If you have ever read the ingredients on a food package, you no doubt realized that much of what we eat isn’t really food. Chemical additives are common in packaged foods as preservatives, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, and even vitamins and minerals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these chemicals allow food to last longer, look and taste more appealing and provide essential nutrients. The assumption is that these additives have been proven safe for us to consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many commonly used additives.

A recent study in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine examined the process by which food additives are evaluated for safety. Although the Food and Drug Administration requires that some additives go through testing to prove they are safe, many are considered generally recognized as safe; these are known as GRAS. The study suggests that serious conflicts of interest are present in the process that approves many additives as GRAS, allowing them into our food without undergoing testing.

This may be surprising, but it isn’t new. In the late 1950s Congress required that new food additives must be proven safe before they could be used. That raised the question of what to do with additives that were already widely in use. Since people had been eating these additives with no apparent ill effects the decision was made to classify them as safe, and the GRAS list was created. Now additives may be approved as GRAS by an expert panel without rigorous testing and the administration’s approval. The current study found that, in every case, these reviewers worked directly for or had financial ties to the companies that manufactured the additives. This raises serious questions about the process and whether the chemicals added to our foods really are safe.

So, are the additives in our food safe? There is no good answer to that question, mostly because the safety studies haven’t been done. However, it is rare that a food additive is removed from the market for health reasons. And most research showing that a food additive may be unhealthy is conducted in animals. These studies often test amounts that are far higher than people would reasonably consume and may not predict the health effects in humans. And some additives, iron added to cereal or vitamin D added to milk, for example, are beneficial.

To be sure, there are some chemicals in our food that we should avoid, but it isn’t fair to say that all food additives are bad. Even so, eating foods that are free from additives is probably a good idea. Even though each individual additives may not be hazardous, it is possible that exposure to small amounts of several of these chemicals could be dangerous.

Much of our exposure to food additives comes in the form of processed, prepackaged foods, including many restaurant meals. Getting back to basics and cooking using “real” food – fresh fruits, vegetables and meats – is one way to avoid processed foods. Reading food labels can help, too. Look for ingredients that you recognize as food and avoid additives that clearly aren’t.

Avoiding all food additives is almost impossible. Even foods that don’t come in packages, such as fruits and vegetables, may contain coatings that prevent damage or preserve freshness. Even canned fruits and vegetables will likely have added salt or sugar, so even apparently healthy foods can contain additives.

If you want to learn more about this topic, a good source for information about food additive safety is the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s website at www.cspinet.com/reports/chemcuisine.htm.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.