SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — 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," said the teen.
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.