FDA: Food additives not risky

Sylvia Porter

December 28, 1990|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Here's some good news: You don't have much reason to worry about food additives, one of the great scares of the last few years.

If you remember the hubbub that erupted a couple of years ago over the pesticide Alar being used on apples, you'll also remember what can happen when such concerns get out of hand. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says they have, indeed, gotten out of hand. Other public health and nutrition researchers agree.

Nearly two-thirds of all farm, orchard and dairy products contain absolutely no measurable levels of pesticide and other chemical residues, a recent FDA report shows. Of the remainder, only a very few less than 1 percent had residues above legal limits. Those limits, in turn, are set at a level below the point where anyone has much of a chance of becoming ill.

"Breathing air in even a small city would put you at much greater risk than a lifetime of eating foods with the maximum allowable pesticides," says an FDA spokesman. "The risk of eating foods with such residues has been blown way out of proportion."

Meanwhile, other research shows that even those very low actual risks may have been exaggerated by a degree of hundreds or even thousands.

Indeed, naturally occurring toxins and carcinogens in food pose a far greater danger but even that is so tiny as to be almost inconsiderable, say researchers at the FDA, the University of Texas, Stanford University and elsewhere. In some cases, additives and pesticides that cause extremely low probability of cancer or other diseases are forbidden, allowing the presence of fungi that are far more likely to produce illness or death. But these "all-natural" carcinogens are allowed.

The agricultural chemicals are considered to be villains as the result of a 1958 law that banned all food additives and pesticides that could result in residues, if those chemicals posed even the slightest risk. Ironically, if this law applied to foods themselves, many all-natural foodstuffs would be taken off the store shelves never mind the fungi that would now be free to infect them.

The problem, say food scientists, is that in order to eliminate theoretical, almost nonexistent risks, growers are being forced to use expensive or less efficient pesticides. This has resulted in reduced crops. The loss of Alar alone is estimated by some to have cost American consumers upward of $1 billion per year. The loss of other, virtually harmless pesticides has cost an additional $1 billion annually.

What does this mean to you? Here's what study after study has shown:

* Shopping for "all-natural" foods does not deliver the health payoff you probably expect. You will pay more and will receive benefits that are immeasurably slight.

* In some cases, food grown without pesticides may harbor organisms that pose a far greater risk to you than the pesticides would have.

* According to the FDA, even the trace residues that exist can be greatly reduced or eliminated by washing produce before you eat it.

* In order to increase your risk of cancer or other disease resulting from food additives, you would have to eat many pounds of foods laced to the legal limit with those additives and pesticide residues, every day, for years.

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