- A new report from the Environmental Working Group found most consumers aren't aware that conventional packaged foods contain thousands of "poorly regulated" chemicals, while fewer than 40 synthetic ingredients are allowed in organic packaged foods.
- The group said at least 2,000 chemical preservatives, flavors, colors and other chemicals are used in conventional packaged foods, including some that have been linked to health problems. In contrast, EWG said no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors are permitted in organic packaged foods.
- Consumers may also be unaware that food makers don't need approval from the Food and Drug Administration to use many of the chemicals added to CPG products, according to the EWG. "For those consumers seeking 'clean foods' free from toxic chemical additives, organic is really your only option," Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for the group and one of the report's co-authors, said in a release.
This new study comes from EWG, the same organization which produces the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean 15" pesticide residue reports each year. The new findings may startle some consumers who don't know the FDA allows CPG manufacturers to use certain chemicals in their products as long as they are found to be generally recognized as safe.
The federal government's controversial GRAS process allows manufacturers to provide their own scientific basis for the certification and — unless the FDA objects for some reason — results in a faster regulatory approval procedure that consumer and environmental groups have long opposed.
Does this mean conventional CPG foods aren't as safe as organic foods because of the presence of these chemicals? The EWG report concludes it does because federal regulators and independent experts are required to analyze and approve synthetic substances before they can be legally used in organic packaged foods — and then only if there are no natural or organic alternatives available.
Furthermore, the report said synthetic ingredients permitted in organic packaged foods have to be reviewed every five years, while those that have an adverse effect on human health or on the environment cannot be used. Since 2008, EWG says 72 substances have been rejected for use in organic food.
This is in stark contrast to conventional foods, which the EWG report said can contain chemicals linked to health problems such as cancer. These include sodium nitrate and BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole, which is a preservative used in cereals and frozen foods such as pizza, sausages and pepperoni. The report noted manufacturers and chemical companies aren't required to regularly review these additives in light of new research or dietary changes.
Packaged foods could be produced on a commercial scale without using "thousands of poorly regulated chemicals," the EWG report said, adding that increasing growth in the organic packaged foods sector proves this point. These foods now make up about 3% of the U.S. CPG market, the group said.
Recent studies have shown that switching from a conventional to an all-organic diet can significantly reduce synthetic pesticide levels in the human body in less than a week. While the sample size — four families — was small, such findings seem to indicate there are plenty of pesticide residues in conventional foods. However, consumers aren't likely to be any more aware of that than they are of the many synthetic substances legally allowed in conventional CPG foods.
It's likely those who follow an organic diet will be less nervous upon hearing about this report . And it might give people who regularly consume conventional CPG foods a reason to try organic. Organic manufacturers are in a position to move this process along by advertising the relative benefits of their products, with this EWG report serving as evidence.
Conventional food makers can try to counter this EWG report by noting that added chemicals are within regulated levels, but it might be more useful for them to start exploring other ingredients that could lead to cleaner labels. Consumers consistently say they want transparency in their foods and will pay more for it — ingredient lists they can read and understand are part of that. They also want to know more in general about what they're consuming, so the EWG could have performed a useful public service with this report, although its findings will likely be rejected by the conventional CPG industry.