Even if an ingredient in packaged food sounds weird and unpronounceable, it must be safe because the FDA monitors that kind of stuff, right? Apparently not.

Last week, the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, which represents big food and drink companies, unintentionally exposed just how messed up our food system is after it announced it would grant the FDA access to its database the industry uses to determine whether an ingredient is safe... Because, amazingly, the FDA didn't already have that seemingly crucial information.

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By law, food ingredients are regulated as additives unless the ingredient is "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). And though you'd think the FDA would be the one determining whether an ingredient is safe, that important task is actually left entirely up to food manufacturers themselves. Of course, the FDA has long had the power to question an ingredient's safety and even take action if the ingredient proves harmful. But, by that time, someone somewhere has probably already gotten sick from eating it.

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That the FDA now has access to manufacturers' safety information will presumably mean more transparency in our food system. That's something we should give the GMA credit for, said Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., author of Safe Food and Food Politics.

Still, no one would blame you if you stare down the ingredients on boxed cookies or mac 'n cheese with a skeptic's eye, knowing that the FDA hasn't analyzed the ingredients for safety. But you do have some control over food safety:  To determine an ingredient’s safety for yourself, check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest's food additive database. Or better yet, just avoid packaged foods as much as possible.

"Additives are in processed foods," said Nestle. "This is another reason to eat ones that have been minimally processed, if at all."

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