A Nineteenth Century FDA?

Ross Hume Hall, Ph.D.
biochemistry, nutrition,  food technology.

  Unofficial Guide to Smart Nutrition
A Cell's-EyeView
19th Century FDA?
Blow-Torch Cheese
Enriched  Bread?
French Fried Kids
Omega-3 Fats
Trans Fats
Quality Ranking of Food Products
Try a Nutrition Quiz
Savvy Restaurant Eater
The Hormonal Cow
Gene-Modified Crops
Prostate Cancer
Memory Loss
Supplement or Not



Stuck in the 19th century, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is locked into an old-fashioned view of food-additive safety. What does this mean to you, the consumer of modern foods?

If by magic Harvey Wiley were taken out of his nineteenth century government laboratory and plunked down in 21st century FDA headquarters, he’d feel right at home. Sure, he’d find people’s clothes and laboratory equipment different. But, when it comes to FDA’s idea of protecting American consumers from unsafe chemical additives, Wiley would find not a whit of difference. FDA’s attitude towards consumer protection is stuck in the nineteenth century world of Harvey W. Wiley.

Just who is this Harvey W. Wiley and what’s his connection to FDA? Go back 119 years to 1883. In that year Wiley was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This bureau later evolved into the FDA.

Wiley, a chemist, keenly understood the toxic effects of chemicals on the human body. As chief government chemist, Wiley saw his task to protect the public from exposure to dangerous chemicals. The most dangerous source was adulterated food. The food industry was totally unregulated. Beer makers dumped in sulfuric acid to mature their brew in a matter of days. Cheese makers added highly toxic lead salts to give cheese a brilliant yellow color. All manner of poisons found their way into food products.

Alarmed by the lack of oversight, Wiley said it was time for government to prevent such outrages. The food industry, in fairness, used a variety of chemicals in making foods, some not so dangerous. Wiley felt that with new scientific techniques he could distinguish safe from non-safe additives. Testing would put control over chemical food additives on a sound scientific basis.

The Human Poison Squad

To this end he organized what newspapers of the day called the "poison squad". He selected a group of 12 young men who volunteered to eat a balanced diet containing a test chemical. In Wiley’s view the best animal to test toxicity in humans is a human.

Wiley worried, in particular, about the chemicals manufacturers added to preserve foods, such as formaldehyde, benzoic acid, salicylic acid, and boric acid. These chemicals preserve foods by virtue of poisoning bacteria and molds. Did they also poison human consumers? Wiley set about testing these food preservatives on his young crew, one at a time.

The men’s health was a closely monitored. If the men didn’t get sick or show any adverse effects, Wiley O.K.’d the chemical. But if the men got sick, developed unusual rashes, watery eyes, or other symptoms, Wiley said the chemical should be banned.

Banning a food additive wasn’t always easy. The food industry in Wiley’s day, as of now, exerted a powerful influence over Washington lawmakers. Industry executives didn’t take lightly a Wiley decision to ban a favorite preservative. They tried to downplay toxic features of chemicals they routinely dumped in their food products..

Wiley, an excellent politician, knew the value of getting the public on his side. He gave newspapers full details of his poison squad. The public, intrigued by the fact young men willingly ate poisons, followed the tests as avidly as a sporting event. It was hard to persuade people a food additives was benign when the additive made young men sick

In Wiley’s day the list of chemical additives was relatively short. In a matter of a few years his poison squad was able to test most of the common preservatives used. That was over a century ago. The Wright brothers hadn’t flown the first airplane. Women were stuck in corsets and long skirts.

FDA still tests new food additives within a framework set up by Harvey Wiley at the end of the 19th century.

The food industry, no technical slouch, in the last 100 years has devised new and complex ways of adulterating food products. I define adulteration in two ways. The manufacturer adds a chemical(s) that contributes nothing to the nutritional worth of the food. The manufacturer through the use of factory chemistry alters the basic character of a food. (An example in a moment)

The industry’s now has at its disposal thousands of chemicals it can legally use in food products. Potential hazards have multiplied like a chain letter. You’d never know it at FDA headquarters.

Here we are now in the age of space walks, animal cloning, and the Internet. Yet, the agency is stuck in Harvey Wiley’s era. FDA still tests the safety of these new additives within a framework set up by Wiley’s poison squad. That’s a serious charge, so let me explain in more detail.

