I-TEAM: How banned chemicals in food are able to be sold in the United States

DAYTON — If you look around your kitchen, you’ll see a variety of foods you love to eat but many of those foods probably include chemicals that are banned in other countries due to health concerns like cancer.

The Shaw family’s backyard is also an extension of their kitchen. In the last three years, the family of five has slowly switched their eating habits. Not only do they grow their own fruit and vegetables and have fresh eggs within walking distance from their back door, but their pantry even got a makeover.

“It’s been a slow process of swapping out,” Amber-Lee Shaw said.

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Shaw takes extra steps the avoid some ingredients in common snacks she doesn’t want her kids eating.

She told the I-Team’s Consumer Investigative Reporter, Xavier Hershovitz, that you’d be surprised by how many major food companies make different versions of their products: one way for Europe, India, or China and another way from the United States, which can include additives that are banned in other countries.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tracks the use of food additives worldwide. Hershovitz spoke with EWG’s Scott Faber, who told him that “it’s hard to explain.”

“Many of the chemicals that are in your food, if they have been reviewed by the [Federal Drug Administration], have not been reviewed for 40 or 50 years and you can imagine there’s been a lot of scientific developments and changes in hose we use these chemicals,” Faber said.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t reviewed them because, in 1966, it deemed hundreds of additives as “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS.

The GRAS list keeps growing and today, there are about a thousand additives on the list.

The EWG highlighted the most common additives on the GRAS list that are banned in other countries, such as:

  • Propyl Paraben: A preservative used in pastries and some tortillas. A study by Harvard found that the preservative causes developmental and reproductive harm.
  • Potassium Bromate: Often found in bread, rolls, and flour tortillas, this is banned in most countries around the world except for Japan and the United States. The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined it’s a possible human carcinogen linked to cancer of the thyroid, kidneys, and other organs.
  • Titanium Dioxide: A color additive used in salad dressings, coffee creamer, and candy. Two years ago, the European Food Safety Authority ruled it can no longer be considered safe, sighting studies that it can damage your DNA.

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“I can’t imagine what they’re telling their customers who call up and say, ‘Wow, I was just visiting friends and family in Italy and I was able to buy Skittles without Titanium Dioxide,’ and I would say I think the answer is because we don’t have to use Titanium Dioxide in the United States. That’s not a good answer,” Faber said.

The EWG’s website has a breakdown of 80,000 products, including from manufacturers in our area like Kraft-Heinz and Frito-Lay. It found several Kraft-Heinz products with chemicals banned in Europe and found several from Frito-Lay, but all of them meet U.S. food and drug regulations.

Shaw believes the FDA should be looking into these additives more thoroughly. For now, she’s doing more research for her own peace of mind.

“Now, it’s a family affair. We all pick up everything. We’re those annoying people that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it!’” Shaw said.

The I-Team reached out to the FDA, which sent us a long statement saying in part, “It is not uncommon for a substance to be approved in one jurisdiction but not in another.” The statement also said, “Food manufacturers are responsible for marketing safe foods.”

The I-Team also reached out to both Kraft-Heinz and Frito-Lay, but neither company got back to us.

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