes perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

PFOS and PFOA are among the more common chemicals found in all kinds of products on the market, especially food and its packaging. These chemicals are so widely used that most people have them in their blood already. (32) 

PFAS have caused birth defects, delayed development, and newborn deaths in lab animals. In humans, PFOS and PFOA have been linked to: (33)

  • Changes in liver enzymes.
  • Higher cholesterol levels.
  • High risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
  • High blood pressure in pregnant women.

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Adverse Health Effects on Children

Some chemicals are especially harmful to children. (34) The American Academy of Pediatrics warns, “Children are smaller, so their ‘dose’ of any given chemical ends up being higher. They put their hands in their mouths more than adults do, so they are likely to ingest more. Their bodies are still developing, so they can be more at risk of harm — and they are young, so the chemicals have more time to do more damage.” (35)

Among the health effects affecting children associated with exposure to specific chemicals in food are: (36)

  • Disrupted brain development from perchlorates. 
  • Hormone interference from bisphenols and phthalates. 
  • Increased body fat and risk of obesity from bisphenols. 
  • Increased symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) from artificial food colors.
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease from phthalates. 
  • Increased risk of cancers from nitrates and nitrites.
  • Interference with male genital development, puberty, and fertility from bisphenols, phthalates and perfluoroalkyl.
  • Low birth weights for babies from perfluoroalkyl.
  • Problems with immune system, nervous system, and thyroid function from bisphenols, perfluoroalkyl, perchlorates, nitrates, and nitrites. 
  • Trouble with your blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to your body from nitrates and nitrites.

Legal Options

Adverse health effects due to exposure to chemicals through your food should not be taken lightly. This is especially true if those chemicals were undisclosed. 

You should discuss your case with an attorney. Your best legal option is probably to file a lawsuit. You want to hire a law firm with knowledge and experience in the complexities of consumer protection. 

W&L is a national firm with a full legal team of Environmental, Toxic Tort & Consumer Protection attorneys. We know the law and hold companies responsible for products and practices causing you harm. 

We have gone up against some of the giants of industry. We believe manufacturers have a duty to inform you about what substances are in their products — and to ensure those products are safe.

How W&L Can Help

Our legal record demonstrates our dedication and commitment; we consistently obtain just outcomes for our clients. 

Here are a couple of our successful cases: