8 Foods the U.S. Bans But Other Nations Don’t

by | June 26, 2013 at 12:41 PM | Food


By Emily Willingham, Forbes.com Contributor

Perhaps you’ve seen the viral Buzzfeed article about the eight foods other countries banned that the US does not. Perhaps it occurred to you that just because something is used to slow down a fire doesn’t mean it or its components are always a bad thing (water, anyone?). But others have amply taken on the deep and depressing science literacy deficits of that particular article, so I thought I’d take a different tack today and bring you …

Eight foods and food additives, some that are even—gasp—natural, that the U.S., or at least some U.S. states, have banned. Other countries have not.** Perhaps you’ll be shocked at how many of these natural foods and additives also make great pesticides and how truly dangerous cinnamon can be!

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1. Unpasteurized (raw) milk. Banned in 22 states and most other states have some form of restriction on sales.

Sure, artificial food dyes have been linked to some possible human health effects, but there’s no question that the microbes in milk can kill people. And have. Pasteurization exists because, as one expert simply put it, “Fecal matter can end up in the milk.” Ew.

Not banned in: Everywhere else, pretty much, except Scotland. But haggis is OK in Scotland but banned in the US (if it contains the traditional sheep’s lung). Go figure.

2. Ackee. Banned nationally.

It’s a fruit that can kill you! Compounds in not-ripe-enough fruit can interfere with your access to glucose and produce dangerously low blood sugar, vomiting, seizures—and possibly death. The canned version is now OK in the US, but the raw fruit remains a no-no.

Not banned in: Jamaica, where it’s the national fruit.

3. Sassafras oil (technically the safrole or shikimol in it). Banned nationally.

It’s a potential carcinogen. Oh, and it’s used to make MDMA (Ecstasy, which, as it turns out, isn’t just a synthetic drug. Thanks to safrole, it’s natural!). Used to be the flavor ingredient in root beer (and the sarsaparilla Stuart Little famously imbibed) but also evidently makes a good rodent poison (so maybe Stuart should not have imbibed it).

Not banned in: Cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, or basil, where it occurs naturally. Some southeast Asian countries still allow its import and export.

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 4. Shark fins without accompanying complete shark carcass. Banned nationally, and shark fin possession is banned in five US states.

These bans are part of an effort to end the hideous practice of slicing the fins off of live sharks and leaving behind the rest of the animal, which kills tens of millions of sharks annually. Not all bans are just about, you know, humans. Although that loss of huge components of the marine food web will undoubtedly come back to bite us in the … well, everywhere.

Not banned in: much of the Pacific and Indian oceans (international waters); imports allowed into Canada; some other bans considered weak.

5. Coumarin. Banned nationally as a food additive.

Banned in US in 1954 as a food additive, although naturally occurring amounts in natural additives can be allowed in alcoholic beverages in the US. It’s just present in some spices, including cinnamon derived from cassia bark, which some US manufacturers evidently still use. Also makes a good pesticide, as so many delicious, aromatic, naturally occurring compounds seem to do. Because of that aromatic bit, it’s also common in perfumes. Dose and route make the poison, folks.

Not banned in: Well, it’s technically banned as an additive in a lot of places, but people in some European countries ingest a whole lot of it thanks to the cassia factor and its presence in popular alcoholic beverages, including a vodka flavored with bison grass. And it’s common in “Mexican vanilla.”

6. Young unpasteurized cheese.

See “Milk,” above. Unpasteurized cheeses must be aged at least 60 days in the US, which is evidently long enough to let the pathogenic critters in cheese die. That includes a ban on cheese with mites.

Not banned in: Quebec, lots of Europe.

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7. Cyclamate. Banned nationally, although under petition for unbanning.

Artificial sweetener banned in the US in 1969 because of adverse effects detected in animals, including “testicular atrophy” (the testes got smaller). Yikes.

Not banned in: More than 100 countries, including in Europe, and Canada and Australia.

8. Sucrol (Dulcin). Banned nationally.

First hailed as a great artificial sweetener in the early 20th century and a competitor of saccharine, it turned out to be potentially carcinogenic. It vanished from US markets in the 1950s.

Not banned in: Based on the supplier list, still A-OK in China and sometimes the cause for blocked imports from China.

**But, you might argue, there are <insert preferred hyperbolic value here> reasons not to ban those/to ban more of those. Or <insert another hyperbolic value here> loopholes that make these regulations soft or irrelevant. Or <insert … you get the idea> political or cultural factors shaping these regulations that have nothing to do with the science. This, you might holler, is just chemophobia! Yep. That’s part of the point: Many factors that have nothing to do with scientific evidence drive decisions to ban or not to ban, and the US is really (opinion alert) no better or worse than other similar nations as a watchdog for its people. Really, are we supposed to think that the US is overlooking something Denmark didn’t when it banned Marmite (and Ovaltine!) because “no vitamin-fortified foods allowed”? After all, who wouldn’t want access to a product described as a “sticky brown yeast extract”?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.