British chef and food activist Jamie Oliver ignited a firestorm in January 2011 when he mentioned on the Late Show with David Letterman that castoreum, a substance used to augment some strawberry and vanilla flavorings, comes from what he described as “rendered beaver anal gland.”1 The next year, vegans were outraged to learn that Starbucks used cochineal extract, a color additive derived from insect shells, to dye their strawberry Frappuccino® drinks2 (eventually, the company decided to transition to lycopene, a pigment found in tomatoes3). Although substances like castoreum and cochineal extract may be long on the “yuck factor,”4 research has shown them to be perfectly safe for most people; strident opposition arose not from safety issues but from the ingredients’ origins. But these examples demonstrate that the public often lacks significant knowledge about the ingredients in foods and where they come from. This is not a new development; the public relationship to food additives has a long history of trust lost, regained, and in some cases lost again. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 19385 was passed shortly after the deaths of 100 people who took an untested new form of a popular drug, which contained what turned out to be a deadly additive.6 The new law was consumer oriented and intended to ensure that people knew what was in the products they bought, and that those products were safe. The law has been amended over the years in attempts to streamline and bring order to the sprawling task of assessing and categorizing the thousands of substances used in foods, drugs, and cosmetics. One result of this streamlining is that under current U.S. law, companies can add certain types of ingredients to foods without premarket approval from the thin-stretched Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In other words, there are substances in the food supply that are unknown to the FDA. In 2010 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that a “growing number of substances … may effectively be excluded from federal oversight.”7 Is this a problem? The answer depends on whom you ask.

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