We Americans are a very trusting people. We want to believe that our government is by and for the people. We especially want to believe that those federal watchdog agencies, entrusted to protect the public health, truly act in our best interests. But a healthy democracy depends on the constant vigilance of its citizens. The following is an excellent case in point.
In the FACT “Food Additives” file there are two articles, both printed in 1974, which share an interesting relationship. The first, “How Government Experts Challenge Food Additives,” appeared in the publication Nature’s Way in May 1974. It reports new findings of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the well-funded federal conglomerate of research operations dedicated to improving the nation’s health. Research funded by NIH had found definite proof that certain chemicals added to processed foods are toxic to the human system. These additives, put into foods for the purpose of preventing bacterial growth (so-called “preservatives”), were found to change the shape of healthy cells and kill them.
The article concludes with a list of the additives and a warning not to buy any product on whose label they appear. Among the toxic chemicals mentioned are propyl paraben and methyl paraben.
Fast forward to the Sunday News of September 22, 1974: “Four Additives Ok’d By U.S.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government agency entrusted with ensuring the safety of the public food and drug supply, announced that four common food additives have been placed on the GRAS ( Generally Recognized As Safe) List. The article explains that after the cyclamate ban in 1969 when the additive was found to cause cancer in rats and banned from the food supply, President Nixon ordered a review of over 500 food ingredients and additives and here, at last, were the results of the research. Affirmed as GRAS were listed the antimicrobial agents propyl paraben and methyl paraben!
What’s going on here? Could it be that propyl and methyl paraben miraculously lost their toxicity between May and September? Is it possible that the FDA, the government “watchdog” agency given the express purpose of protecting the health of the nation, was ignorant of, or perhaps, due to industry pressure or some other agenda, was choosing to ignore the results of a test financed by another governmental health agency?
At any rate, the media and the public evidently failed to pick up on the contradiction because the FDA’s stamp of approval on propyl and methyl paraben still stands today. A check of labels, especially in the health food store, revealed the rampant use of the two additives in toiletry articles such as body lotions, shampoos, conditioners, etc. The skin is the largest organ of absorption in the body and, therefore, anything applied topically will doubtless find its way into the bloodstream.
As mentioned, these two chemicals were found on the labels of “natural” products in health food stores in the same abundance as in “regular” stores. Most people like to feel that anyone involved with the health movement must have superior knowledge and motives, but, sadly, the need for consumer vigilance is omnipresent. KM, a popular herbal concoction touted as a natural remedy for many ills, lists as ingredients propyl and methyl paraben. Several years ago the label of the product was sent to FACT by a distributor. When Ruth Sackman told him that the product contained these two toxic chemicals, he said he would speak to the manufacturer about changing them. A few weeks later the man called back to report that the makers of KM claimed they couldn’t make the change and so propyl and methyl paraben remain in the product to this day.
While we’re on the subject of confidence, the term “GRAS” does not exactly inspire equanimity. What exactly does “generally” mean? Are there some occasions when the substance is not safe? What if you happen to be one of those rare individuals
adversely affected, while the population at large has no problem? One would hope that our “watchdog” agencies would either abstain from adding such substances to the public food supply or, at least, alert us to possible dangers. This, sadly, has not been the modus operandi of the FDA. In such instances the agency often claims it does not want to alarm the populace. It is usually years later that we hear that a heretofore considered safe substance causes problems and must be removed from the market.
The sad moral of this story is that our government protection agencies – along with constituents of the health food industry – are not necessarily looking out for us. Until they reorganize themselves to the point where they earn our trust, it is in our interest to maintain a healthy skepticism about all pronouncements relating to our health.