Testing for Trustworthiness in a Tainted Food System

Here is our sixth article in our Food Trends for 2019 series. In this series, we will discuss what we think of the hottest food trends from a Registered Dietitian’s perspective. Are these food trends here to stay or will they be gone next year like many one hit wonders? Today’s Topic: Trustworthiness and the Importance of Third-Party Food Testing

Gone are the days when you could grab a food product off of any old shelf at the grocery store and be confident about what it was. At least, I’m assuming people could do that at one point (or maybe we just didn’t have the information to know better).

I’m not saying that a banana isn’t really a banana. It’s just that the cereal in the colorful box with the cartoon pirate on it probably contains more than just grains, sugar, and the nostalgia of your childhood. It’s most likely hiding some things you’d rather not eat, too.

The reality is that, even if you’re hipster enough to sustain an entirely whole foods diet, free of packaged and processed products, you’re still probably eating some environmental contaminants. It’s just the world we live in today.

How The Food System Becomes Contaminated

Allergens can contaminate food

There are a lot of reasons why foods, dietary supplements, and beverages might contain unwanted substances.

Some substances, like arsenic, cadmium, and lead, can be naturally-occurring in the environment we use to grow foods. Many others are man-made and are introduced to the environment through human industrial, medical, technological, and agricultural activities. For example, pesticides like Monsanto’s glyphosate, created to make RoundUp Ready crops, or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in 1979 but still persist.

Our food is also subject to pathogens, often originating from animal waste on factory farms. This most obviously can affect foods like ground beef or chicken, but even produce (ahem, romaine lettuce) can fall victim if it happens to be irrigated with feces-contaminated water.  

Allergens can also be contaminants. Things like milk, eggs, nuts, and gluten could inadvertently get into a product that isn’t supposed to contain them, usually due to cross-contamination during the manufacturing process.

Why Contaminants Are A Problem

Beyond the frustration of learning that we’re probably eating a lot of things we’d rather not,  many contaminants pose a real concern to public health.

Long-term exposure to pesticides is linked to diseases like Parkinson’s, depression, anxiety, ADHD, respiratory illnesses, and certain cancers like leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Endocrine disruptors, like PCBs and dioxins, can increase risk for fertility problems, birth defects, cognitive and immune damage, and breast and prostate cancers. High exposure to heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic can lead to cancers and neurological damage. Pathogens like E.coli, Salmonella, and Listeria can make you really sick, and even be deadly. Undisclosed allergens can be life-threatening for consumers with severe allergies.

Products Can Be Tested For Safety and Purity

Third-party safety testing

Luckily, there are third party organizations available to help address this problem for us — and for manufacturers.

The job of a third-party food testing company is to provide independent, unbiased verification of food label claims, in the interest of public health. This means they don’t have a vested interest in the financial success of the products they test. And the legit ones will have accreditations, their laboratories will be ISO 17025 certified, their scientists will know how to conduct the appropriate tests, and these organizations will be third party audited themselves.

Depending on the product, third parties can test for things like heavy metals, pesticides, antibiotics, gluten, animal-derived ingredients, GMOs, athletic banned substances, PCBs, and microbes.

Third party testing has increased for many reasons, like the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), concerns over national food recalls, food fraud, and in response to consumer demand for more transparency. Many manufacturers are pursuing third party certification to increase our trust in their brand.

How They Do It

What does it mean when a brand obtains third-party certification for a food, beverage, or dietary supplement? Their manufacturing process and final product has been scrutinized and determined to be compliant with standards and regulations for quality, safety, or performance. This typically includes facility audits, formulation reviews, and comprehensive laboratory testing.

Third party companies can run scientific tests to verify that a product’s claims are accurate — meaning, they’re free of things they claim to be free of, and/or they contain the things they claim to contain (and in the claimed amounts). Tests can also ensure a product doesn’t exceed certain levels of contaminants.

How To Tell If A Product Has Been Third Party Tested

Look for seals on products that indicate they have obtained third-party certification. Official seals are not to be confused with statements on the packaging like “FDA registered” or “natural” which are largely meaningless to your health.

If you find a seal, you should be able to look up the third-party website and search their database of tested products and brands.

Some examples of official seals:

The consumer marketplace is a world of ever-changing options and preferences, but guaranteed safety and quality is one food trend I think most of us can get behind.