A coalition of health advocates has sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for failing to ban seven artificial flavors that it claims are carcinogenic, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports.
The coalition — led by Earthjustice and including CSPI, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council and WE ACT for Environmental Justice — has asked an appeals court to force the FDA to decide whether it will ban the flavors, which have been used in a wide range of foods and beverages. The FDA accepted an earlier citizens’ petition asking for the ban in February 2016, and its decision was due in August 2016. The groups claim the FDA’s delay in responding could put public health at risk.
The seven flavors in question may not be well known to consumers because they appear on ingredient lists simply as “artificial flavors.” They are benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, methyl eugenol, myrcene, pulegone, pyridine and styrene.
Global expert opinions and safety reviews have come to various conclusions for each of the listed flavoring substances. The notoriously strict European Food Safety Authority recently reassessed benzophenone and found it to be safe at current usage levels in food. Meanwhile, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) is in the process of assessing methyl eugenol, which is already banned in Europe. One of the listed flavorings, styrene, is no longer allowed in food in the United States, according to FEMA, which has asked the FDA to delete its listing as a synthetic food additive.
Whatever the actual risk of these additives, the move to remove them from foods and drinks reflects consumers’ broader expectations for food ingredients. There is strong and growing concern about synthetic substances being used in food at all, as consumers wonder why food and drink makers continue to use artificial ingredients when natural alternatives exist.
Food manufacturers are already rejecting artificial flavors on the back of consumer concern. General Mills announced six months ago that it would cut artificial flavors and colors from its baking products, and industry titans like Nestlé, Campbell Soup and Hershey are among others making the switch. Retailers have also taken note within their private label lines. Target recently cut artificial flavors and sweeteners from its kids' line, while Hy-Vee said it would remove more than 200 artificial ingredients from many of its store brand products.
Whether or not the FDA is forced to make a decision on the specific flavorings singled out by this lawsuit, demand for clean label foods has entered the mainstream — and food companies recognize the importance of responding to that demand. A recent survey by Sanford Bernstein found 55% of respondents were growing more distrustful of the food system, while 69% of consumers said reading labels impacted their shopping habits, according to C+R Research.