When PepsiCo Inc. announced it would stop putting an obscure vegetable oil in its Gatorade right before the Super Bowl, one of the loudest cheers came from a high school student who had made it her mission to get rid of the ingredient.
“I was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Sarah Kavanagh, a 16-year-old from Hattiesburg, Miss., who wanted to know how an oil that contains a chemical also found in flame retardants got into her favorite sports drink. After she posted a petition on Change.org asking Pepsi to remove it, more than 200,000 people signed.
“I just wanted to make sure it was something that I could drink,” she said.
From oil in Gatorade to the amount of caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks and the so-called “pink slime” found in beef, previously unnoticed ingredients are coming under scrutiny as health-conscious consumers demand more information about what they eat and drink, and sometimes go public via social networking and the Internet.
So how does some of this stuff get into our food?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviews and approves most additives to food or drinks before they hit the marketplace. But others can bypass that process if they are deemed “generally recognized as safe” by the government or food companies and the experts they hire.
Take the story of Gatorade.
Developed in 1965 at the University of Florida to help football players keep hydrated in the heat, Gatorade was an immediate hit. By 1969, a private company acquired rights to market the drink and started adding brominated vegetable oil to distribute flavor evenly in a new orange version.
In those days, the oil was included in a list of additives, preservatives and chemicals that the government calls “generally recognized as safe.” The “GRAS” designation took root more than a half-century ago as a way to help the processed food industry avoid lengthy reviews for ingredients that were considered, by qualified experts, to be safe under conditions of intended use.
Then, the list included ingredients such as vitamin A and citric acid – about 180 in all.
Today, as food scientists create more and more new ingredients to add health benefits or help food stay fresh, there are at least 4,650 of these “generally recognized as safe” ingredients, according to the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts. The bulk of them, at least 3,000, were determined GRAS by food manufacturers or trade associations, and their expert scientists.
But no one knows exactly how many GRAS ingredients are in products because manufacturers are not required to notify the FDA before adding them.
BVO was on the “safe” list when Stokely-Van Camp Inc. developed orange-flavored Gatorade in 1969. The FDA notes that BVO contains far less bromine than flame retardants and is considered safe for use in limited quantities in fruit-flavored drinks. It is used to emulsify citrus oil in fruit-flavored beverages including Mountain Dew, Fanta and Powerade.
The ingredient, which is banned as an additive in Japan and the European Union, will remain in orange Gatorade through this spring, said spokeswoman Molly Carter of PepsiCo, which now owns Gatorade. She added that the decision to drop it was sparked by consumer rumblings over the past year, not Kavanagh’s petition specifically.
“While our products are safe, we are making this change because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade,” Carter said in a statement.
In 1958, Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to establish the “generally recognized as safe” exemption. In the following years, FDA added ingredients to its “safe” list after reviewing the supporting science. However, that proved a time-consuming process, so in 1997 FDA changed its procedures to allow food companies to voluntarily notify the agency of ingredients they consider safe by submitting published research and expert opinion. Not all do. But since 1997, the FDA has received 451 such notifications, and the agency disagreed with the science in 17 cases.