Why Does the FDA Allow Impurities in Food?

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses the acronym GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) to categorize various impurities that are contained in nearly all foods. Everything we consume contains, among other things, chemical contaminants, metals, natural toxins and pesticides. It is impossible to produce food products that are 100 percent pure because there are microscopic contaminants in the air we breathe and the water we drink, the same air and water used to nourish the plants, animals, fish and fruits that eventually end up on our plates. There is no way to totally eliminate impurities; we can only reduce them to acceptable levels.

  1. Chemical Contaminants

    • Pesticides are common in the food supply. The pesticides kill off the insects that can damage or even destroy entire crops of food. To remove some residual pesticides, the FDA recommends thoroughly washing all fruits and vegetables prior to consumption. They estimate that 83 percent of pesticides can be removed simply by washing food first.

      Acrylamide was first discovered in food in 2002. It is a white crystalline substance that it is a carcinogen and has been found to cause nerve damage in laboratory animals when consumed in high doses. The FDA has not yet determined its affect on public health.

      Polychloronated Biphenyls (PCBs) are released in the air from landfills containing old electrical equipment. PCBs can also result from the evaporation of contaminated bodies of water containing remnants from electrical devices.

      Deoxynivalenol (DON) is a toxic mold that is present on some wheat products. The substance can be reduced but not removed when wheat is processed. It is believed that DON does not present a public health hazard.

    Organic Contaminants

    • Certain "organic" impurities that are found in the foods we consume include rodent hairs, feces and urine as well as insect fragments, eggs and larvae. It is impossible to remove all impurities from food so the FDA established maximum acceptable levels to minimize health hazards. Many of the organic impurities we consume are small microbial particles and are believed to cause no health risks.

    "Natural" or "Organic" Foods

    • Many people consume what is labeled as "natural" or "organic" foods because those foods are thought to be safer and healthier since the food is natural and unprocessed. However, natural foods contain higher amounts of organic impurities. The more food is processed, the more organic contaminants are destroyed. Foods that are labeled 100 percent pure are not, since they are only as pure as they have to be to pass FDA requirements for sale to the public.

    Food Processing

    • We don't like to think of processed food as being healthy, but the processing of food does help eliminate some of the chemicals and pesticides that affect our food. The results of two separate studies indicate that 83 percent of benomyl--a fungicide--is removed from apples when they were processed into applesauce. Oranges that were processed into juice saw a 98 percent reduction in benomyl and 86 percent of the benomyl was removed from tomatoes that were processed into juice.

    Summary

    • In 1862 Charles Wetherill was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to head the Bureau of Chemistry, which is the predecessor of the FDA. The FDA as we know it today began with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act and is responsible for protecting public health. Since there is no way to completely eliminate contaminants from food, the FDA had to establish acceptable guidelines by using chemical analysis to determine levels of contaminants that will not result in a health risk.

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