You may have seen news or online content about chemicals in our foods. Perhaps you’re wondering, is a food safe to eat if it contains chemicals?

All our food — like everything in the world — is made up of chemicals. The presence of a chemical alone isn’t what determines whether a food is safe to eat. To assess the safety of chemicals in food, scientists at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration & others worldwide look at information about the chemical’s safety, as well as how much of a chemical is in the food & how much a person eats or drinks. It’s the amount that counts.

Our Food is Chemicals: Facts, Science & Safety

What does it mean that food is made up of chemicals? Chemicals exist in whole foods & provide nutrition, like potassium in bananas, for example. The water, protein, fats, & carbohydrates we need for a healthy, balanced diet are chemicals, too.

Some chemicals are added to food for nutritional benefits, like milk fortified with vitamins A & D, or to protect food from spoiling or to prevent pathogens (germs) that could make people sick. Chemicals also add flavor & enhance food in other ways.

There are some chemicals, like contaminants in the environment, that get into food when crops absorb them from the soil or air. Some contaminants are naturally present in the environment & are hard to completely eliminate. Others are in the environment because of industrial emissions & other human-made pollution.

Chemical Exposure Through Food: It’s the Amount That Counts

A basic principle in science is that any chemical has the potential to be harmful at a certain level. That means a person would have to eat or drink enough to reach the harmful level. For some chemicals, that level is very low, & for others, the level is higher.

Let’s apply that to sodium as an example. Sodium is important for maintaining blood pressure & is also needed for nerves, muscles & other body tissues to work properly. Too much sodium can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels, which is a major risk factor for heart disease & stroke. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day for people 14 years & older; & even less for those 13 years & younger. That’s why the FDA issued guidance to help the food industry make reasonable reductions in sodium across a wide variety of foods.

Determining Safe Amounts: The Science Behind FDA Food Chemical Safety

The FDA evaluates & monitors chemicals in FDA-regulated food to ensure they don’t pose a health risk.

There’s a lot of calculation & consideration that goes into scientifically assessing safe amounts of chemicals in food. That applies to chemicals that are used in packaging, added to food, contaminants from the environment, or chemicals that can form when raw foods are cooked & processed.

The FDA has different ways to scientifically assess the safe amount of a chemical in food by comparing the amount someone is likely to consume in a day, with a variety of other safety data. For example, when evaluating a chemical as a food additive, such as aspartame, the FDA determines an Acceptable Daily Intake. That’s the amount safe to consume each day over the course of a person’s lifetime. The FDA intentionally determines an Acceptable Daily Intake at a level that includes a safety margin that ensures the amount people eat every day is much lower than the level known to have a possible adverse health effect. The difference between the safe level & the harmful level is called the safety margin, which is a term used around the world by scientific experts working to protect consumers from the harmful effects of too much of any chemical.

Here are some of the many factors FDA scientists weigh when looking at food chemical safety:

  • The chemical, why it is in the food & what’s known about its safety.
  • The amount of the chemical in food.
  • The amount & types of food that include the chemical a person would likely eat or drink.
  • Groups of people who may be particularly sensitive such as children, people who are pregnant & older people.

One way the FDA monitors our food supply to help keep it safe is through the Total Diet Study, which is a routine survey that began more than 60 years ago. FDA researchers buy food from the same retail outlets that people buy food from, then prepare the food as people typically would, to provide realistic estimates of the nutrients & contaminants in food. The information the FDA gets from this study & other monitoring programs guide us & inform our public health initiatives, such as working to get the levels of environmental contaminants children may be exposed to Closer to Zero.

While the FDA & industry share the responsibility of ensuring food is safe, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to make sure they market food that meets the FDA requirements that apply. The FDA will act when chemicals are in food at unsafe amounts.

Points to Consider When Reading About Chemicals in Food

Reading or hearing about chemicals in food, when combined with words like “toxic,” “extremely dangerous” & “cancer-causing” may be scary, especially if you aren’t getting all the facts.

Here are a few points to help you navigate information about chemicals in food:

  • More complete information from a credible medical & scientific source would likely explain how much of the chemical is in the food, how much of a food someone actually eats or drinks & whether the chemical is present at a level that is harmful to people.
  • Chemical names may sound complicated but that does not mean they are not safe. Some may be ingredients you are familiar with. For example, tocopherols are vitamin E, sodium chloride is salt, & dihydrogen monoxide is water.
  • Some chemicals safely used in food may have other non-food uses. For example, vinegar is used as a household cleaner but also is used in small amounts in food. If used in food, a chemical must meet the FDA’s safety standard.

Making Food Choices

Eating a variety of nutrient-dense food can help reduce your exposure to any one chemical. Whether you cook from scratch or buy some prepared or packaged items, remember:

  • Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lower-fat dairy, protein food & certain oils.
  • Eat & drink fewer foods & beverages high in saturated fat, sodium or added sugars.

Food choices are yours to make. The FDA wants to help make sure you have sound information to make the choices that work best for you & your family.