Is that tasty store-bought box of mac-and-cheese bad for your health? That’s the argument of a recent book, Rich Food, Poor Food, by Florida nutritionists Jayson and Mira Calton. The Caltons cite studies suggesting that food dyes like Yellow #5—found in some mac-and-cheese products as well as other packaged foods—can lead to hyperactivity in children and perhaps even brain cancer. Indeed, the dye is currently banned in Norway and Austria.
The Caltons’ book, which bills itself as a guide to healthy grocery shopping, got a huge publicity boost thanks to a controversial BuzzFeed story that described eight foods Americans eat that are banned elsewhere. But are those foods truly toxic? Here’s a closer look at the facts behind the controversy.
In addition to food dyes, BuzzFeed cited the Calton’s book in warning readers away from a range of products, including:
The problem is that the science can be murky when it comes to establishing a clear link between a particular food or additive and a specific problem.
Science blogger and chemist Derek Lowe, PhD, penned a 4,000-word attack challenging the supposed link between these food additives and various illnesses. For example, Lowe points out that research has failed to establish a clear connection between food dyes and ADHD. He also notes that studies suggesting an association with brain cancer are out-of-date and were performed on animals fed huge quantities of dye.
Even NPR weighed in, pointing out that Olestra has largely faded from the store shelves, the poultry industry no longer uses arsenic in drugs for chickens, and Gatorade is phasing out its use of brominated vegetable oils.
Yet it’s still true that these ingredients are added to many American foods—except for arsenic-laced poultry drugs—but are illegal in other parts of the world. In the U.S., something is considered safe until it is proven to be dangerous, notes Mira Carlton, citing genetically modified foods as another example. “However, in many other countries, [a food product] must be proven that it is safe before it can come to market.” She notes other substances once widely-used and thought to be safe—like lead paint and the pesticide DDT—are now banned in the U.S. due to their damaging effects on human health.
“The bottom line is that none of our banned ingredients are good for you at any quantity,” she adds, regarding the recent controversy. “And health conscious consumers would be wise to ban them from their shopping carts.”
It’s not strictly about the hard science when it comes to many food bans, which may be influenced by cultural biases, politics, or even international trade. Figuring out who is right and who is wrong is complicated.
“Europe uses the precautionary principle,” says Julie Jones, PhD, a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota, and author of the textbook Food Safety. “This means that if there is any doubt, even though no data of harm—it is avoided or banned.”
The U.S. has its own list of banned foods that are available in other countries. Earlier this summer, for example, the U.S. lifted a controversial 50-year ban on Italian pork products like salami and pancetta. Some of the foods and additives currently banned in the U.S. but found abroad include:
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