There are four Wiley-era problems with FDA’s test methods.

1. FDA Discriminates Against Women, Children and Older Folk

Poison-squad members were male, young, and in good physical condition. Although human volunteers are no longer used, their surrogates, lab rats, are young, healthy and male. No old rats, no baby rats, no pregnant females, no sick rats, and certainly no rats with a weakened immune system. FDA has no idea of how chemical additives used in modern foods affect the female reproductive system or the sensitive bodies of toddlers.

2. Chemicals Tested One at a Time

Wiley fed his poison squad a single test chemical and made his judgment on that basis. Modern foods do not contain just a single chemical additive. Check the ingredient lists on packaged foods. It can be dauntingly long. I once checked the ingredient list of a frozen dinner my daughter was giving to her kids. The meal contained 36 different chemical additives. When I brought this fact to her attention the dinner wound up in the garbage.

A body having to deal with a single chemical is one thing, but 36. No youthful liver should have to try and detoxify such a load. The sad thing is that FDA has no idea of the harm that package of 36 chemicals can do to a child. It has never tested the package. Yet the 36 additives are legal.

3. Chemical Additives Can Change the Nature of Food Adversely

FDA totally misses how chemicals change the very nature of food. Harvey Wiley thought of an additive as a chemical that aids taste or stops growth of bacteria and molds.

True for some chemical food additives, but the majority of additives twist, tear, and torture the food’s very molecules. Nature creates basic food molecules, the starches, proteins, and fats, in precise ways. The industry through chemical wizardry alters those natural forms. Your body has nothing in its genetic program to deal with the alterations.

Why alter something that has stood the natural test of million of years? Look at it from the food industry’s perspective. Take the example of thickening products, like soups, pasta sauce, ketchup, or baby food. In the home kitchen you can use cornstarch.

The food industry also uses starch. But on an industrial scale when a factory wants to thicken 50 tons of baby food, ordinary cornstarch won’t do. The high heat and length of cooking would destroy ordinary cornstarch causing the food to separate into a watery mess. Chemical technology comes to the rescue.

The starch is first treated with phosphorus oxychloride, a chemical that if it got on your skin would burn to the bone.

Phosphorus oxychloride cross-links the starch molecules into a stout web. At the molecular level the starch resembles a trampoline. It’s stout, resisting the mechanical shear of beaters, and the high heat of industrial cooking. This product, called modified starch by the food industry resembles nothing nature ever devised.

The baby food industry loves modified starch. It’s much cheaper than a fruit or vegetable puree and holds up so well the baby food jars can be shelved in the supermarket at room temperature. Do baby-food manufacturers really need to use modified starch? No, they can avoid modified starch, if they use quality ingredients and improved manufacturing techniques. Many manufacturers, including the most heavily advertised, take the easy route and use the unnatural starch. Poor baby.

So what’s the health hazard to baby of eating this chemically manipulated starch? Good question, because this product has not been investigated to any extent. As long ago as 1970 a joint FAO/WHO (Food Agriculture Organization/world Health Organization) expert committee on food additives complained that neither short-term nor long-term studies on modified food starch had been done. Still waiting.

Modified food starch, incidentally, is used as a cheap filler in pie filings, yogurt, cream cheeses, commercial gravies, and sauces.

Long-term hazards.

Wiley looked for signs of short-term toxicity in his poison squad. If the men didn’t get sick, he considered the test chemical safe. But chemical toxicity goes beyond the immediate. Chemical toxicity has a perverse way of creeping up on you over the years. We know that long-term toxicity can result in cancer, a weakened immune system, and other chronic health problems.

When we talk of .long-term safety, food politics enters the picture. Neither FDA nor the food industry wants people to get sick from eating a food product. For one thing, if people connect their illness with a particular food, it reflects badly on both company and FDA.

On the other hand, if you come down with a serious disease later in life, you probably won’t associate the illness with eating food additives. So FDA and the food industry are off the hook when it comes to long-term poisoning from food additives. Is it any wonder the food industry shuns chronic testing?

Avoid Food Products with a List of Food Additives

What can you do? Can’t rely on FDA to protect you. Check the labels of food products and choose those with few or no additives.

To read more on this issue and learn how to make non-toxic food choices check out my book, The Unofficial Guide to Smart Nutrition

© Ross Hume Hall, 2001. All rights reserved.
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