Health

Safe to eat? Common ingredients banned in other countries, but OK here

May 6, 2014 at 9:07 AM ET

Video: TODAY health and diet editor Madelyn Fernstrom identifies ingredients that are commonly found in U.S. foods but are banned abroad, and explains how to know whether you’re eating foods that contain them.

Ever heard of BVOs or rBST? They're ingredients that have been banned from the food supply in other countries, but are allowed in food products in the United States. Should we be worried? And how do you know if you're consuming a food that contains some of these ingredients?

On Monday Coca-Cola said it will drop the controversial chemical brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, from all its drinks, prompted by worries the ingredient is used as a flame retardant and isn't approved for consumption in Japan and the European Union. Pepsi also said it was removing the controversial ingredient from Gatorade drinks.  

In a statement, Coke responded: "All of our beverages, including those with BVO, are safe and always have been — and comply with all regulations in the countries where they are sold..."

But if it's safe, why take it out? When it comes to banning food ingredients, not only science, but public opinion, animal welfare, and politics often weigh in on the decision-making. So a “food ban” in some parts of the globe for certain foods doesn’t automatically make a food unsafe to eat.

Even before Coke's decision, there’s been a lot of talk about “banned” food ingredients in other countries that are used in foods produced in the U.S. 

The good news is that the overwhelming evidence supports safety in the food supply, as approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But population data do not always apply to the individual, and for all of these ingredients, options are also available to avoid completely if desired.  

Here are 6 common ingredients banned in other countries, but approved for use in the U.S.:

1. Brominated vegetable oil (BVOs)

What it’s in: Some citrus-flavored sodas and sugary drinks. It’s used as an emulsifier to keep the citrus and other ingredients mixed in solution.

How to avoid if you choose: Read the ingredient labels on all citrus-flavored drinks. The Coca-Cola Company announced this week the removal of BVO from its Powerade Line.

2. Food colorings/dyes (Blue #1 and #2; Yellow #5 and #6; Red #40) 

What they're In: Many candies, cereals, drinks, salad dressings, processed foods

How to avoid if you choose: Read the package labels for any added artificial food colorings or dyes. Look for organic products, or labels stating vegetable colorings only.

3. Bovine growth hormone — rBST

What It’s In: About 25 percent of the milk and dairy foods produced in the United States.

How to avoid If you choose: Look for labels saying “no added hormones”. All milk naturally contains growth hormone (including human milk). Organic milk is FDA-regulated to be added-hormone free. Animal welfare seems to be of significant concern, not food safety.

4. Potassium Bromate

What It’s In: Found in some breads, rolls, and pizza dough

How to avoid If you choose: For home use, choose flours that are potassium bromate free. Read labels on packaged breads and frozen doughs. Ask in a restaurant for the type of flour used. 

5. BHA/BHT

What It’s In: Some breads and rolls as a preservative.

How to avoid If you choose: Read package labels.

6. GMO or genetically modified organisms 

What they're In: Most corn and soybean products; vegetable burgers, protein bars, cereals, snackfoods.

How to avoid If you choose: Look for organic foods, which are FDA regulated to exclude use of GMO ingredients. Choose packaged foods with a non-GMO verified label.

The bottom line is — it’s always important to be an informed consumer. The safety of the U.S. food supply is based on a set of complex rules and regulations established by the FDA (and sometimes with input from the USDA and EPA). Perhaps even more confusing, there are also food ingredients that are banned in the US (like cyclamates, the low calorie sweetener) that are approved throughout the world. 

Companies must petition for FDA approval, including GRAS (generally recognized as safe) compounds as food additives. Documented scientific evidence of safety is required as well and test samples for evaluation by FDA experts— and sometimes external expert scientific panels — to determine based on all of the scientific data whether an additive can be used in the food supply, and in what concentration.

Many studies showing harmful effects are done in very high doses over long periods of time in laboratory animals. The FDA philosophy is to document no harm from an ingredient when used as intended. Studies are assessed to connect any potential effects in real-life use, not mega doses that are only theoretical. And it’s often a challenge to translate such findings to typical use by people, which is where much of the debate for safety is focused.

Generally, the potential adverse effects for a variety of food ingredients include tumor development, endocrine disruptions, behavior changes, rashes, or allergies.

TODAY.com writer Linda Carroll contributed to this report

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