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Food For Thought: What’s Up With The American Food System?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCSB chapter.

When I went to Europe this past summer, I felt like I was in heaven. London and France boasted historical architecture, blue-water coastlines, white sand beaches, and quaint markets teeming with keepsake gems — but the real treasure was the food. As a gluten, dairy, and refined-sugar-free, stomach-issue-riddled girl, I experienced the unimaginable. I enjoyed all the foods I only ever dreamt of having again: pasta, pizza, bread, gelato, and even certain fresh produce that typically cause me digestive stress. 

Prior to my trip, I’d heard stories of Americans who traveled to Europe and ate outside of their normal dietary regime with no repercussions. My TikTok feed was overcome with “When your dairy and gluten intolerance doesn’t act up in Italy…even when you’re eating pizza, pasta, and dairy regularly” videos. I remember thinking, this can’t be true. Yet, to my surprise, it checked out. After my trip, all I could think was, why? The aforementioned Tiktok offers that it’s because they farm, grow, and produce their food in such a different way than in the U.S. But is this really true? How exactly do our food systems differ?

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Photo by @SarahFahmy

Here in the States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) serves as a federal body that regulates the majority of our food products, with the Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) covering poultry, meat, and eggs. In Europe, however, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) serves as a singular governing body, streamlining food standard laws for all twenty-seven countries. This marks our first vital distinction: in terms of the management of food standards, the U.S. has federal administration, while Europe has one non-federal organization.

In assessing how each nation decides upon prohibited ingredients, the FDA generally takes a more reactive approach to food standards and inspections, meaning essentially that food additives are allowed until proven harmful. In the EU, additives must be proven as unharmful before they can be used in food production. Thus, while here in the States we observe an abundance of growth hormones and chemical preservatives, the EFSA maintains a strict intolerance towards the use of hormones and a strong advisory against manufacturers using preservatives. Therefore, Europe assumes a “better safe than sorry” approach, as opposed to America’s “innocent until proven guilty” stance. 

According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.’ GMO’s — a genetically modified organism developed in a lab where the DNA of one species is injected into the DNA of another species — are banned or labeled in sixty-four other countries, but not here in the States. Highly toxic chemicals, most notably Glyphosate, absorb into our fruits and vegetables through their skin and remain present after washing. Though accepted by the FDA, consumption of Glyphosate equates to ingestion of a known probable carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. Another carcinogen that’s banned for consumption in Europe but not in the United States is potassium bromate, an ingredient added to our flour yet absent in European bread, from their famous baguettes to focaccia. Furthermore, ninety percent of the corn, sugar, and soy grown in North America is genetically engineered. At the same time that eighty-five percent of processed foods in America contain GMOs, pre-market safety testing is not required by the FDA. Meanwhile, European distrust of GMOs maintains opposition to this new technology. In response, U.S.-based companies, like Heinz and Quaker Oats, manufacture products with fewer chemical additives to sell overseas. 

American companies have been able to add thousands of ingredients to foods with little to no government oversight thanks to a loophole in food regulation laws that deems additives as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) without the FDA’s knowledge. In other words, food companies can determine on their own that substances are “generally recognized as safe,” then ask the FDA to review their evaluation — if they wish. Thus, critics of this system are increasingly concerned that companies are introducing new additives, preservatives, and either ingredients without informing the FDA. GRAS additives that have been used in food for decades are subject to doubt as a result of new scientific research. Nearly ninety-nine percent of food chemicals introduced since 2000 were greenlighted for use by food and chemical companies, rather than properly reviewed by the FDA.

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Image taken from Forbes

2021 saw the launch of the European Green Deal, “Farm-to-Fork,” two objectives of this strategy being to allocate a quarter of the land for organic farming and to half the use of chemical pesticides. Ultimately, Europe strives for higher quality, fresher foods, and bans foods that contain hormones and additives that United States’ food is filled with. On the contrary, the U.S.’s food industry produces food and food substances on a larger scale, catering to a much bigger population than individual countries in Europe. Accordingly, high use of chemicals and additives may be behind certain digestive distress. Gluten-containing foods in the United States, for example, can contain higher levels of herbicides, additives, and preservatives that can interfere with gut health and increase overall inflammation in the body compared to their European counterparts. The aforementioned herbicide, Glyphosate, is widely used on wheat products in the U.S. In one study, fish exposed to glyphosate developed digestive problems that are reminiscent of celiac disease. Glyphosate is used to a lesser extent in the EU, which additionally imports global wheat likely grown without this herbicide. 

I’m not going to sit here and claim that the American food system is messed up, or that additives are solely to blame for my (or especially others’) food intolerances. More information would be necessary to draw such conclusions. This research merely provides a brief and general overview of two global food systems. 

In the Fall of 2023, I’ll be studying abroad in Madrid. I’m intrigued, to say the least, as to what my food experience in Spain will entail…

Hi, I'm Syd! I’m a Comm major at UCSB focused on digital marketing with a minor in Professional Writing. I started as a PR intern, then moved on to editorial, and now I'm excited to take on the role of Social Media Director! I hope you enjoy our content :)