GRAS or gross?
March 18, 2013
by Ivan Raconteur

I haven’t been eating much recently due to an attack of what all indicators suggest was viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu).

In the name of decency, I will avoid any description of the misery of the past several days.

Suffice it to say, there may have been a time or two during the darkest hours when I began to think if the Angel of Death had emerged through the feverish fog to take me by the hand and lead me to the blessed peace of the grave, it might not have been such a bad thing.

I’m much better now.

Even though I have been on a mainly liquid diet for several days, I have continued to read about food, albeit with less enthusiasm than usual.

The news has been full of stories about food additives.

PepsiCo recently announced it will voluntarily removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from Gatorade.

That caught my attention, because I occasionally enjoy a bottle of Gatorade after vigorous physical activity.

Apparently, BVO has been used in Gatorade and other products for decades as an emulsifier.

Critics of BVO say the ingredient is banned as a food additive in Canada, Japan, India, Nepal, Brazil, and the European Union.

They also say bromine, an element of BVO, is also used in some flame retardants and plastics (although the concentration used in food additives is lower).

This might lead one to wonder why it is allowed in the US, when it is banned in other countries.

I found this bit fascinating.

According to news reports, back in the 1960s, when Gatorade was introduced, BVO was on a list of additives, preservatives, and chemicals the government designated by the term “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS).

That is beautiful. Uncle Sam didn’t actually say they are safe, he just said they are “generally considered” so.

It seems that the GRAS designation was adopted to help the processed food industry avoid a lengthy review process for ingredients considered by “qualified experts” to be safe for the intended use.

In those days, there were about 180 items on the list. Today, there are about 4,650, according to the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trusts.

Of those, most were designated GRAS by food manufacturers or trade associations and their scientists.

A cynical person might wonder if having the people who make the products decide if they are safe or not might somehow be a conflict of interest.

There was a time when the Food and Drug Administration reviewed the supporting scientific evidence before adding items to the list.

The agency eventually found this too time-consuming, so in 1997, the FDA changed its policy to allow manufacturers to submit items they consider safe, along with supporting research and expert opinions.

It is apparently difficult to know what GRAS items are in the food we eat, because manufacturers aren’t required to notify the FDA before adding them.

Even if the FDA disagrees with the supporting research, it has been reported that the FDA has no clear way to prevent the manufacturers from adding the substance to its products.

Consumers can petition the FDA to take items off of the GRAS list, but the process can take years.

It has been reported that in 1969, President Richard Nixon ordered the FDA to review the items on the GRAS list. Most were found safe, but 35 were questioned. When the General Accounting Office examined the program in 2010, it found the FDA still had not reviewed 18 of those 35 products. The reason for this is unclear.

One assumes that most food manufacturers are genuinely concerned about the safety of their products. After all, it is not good for business if the products one sells kills the consumers or makes them sick.

Still, it seems optimistic to put our health and safety entirely in the hands of companies that are motivated by profit and an agency that takes decades to investigate concerns.

My recent experience with gastroenteritis has made me extremely cautious about the food and beverages I consume, and it concerns me that even the manufacturers and regulators don’t seem entirely sure what chemicals lurk on the shelves at the local grocery store, or what long-term effects they might have on unsuspecting consumers.

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