Coffee laundry detergent? How food additives are changing with the rise of “eating clean”

Can we call it "cleanwashing"?

“Food additives.” They get a bad rap. (You might be surprised to learn the dictionary does not in fact offer “toxin” as a synonym. Probably an oversight.) And heaven knows that at least some of it is deserved. Manufacturers over the years have put an amazing array of stuff into our food, drugs, and cosmetics. (The Food & Drug Administration’s succinctly named web page Everything Used in Food in the United States includes almost 4,000 listings, from acacia gum to zingerone, the substance that’s responsible for the sweet taste of cooked ginger, which is also available, and legal to use in food, in a synthetic form.)

The vast majority of food additives are never approved by any regulator.
Over the years, manufacturers have tried some dreadful ingredients. For example, the event that made food and drug safety an FDA priority came in 1937, when a small drug company turned sulfanilamide powder (an antibiotic) into a liquid by mixing it with diethylene glycol, a common industrial chemical used in things like brake fluid. More than 100 people died. (If it sounds stupid to use a chemical like that in a product designed for human consumption, bear in mind that there’s a diethylene glycol disaster somewhere in the world every few years. The last one I know of came in Nigeria in 2008 and involved an infant teething formula.)

More commonly, though, the bad-guy ingredients aren’t proven killers. They’re just really dubious. Take cinnamyl anthranilate, an artificial cinnamon flavoring. We know it causes cancer in mice—lots of cancer. Might humans react differently? Frankly, who cares? It’s been banned since 1985. The list of ingredients banned in the United States contains many stories like this—ingredients that looked so bad that the jury called for the hangman without bothering with the eyewitnesses.

Have the recent changes in consumer preferences made much difference to the folks who concoct the art of the food label that we can’t pronounce?

Moving so quickly and vigorously makes perfect sense when you think about the way the U.S. regulates food additives. The vast majority are never approved by any regulator. Instead, the manufacturer asserts that they’re generally recognized as safe (GRAS), and FDA either objects or it doesn’t. (I wrote about the process here.) It’s a weird system, I suppose, but it’s hard to imagine that a more complex one would work much better. Barring a lot of research that no one is likely to do, any not-particularly-vital substance that is shown to bump off large numbers of rodents is never going to be generally regarded as safe again.

My head is already starting to ache.
But in writing about GRAS, I got to thinking. I know what kinds of additives manufacturers have turned to in the past. But what are they trying to use today? Have the recent changes in consumer preferences—and consumer fears—made much difference to the folks who concoct the art of the food label that we can’t pronounce?

It’s not an easy question, and if you’d like to do your own digging, the place to go is FDA’s listing of the 740 GRAS notifications it has received since the program has been in effect. (Remember, FDA recommends that manufacturers file notifications, but it doesn’t require them. There are many more new ingredients than are listed on FDA’s list.) It’s a great place to spend an afternoon browsing.

Let’s look at a few of the most recent filings.

Fungi versus bacteria. The German firm InterMed Discovery (IMD) filed a notification for a fatty acid it isolated from a particular strain of Dacryopinax spathularia, a jelly fungus previously best known as a component in a Chinese vegetarian dish called Buddha’s delight. IMD’s scientists discovered that the substance prevented the growth of bacteria. They patented it, and proposed to use it in beverages, replacing traditional preservatives like benzoic acid or propionic acid, which work by making the drink more acidic. The ingredient is natural (or at least naturalish, since it’s been isolated from the fungus), the method of action more complex. Is it an improvement on what we’ve already been using? My head is already starting to ache.

Apparently the fiber in coffee beans is great at breaking down ingredients like guar gum

It cleans your clothes, it makes you coffee. When you’re manufacturing instant coffee, you’ve got to get the good stuff—the various oils and the caffeine—away from the fibrous structure of the bean, much of which consists of a long-chain carbohydrate called mannan. DuPont has filed a GRAS notification for an enzyme called mannanase, which breaks down mannan and makes the process more efficient. Mannanase is already used in animal feeds (though it’s not clear how well it works). DuPont also markets it as an additive to detergents; apparently it’s great at breaking down ingredients like guar gum—the ingredient that makes that barbecue sauce stain on your shirt impossible to wash out.

Pickle yourself. We all know the Lactobacillus bacteria. They’re the ones that ferment pickles, cause sourdough bread to rise, and assist in digesting our food. The chemical industry recently has grown interested in exploring the value of various strains of the little guys. DuPont’s subsidiary Danisco, for instance, markets 10 different strains, most of them intended for use as probiotic supplements. (Supplements fall under a different set of rules than foods.) For one strain, though, Lactobacillus casei LPC-37, the company has filed a notification for use as an additive in yogurt and other dairy products, soy products, beverages, chewing gum, and confectionary snacks, presumably for the purpose of creating functional probiotic food products that take advantage of the bacterium’s claimed impact on weight loss, immune response, and other functions.

If your vision of food additives is limited to poisonous preservatives and sawdust in the parmesan, things have changed a bit

Baby want a seaweed? Infants consume about half of their calories in the form of fat. The trick is to get the right mix of fatty acids. One fat of interest at the moment is DHA (docosahexaonic acid), which is thought to aid in visual and cognitive development. And where to get that? One Chinese company has filed a notification (still pending) for its process of producing DHA from algae—a sustainable way of producing an arguably vital nutrient.

There’s lots more. Lots. But you get the point: If your vision of food additives is limited to poisonous preservatives and sawdust in the parmesan, things have changed a bit. There are more new ingredients that draw on natural sources, natural processes. There are more that are focused on providing better nutrition in more sophisticated ways. There’s clearly a better understanding of human physiology and human nutrition. Those seem like positive changes.

The GRAS program doesn’t ask whether things should exist. It asks whether they’re apparently safe.
To which one could easily reply: (1) Nature is great, but a processed natural substance isn’t necessarily natural, and nature isn’t always benign. (2) If we ate better food, we wouldn’t have to muck around with nutritional additives. (3) Yes, we understand nutrition better, but that doesn’t mean we understand it well enough to tinker with confidence at the molecular level. And after all, most of the additives we’ve banned looked like a good idea at some point in the past.

So which perspective is right? It depends. If we succeed in developing a safe, fair, efficient, productive system that feeds the world’s population amply without the use of artificial substances, we won’t need ingredients like the ones I described here, though we may still want them. But that’s not going to happen. The question is where the shortfalls are, and where we’ll benefit by food products that are industrial as well as agricultural. To a lot of people, that’s a religious question. I wish we treated it far more pragmatically.

And that is what seems to be the approach of the government and its GRAS program. It doesn’t ask whether things should exist. It asks whether they’re apparently safe. It’s what happens later that is up to us.

Patrick Clinton is The Counter's contributing editor. He's also a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.