Is American Food Safe? A Look at International Food Bans

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.

Is It Really Bad or Not?

In addition to food dyes, BuzzFeed cited the Calton’s book in warning readers away from a range of products, including:

  • the fat substitute Olean
  • brominated vegetable oil, used in many sports drinks
  • bromated flour, used in some baked goods
  • Azodicarbonamide, used in some frozen dinners
  • the preservatives BHA and BHT, found in products like chewing gum
  • synthetic growth hormones, potentially present in dairy products
  • arsenic in chicken

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.

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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 He also notes that studies suggesting an association with brain cancer are out-of-date and were performed on animals fed huge quantities of dye.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.”

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The Politics of Food Safety

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:

  • European beef. The ban was put in place to prevent the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease). The EU, meanwhile, has its own ban in place on U.S. beef due to the use of growth hormones in cattle production.
  • Raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days. According to Jones, before pasteurization was widely adopted in the U.S. in 1938, cow's milk (and other milk products) accounted for approximately 25 percent of all food- and water-borne disease outbreaks. However, raw milk cheese is available in many countries, including Canada and France.
  • Coumarin. A food additive, coumarin has been banned in the U.S since the 1950s. However, it can still be found in some European countries in certain alcoholic beverages. The FDA also warns that it may be added to vanilla extract sold in Mexico.
  • Haggis. This Scottish delicacy, made of chopped pieces of sheep’s lung, heart, and liver, combined with grains and spices, has been banned in the US since the 1970s. According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service, quoted by the BBC News Magazine, lungs are “considered an inedible item.”
  • Foie gras. While not banned by U.S. federal law, the state of California has outlawed this food otherwise known as duck or goose liver. At issue is the force feeding of the animals to enlarge their liver beyond normal size.

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