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Consumer Safety

FDA bans 7 synthetic food flavorings

Agency responds to evidence that chemicals can cause cancer in animals

by Britt E. Erickson
October 9, 2018

colorful candy of many shapes and sizes on a white background.
Credit: Shutterstock
FDA has banned seven synthetic flavorings from use in candy and other foods.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has banned the use of six synthetic flavorings in candy, cookies, ice cream, and all other foods and beverages because the chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. The affected chemicals—benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether, myrcene, pulegone, and pyridine—are typically listed as “artificial flavors” on food labels, so consumers have no way of knowing which products contain them.

FDA has also banned the use of styrene as a synthetic flavoring agent in food. The agency says that it did not make the decision because styrene is a carcinogen, but rather because it is no longer used by the food industry. The U.S. National Toxicology Program classified styrene as a “reasonably anticipated” human carcinogen in 2011.

FDA’s action comes in response to a 2015 petition from a coalition of consumer and health advocacy groups. The petitioners provided FDA with evidence that the flavorings are carcinogenic in laboratory animals.

FDA claims that the chemicals “do not pose a risk to public health under the conditions of their intended use,” but the agency cannot legally authorize the use of food additives that have been shown to cause cancer in animals.

The bans go into effect on Oct. 9 when FDA publishes the final rule in the Federal Register, but FDA does not intend to enforce the rule until Oct. 9, 2020, to give manufacturers time to reformulate their products. Each of the six synthetic flavorings has a natural counterpart used to flavor foods. For example, eugenyl methyl ether is found in basil and pyridine occurs in coffee. These naturally occurring substances are not affected by the bans—they can still be extracted from food and used as flavoring agents.

The groups that petitioned FDA are urging the agency to take action on other outstanding petitions. “Now it’s time for FDA to rule on overdue petitions including the use of toxic ortho-phthalates in food manufacturing and packaging, cancer-causing perchlorate in dry food plastic packaging, and lead acetate in hair dyes like Grecian Formula,” Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at Environmental Defense Fund, one of the petitioners, said in a statement.


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